City Council Debates Transit Funding: Anatomy of a Fiasco
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City Council Debates Transit Funding: Anatomy of a Fiasco

Once again, Toronto's public-transit debate has devolved into parochialism and bickering. Here's how it all went down.

At times, it seems like the idea of expanding public transit in Toronto is going nowhere fast  Photo by Alfred Ng, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

At times, it seems like the idea of expanding public transit in Toronto is going nowhere fast. Photo by Alfred Ng, from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

When it came Frances Nunziata’s (Ward 11, York South Weston) turn to speak, you could see the words floating above her head in all-caps. “ARE WE CRAZY?” she asked. She answered her own question. “Yes, we are.”

This neatly sums up the tenor of the two-day transit debate at City Hall. The back-and-forth on the floor of council was a demonstration of why so little gets done when it comes to public transit expansion, and it was filled with enough facepalm-worthy moments to make your forehead red. There were councillors arguing in favour of reopening established agreements in order to serve parochial interests, proxy fights conducted on behalf of provincial parties, and no clear vision from the mayor’s office to unite council. It was, in a word, predictable.

Here’s a look at how we got here, and the chaos that ensued.

Two days before the April 23 meeting of Mayor Rob Ford’s cabinet-like executive committee, Ford told reporters that he wouldn’t vote to send a report from the city manager, on revenue tools for expanding public transit, to city council for its consideration. City Hall watchers rolled their eyes. It seemed absurd that a politician could come to this view. The city manager’s report represented months of consultation with residents over their preferred ways of funding Metrolinx’s Big Move, and the regional transit agency wanted council’s input before releasing its own recommendation on May 27. If the city didn’t make a recommendation, Metrolinx would go ahead anyway, and the City’s voice wouldn’t be heard on one of the GTA’s most pressing policy dilemmas.

The mayor doesn’t subscribe to Metrolinx’s 25-year, $50 billion transit strategy for the Toronto region. He even made a retching noise when asked by reporters about the prospect of implementing taxes and fees to pay for it. After all, he doesn’t believe in taxing the taxpayer. Despite this, it was a surprise to many at City Hall that the mayor followed through on his offhand comment.

At executive committee, the mayor won a 6-4 vote to defer the report until after Metrolinx issued its recommendations. It was instantly apparent that not discussing transit funding at council was not an option for many councillors. It wasn’t long before the likes of left-wing councillor Adam Vaughan (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) and right-wing councillor Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) started trying to seize control of the motion.

To do so, they needed supermajority (that is, two-thirds of the councillors present in council chambers at the time of the vote) to support reopening the item for debate. Even so, the Ford opposition seemed confident. Everything was shaping up for another spectacular Ford loss at council, especially after Ford loyalist and executive committee member Gary Crawford (Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest), who had voted to prevent the item from going to council, changed his mind and supported opening up the debate.

Then Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre) happened. The left-wing, bike-riding, Scarborough councillor occupies an odd position at council. He’s frequently a progressive voice, but will often vote otherwise for self-serving ward-specific interests. That is to say, neither council’s left nor its right-wing factions are particularly fond of him.

With the possibility of the revenue-tools debate being reopened at council in the air, De Baeremaeker saw an opportunity for a transit gambit that would deliver a subway to his region, Scarborough. Rather than build a light rail line to Malvern in lieu of the soon-to-be-decommissioned Scarborough RT, why not build a subway for only $500 million more, he argued. That De Baeremaeker’s proposal would be 20 per cent shorter than the planned light rail line, would actually cost $1 billion more, wouldn’t reach Malvern, and would have fewer stops and half as many people within walking distance was all secondary. Scarborough deserves subways, dammit.

More councillors joined the chorus of subways, subways, subways, with Scarborough councillor Michelle Berardinetti saying that she would only vote to debate revenue tools if Scarborough got a higher order of transit.

And so we went to council. By a vote of 27-13, council voted to seize the revenue-tools file from Ford’s executive committee. The vote was very close; had the Ford team stalled for Mike Del Grande (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt) to get back from a doctor’s appointment, they would have won. (Responding to this lapse in strategy, one City Hall staffer said, “Strategy? They couldn’t spell cat if you spotted them the ‘c’ and the ‘t’.”)

All of a sudden, De Baeremaeker’s idea to slap on a different transit line seemed grand to many councillors. So they added their own motions. James Pasternak really likes the idea of a subway on Sheppard Avenue, so he put that forward. Peter Milczyn (Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore) had his own ideas for the best transit routes. Sarah Doucette (Ward 13, Parkdale-High Park), perhaps to prove a point, asked Milczyn about resurrecting the Jane Street light-rail route. Even Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East), a world away on a trip to Rome, had a raft of motions introduced on his behalf.

Council had plunged down the rabbit hole, and was more than eager to add squiggles on maps. This was far from the rational, coordinated discussion about transit funding that Metrolinx had requested. In fact, it was up to the most quiet and mushy councillors to remind the room of its responsibilities. Paul Ainslie (Ward 43, Scarborough East) and Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) argued for sticking with the plan and following through on funding it. Ana Bailao (Ward 18, Davenport) spoke about the economic benefits of alleviating congestion, while the typically soft-spoken Mary-Margaret McMahon (Ward 32, Beaches-East York) expressed righteous indignation, which was refreshing, coming from her. By the time they were all done making pleas for reason Matlow had put together and distributed a fact sheet comparing the Scarborough options, distributing it to media and councillors alike.

But the bright spots were overshadowed by the silliness. Doug Ford falsely claimed light rail costs more than subways. The mayor referred to a dedicated transit fund as a “slush fund.” Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West) claimed 80 per cent of people along Finch Avenue don’t pay their transit fares. Anthony Peruzza (Ward 8, York West) and Maria Augimeri (Ward 9, York Centre), carrying the NDP banner for Downsview, dismissed dedicated revenue tools in favour of asking the province to raise corporate taxes. Adam Vaughan jokingly proposed a levy on vinyl labels, which would hurt the Ford family business. Doug Holyday (Ward 3, Etobicoke Centre) clipped his nails on the council floor.

It was chaos, filled with self-serving and short-sighted politics, and it offered confirmation to any cynical viewpoints on City Hall. What was supposed to be a mature conversation about how Toronto must get to the next step in building public transit was, instead, the strongest possible evidence that oversight from Metrolinx is needed.

Even before the voting had started, city councillors had already sent the strongest message they could to Metrolinx and the province: they can’t get their shit in order.