Irresponsible Madness at City Hall
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Irresponsible Madness at City Hall

A kindergarten class of city councillors is trying to remake transit by drawing a map with crayons.

Left to right: councillor James Pasternak; Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig; TTC CEO Andy Byford; councillors Paula Fletcher, Joe Mihevc, Mary-Margaret McMahon, and Josh Colle; TTC Chair Karen Stintz; councillor Maria Augimeri; then-Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli; MP Peter Van Loan; and councillor Mike Del Grande at the preview for the TTC’s new streetcars last fall.

Toronto City Council was supposed to debate the issue of transit “revenue tools” on Wednesday, so that it could advise Queen’s Park which are acceptable in Toronto’s eyes—or at least which are the least unacceptable, given that nobody likes new taxes.

The debate, which continues today, descended into complete chaos of “let’s make a deal” transit planning of the worst kind seen in decades.

The whole affair started simply enough, with a move to wrest control of the City Manager’s report on revenue tools from Mayor Rob Ford’s executive committee, which voted recently to defer the debate—they’d resume discussions, the committee decided, the day after Metrolinx (the regional agency in charge of transit planning) issued their recommendations, rendering municipal input into that process useless. This first step was accomplished with a procedural vote—one which needed a strong consensus of a two-thirds majority of councillors present.

That was on Tuesday. Late Wednesday morning, the item came up for debate.

The entire scheme started to unravel with a move by Scarborough councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre) to make any approval of new funding tools conditional on changing the signed agreement to build a Scarborough light rail line, instead calling for a full subway line. The arguments for this change are tenuous and include flat out misrepresentations of several aspects of the two options, notably their relative costs. Contrary to political talking points yesterday, a subway will be one billion dollars more expensive than LRT, not “just” the $500 million some councillors cited. (This was confirmed by TTC CEO Andy Byford during the meeting.)

Not content to stop at one subway, other members of council then started to chime in with their pet projects, including a Bloor West subway; not one but two Sheppard extensions (one dubbed the “Pasternak Relief Line” by some, after the councillor who moved it); a subway on Finch; and a resurrected Jane LRT. The combined additions to the network cost are astronomical, but that’s not really what councillors care about.

Some, like De Baeremaeker, are fighting for their political hides, worried about being portrayed as less than supportive of their supposedly downtrodden suburban communities.

Some are fighting political battles by proxy for the provincial parties. The Tories bang the drum on the “no new taxes” front while failing to explain how high-cost transit proposals will be funded. The NDP trots out their hobby-horse of corporate taxes, arguing that council should not support increases in regressive, user-based fees, such as sales or fuel taxes. Even some Liberals are up to mischief, attempting to create an embarrassing situation whereby Premier Kathleen Wynne would be forced into a Hobson’s choice of changing her position on the existing round of planned transit expansions (a set of projects collectively called The Big Move), or of overriding council’s desire for new subway lines. The Liberals in question are still fighting the lost leadership battle.

None of this serves the debate about funding and building a major expansion of the GTA’s transit network.

What is overwhelmingly evident is the leadership vacuum at City Hall. Throughout the debate, Mayor Ford wandered in and out of the chamber wearing his Toronto Maple Leafs jersey, and seemingly more interested in how the hockey game might play out than a vital debate. (At one point the debate paused momentarily to the sound of whooping—it was the mayor, behind the scenes, responding to the Leafs’ first goal.) But he didn’t even have much to do with De Baeremaeker making a complete fool of himself, and compromising both truth and any sense of responsible transit planning (though he certainly is glad to trumpet subways any time anyone mentions them).

For her part, TTC Chair Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence), having launched the whole process by backing De Baeremaeker’s pipe dreams, sat silently while the debate drifted further and further from any coherence and, by extension, possible support for any “plan” including her own ill-fated One City scheme from a few months ago. Rather than controlling the genie she let out of the bottle and getting three well-chosen wishes for her transit efforts, Stintz is revealed as a sorcerer’s apprentice who cannot control the blind forces she has unleashed.

Procedurally, there is one hope: any formal change to last fall’s LRT-based agreement between Toronto and Metrolinx would require a two-thirds majority of council to be reopened. This may block some of the more outrageous schemes for a time, but won’t undo the damage of a divisive, if-I-don’t-get-a-subway-I-won’t-play attitude on council, and on the residents across Toronto who are watching them spin out of control.

At Queen’s Park, the Tories must be rubbing their hands with delight at yet another chance to embarrass the Wynne government. Meanwhile, the NDP, utterly incapable of actually making a decision without weeks of polling and “conversation,” shows no coherent leadership, and the Liberals have to deal with a fifth column of anti-Wynne Scarborough MPPs.

We must not leave out the transit agencies here. Metrolinx has been notoriously unwilling to actually defend its plan by fleshing out details, providing accurate information about what it will build, how long this will take, and how much it will cost. The TTC, meanwhile, produced a report in January, 2013 comparing the subway and LRT options for Scarborough that we now know overstate the cost of light rail by $500 million. Is this incompetence or an underhanded attempt to make the subway option look better than it really is?

Amusingly, some councillors, such as speaker Frances Nunziata (Ward 11, York South-Weston), are happy to attack the TTC for being incapable of doing anything right, notably citing the “St. Clair disaster,” which also figured in the debate yesterday. Those same councillors, however, are more than happy to cite a bogus comparison of technologies coming from the TTC when it suits them.

As I have written before, there may be an argument for some subway expansion provided that this is based on trustworthy projections of costs and benefits, not on rose-tinted dreams of development and transit demand in every corner of the city. None of the debates we’re currently having rest on such a foundation, and “planning” right now consists of issuing boxes of crayons to a kindergarten class of politicians.

Toronto deserves so much better, but we are unlikely to see it, and a chance to actually build the transit we need may be lost for at least a decade.

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