City hall seems to have moved towards a more sensible transit plan, but what does that say about the mayor?
Last week brought several big changes in Toronto’s ongoing transit saga. Mayor John Tory acknowledged that the much-criticized western spur of his signature SmartTrack transit proposal may not be be feasible; a staff report showed it would cost upwards of $7.7 billion. An Eglinton Crosstown west LRT extension could take its place at a fraction of the cost, and reach Pearson Airport.
The controversial three-stop Scarborough subway extension received attention too. Led by Chief City Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, a proposal emerged to reduce the three stops to one stop at Scarborough Town Centre. This would in turn reduce the $3.56 billion cost by $1 billion. This money could be used to build a 17 stop Eglinton Crosstown East LRT that would reach University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus.
The new transit outlook is a big departure from what John Tory promised on the campaign trail, but it also looks like it’s getting the city closer to a transit consensus. Does the mayor deserve to be applauded for moving towards a more sensible transit plan? Or was the existing quagmire partially of his own making? Our Torontoist vs. Torontoist contributors debate the issue.
Be it resolved that Mayor John Tory deserves credit for Toronto’s new transit proposal.
I’ll concede outright that there are problems with this new transit plan, but leave it to my colleague to enumerate them. It’s a Solomonic compromise where inevitably someone is unhappy. Perhaps what we can agree to is that this city needs a prohibition on politicians designing transit lines.
So why give John Tory a pat on the back? To start with, you could spend a long while reading the sordid history of DOA Toronto transit plans. You could spend days on this particular file, which went to pot when Rob Ford became mayor and declared Transit City dead in a fit of extra-procedural pique.
The Scarborough subway debate was a democratic nadir, where the mayor showed he didn’t know the most basic facts about the proposed LRT and the discussion was more about what Scarborough “deserves” than pesky facts like ridership numbers.
If you watched the travesty it was easy to agree with Candidate Tory that little good could come from reopening that can of worms. Yes, it was a wasteful, ill-informed decision that cost time and money, but sometimes you have to suck it up.
But then it became increasingly clear that whatever SmartTrack actually was, it would cannibalize the subway’s ridership and/or divert it to an inappropriate corridor. It was also clear that the costs were low-balled and the ridership projections were, to no one’s surprise, deemed “problematic” by the City’s Chief Planner.
Something had to give and last week it did.
First, Metrolinx apparently hammered SmartTrack into something sensible. The original idea would have basically added a Toronto twist to the province’s pre-existing plans for increased service on their GO lines. With this plan, Tory can say he did something, and Metrolinx can breathe a sigh of relief.
Secondly, Scarborough gets its subway and the aging SRT gets replaced. Those are both tangible and political wins. The Crosstown extension is the even bigger win; neglected areas of Scarborough, including the UTSC campus, finally get the rapid transit they need. SmartTrack’s nebulous and unworkable “western spur” is dead and now we’ve restored the Transit City vision of a single line linking the city’s east and west.
Sure, we’d like to go back in time and just have Transit City built already, but Toronto politics is what it is. A few months ago, you may recall, Tory slapped Jennifer Keesmaat on the wrist for speaking her mind on the Gardiner. Now Keesmaat and her staff took a near-impossible task and pretty much knocked it out of the park. That’s another win; this time he listened.
It’s rare for politicians to reverse course. There will be many who pick apart specifics and call Tory a flip-flopper—he long kept up an obstinate face in public—but it’s never too late to look at the facts and do the right thing. Or at least the best possible thing.
This plan isn’t a cure-all to solve all of Tory’s problems, or the TTC’s, or riders’, or Scarborough’s. But given the tumultuous past decade, it is indisputably superior to what was on the books just a few weeks ago.
A “perfect” transit plan is not in the cards for Toronto. This process has been a farce at best and a tragedy at worst, but that doesn’t mean it can’t have a happy ending.
The idea that John Tory should be “applauded” for suddenly being open to a non-completely-terrible transit plan is, really, the idea of John Tory’s mayoralty writ large: the notion that he deserves credit for not being a flaming tire fire of a mayor, like a previous mayor we could name.
He has seen reason, you see, and stopped supporting (some of) his ass-backwards transit ideas in favour of transit plans that actually seem to at least nod in the general direction of plausibility? Let’s all throw John Tory a parade for being so reasonable!
Granted, we pissed away over a year of time that could have been spent actually building the Scarborough subway plan—a plan which was always too much money for too little transit serving not enough people and predicated only on the vague notion that Scarborough “deserves” subways because It’s Just As Good As Downtown Toronto and how dare downtown elitists mar good, honest, hard-working Scarberians who just want convenient subways like everybody else. But now John Tory has seen the light and instead of three new subway stops we’re only going to have one new subway stop. (Everybody living in between the Scarborough Town Centre and Kennedy Station, who would have gotten more local stations with a Scarborough LRT or even the three-stop subway, will have to continue enjoying the joys of buses.)
But we’re saving a whole billion dollars! We can pay for 17 LRT stops with that money! That’s great news! Except, of course, that we’re still on the hook for the cost of the Scarborough subway. The Scarborough LRT was paid for by the province, if you’ll recall. By picking the subway over the LRT, City Council—and most especially John Tory—chose to make Toronto pay more for its own transit, and get less value.
And John Tory supported this plan by using misleading statistics, emotional appeals and straight-up bullshit. Perhaps we could choose to forgive him except that the problem is that he’s still doing this: blathering about how SmartTrack can too be a really great transit system, so long as we pretend it’ll operate on TTC fares (probably not going to happen) and runs every five minutes (practically impossible) and has the 22 stations he promised (with the western spur likely gone, it won’t).
Seriously, though: applauding John Tory for partially digging the city out of a hole in which he helped sink it in the first place is ludicrous. Maybe we could just all agree to give John Tory a big medal which reads Congratulations On Not Being Rob Ford and get that out of the way, and then assess his mayoralty honestly.
John Tory finally agreeing, years late, that a halfway-decent transit solution which is still inferior to the superior alternative he helped torpedo) might be better than his preferred terrible and unworkable transit plan is not something that would be deemed worthy of compliment, were he not following up the worst mayor in Toronto’s history. Tory’s bumbling, do-nothing-until-forced-to mayoralty would be an embarrassment in any other circumstance. Because we should hold him to a higher standard, it should be in these circumstances as well.