Mayoral Candidates Rally Around the Downtown Relief Line
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Mayoral Candidates Rally Around the Downtown Relief Line

How the DRL became the most urgent political priority in Toronto, and why it shouldn't be.

Photo by Melina, from the Torontoist Flickr pool

Photo by Melina., from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

Downtown relief! Downtown relief! The people demand downtown relief!

Luckily, we live in a mature, high­-functioning democracy, and as a result, many respectable candidates have stepped forward to promise just that. Indeed, they are tripping over one another in the race to provide a clamouring citizenry with downtown relief.

Building the fabled downtown relief line will be his top priority, John Tory said when announcing his candidacy this week. Ditto! said Karen Stintz. If we only cancelled the Scarborough subway, David Soknacki added, we would have enough money to build the “much-needed” (his capitals) Downtown Relief Line.

Yesterday, this most venerable proposal was the stuff of fable, a chimera. Today, it is the most urgent political priority in Toronto. How did that happen?

One possibility is that the three leading candidates for mayor are so admirably farsighted that they have a much better idea of what the public wants than the public itself. Another possibility is that they are so afraid of tackling the real issues in Toronto today, they are seeking safe haven in feel-good make-­believe land.

I’m all for the Downtown Relief Line (my caps), but I’m inclined to believe the latter. Is it really possible that after four years of Rob Ford, the “top priority” of the so­-far leading candidate to replace him is a Pleistocene-­era proposal for a subway line that won’t open for another 20 years at the earliest?

His fellow candidates’ rush to agree banishes doubt. What might seem mere escapism for one becomes a junket for three. They are seeking Relief for acute political indigestion.

The cause of it all—Real Issue No. 1, the bolus in the conservative craw, is Rob Ford. The job of his respectable conservative rivals is to win over Ford’s voters while assuring everybody else they will be Ford’s opposite. It’s a difficult two­-step to master. So they shuffle in easy agreement with one another, waiting until Olivia Chow emerges to give them something easier to oppose.

It’s a revealing interregnum. All three candidates accept the Ford logic that saving money is the purpose of city government, but they still need to make promises. And none has the chutzpah of their master, who is not in the least ashamed to boast about saving billions while he raises taxes to spend billions on popular stuff like subways—real ones, in his case. But they still need to make promises, different and yet the same. The Downtown Relief Line chorus is the improbable result.

Things will change, but it’s a dispiriting start. What we see at their conception are narrow, technical, timid campaign platforms. This is no doubt due to solid political advice, sadly—except in the case of Soknacki, who really does think he can win hearts and minds with calculus-­level manipulations of the land transfer tax.

With his campaign rendered officially hopeless by Tory’s candidacy, Soknacki could conceivably step a little out of line. One quietly mooted, since-­disappeared Soknacki slogan, ­­“Stop the Crazy Train,” says what they all should be saying, what they all wish they could say, and what they all are afraid to say. Soknacki included, it would seem.

A progressive voter can only hope that Olivia Chow has the wit to seize the enormous opportunity her opponents have given her—a blank canvas for the creation of positive alternatives to the unpopular policies of Ford and his frenemies. She is perfectly set to repeat in Toronto what unapologetic leftist Bill de Blasio just did in New York.

If I were Chow, I would emulate de Blasio openly by making it my first promise to reform the racially charged police practice of “carding” young people who seem suspicious to them—our version of the “stop and frisk” policy that de Blasio has just promised to reform. That would send a powerful signal that there are more than choo-­choos on the agenda. Listening to the frenemies, you wouldn’t think there were any such things as social, environmental, public safety, or land-­use issues in Toronto.

In other words, the door is wide open for the “big thinking and bold solutions” that brought de Blasio to power in a New York landslide. Toronto’s Chow couldn’t be luckier.