The phrase “Rossi’s Tunnel Vision” isn’t nearly the insult that it sounds. Since this morning, his supporters have been using it freely, fully aware of the irony of their statement. So I feel no reluctance in using it too.
I have to admit that, had I written this post five hours beforehand, I would have been a lot more critical of mayoral candidate Rocco Rossi’s proposal to build a road tunnel from the end of Allen Road at Eglinton Avenue to the Gardiner Expressway near the foot of Spadina or Bathurst streets. That may well have been Rossi’s intent — though, maybe not with me being the target of that intent. Rossi’s proposal is provocative in every sense of the word, but it may not be as bad as it sounds, and it may be the issue that this election needs to get us out of the Smitherman-Ford doldrums.
Rossi’s proposal essentially completes the Spadina Expressway. Now, those of you who have not lived in Toronto in the seventies and the eighties may not be aware of the significance or the symbolism of this. In the fifties and the sixties, Toronto embarked on a massive expressway building program, of the sort experienced by just about every other North American city of the day. But in the 1960s, opposition to rampant expressway construction through established neighbourhoods increased. Following a path established by New York City (helped along by an American immigrant named Jane Jacobs, whose philosophical musings about urban living have become legendary), a grassroots movement in the old City of Toronto rose up and fought hard against a particular expressway that was named Spadina.
They fought against the Spadina Expressway for a number of reasons. The proposal itself was severely flawed. It would have built over a major ravine and torn down numerous houses. It would have exited from a tunnel beneath Casa Loma and proceeded along a trench through what is now a vibrant urban neighbourhood called the Annex. It would have dumped its cars just outside of Toronto’s downtown on a commercial street, and probably killed the pedestrian ambiance of the neighbourhood for miles.
It was also opposed because it was seen as the thin end of the wedge. The Spadina Expressway wouldn’t work effectively just dumping its cars at the edge of downtown, a Crosstown Expressway would have to be built (following the CPR tracks north of Dupont Street) to intercept the loads. A connection would be needed with the Gardiner, and that would have to go down Christie and Grace Streets. The Gardiner wouldn’t serve its function until it connected with the 401 near Rouge Hill, so the Scarboroug Expressway would have to cut through the Beaches. Very quickly, Toronto residents saw that the Spadina Expressway wasn’t just one expressway, it was part of a wider plan that would have cut swaths through the city, disconnecting neighbourhoods. Seeing what has happened to Chicago’s neighbourhoods where expressways have passed, I can understand their fears, here.
And, finally, there was the whole attitude behind the construction of the Spadina Expressway that the residents of the old City of Toronto disagreed with. By opposing it, they said, “we live here as well as work here. These are our houses, our playgrounds and our neighbourhoods. You don’t have the right to tear down our quality of life just so that you can get to work a little faster. Find some other way.”
The fight went through Metro Council and then the Ontario Municipal Board, and was finally resolved in the residents’ favour by the direct intervention of Ontario premier Bill Davis. His quote still resonates to this day:
“If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop”
For me and for many others who grew up in the old City of Toronto, the decision to halt the Spadina Expressway at Eglinton Avenue was (alongside the decision to maintain Toronto’s streetcar system) the decision that made Toronto into the great city it became in the seventies and the eighties. Since then, echoes of that decision have been repeated in American cities like Portland, which famously tore down an expressway and replaced it with an LRT. American cities looking to break the cycle of dependence on the automobile and build vibrant, pedestrian friendly downtowns, have consistently looked to Toronto to see how it’s done — even today, in spite of the numerous challenges Toronto faces.
When Rocco Rossi proposed that the Spadina Expressway be completed by building a long tunnel from Eglinton Avenue to the Gardiner, one half-expected the body of Jane Jacobs to come clawing its way out of its grave and go lurching forward, zombie fashion, in search of Rossi campaign volunteers in order to eat their brains. The visceral nature of my own reaction was enhanced by the timing of this announcement: shortly following leading candidate Rob Ford’s expressed desire to eliminate streetcars from Toronto’s streets in ten years time. Put those two together, and it’s as though my own childhood is being attacked as some kind of worthless mistake.
So, why am I not as angry, now?
Part of it is the way Rossi couched his proposal. You’ll notice that he never refers to the Spadina fight, stays well away from the Spadina name (calling it the Toronto Tunnel), but he has taken steps to mitigate the worst elements of the original Spadina plan. The expressway will no longer dump its cars on Spadina Avenue at Harbord, but will continue to the Gardiner. It will be underground all the way. And he promises that “the Tunnel will not disrupt a single neighbourhood, street or family home. In fact, it will divert traffic directly downtown which currently exits the Allen Expressway into neighbourhoods, thus reducing traffic levels in residential areas”.
Well, fine. We’ll hold him to that promise.
It’s interesting comparing the response to his plan to the response to Ford’s transit (and streetcar abandonment) platform. In spite of the heated rhetoric, you do get some thoughtful responses from people in favour of Rossi’s tunnel — even among participants on the Transit Toronto mailing list. I myself was talked down from my initial visceral reaction by Mike Brock (you can see our Twitter exchange here), who pointed out that Rossi hasn’t proposed axing Toronto’s streetcars, that he is talking about working with Metrolinx to continue to build the Eglinton Crosstown subway/LRT (it’s was right there in his speech introducing his tunnel policy), and he’s virtually guaranteed that the road, should it happen, will be a toll road, built by a private-public partnership that he promises will not increase the debt burden for Toronto taxpayers.
Well, fine again. We’ll hold him to that promise.
All in all Rossi’s proposal is far more constructive and far more balanced between car drivers and transit users than Rob Ford’s misguided and mathematically impaired policy. Rossi hasn’t promised to take streetcars off our roads; he’s only promised to commission a study to look into the idea of building a tunnel for cars. And, as I said on Twitter, if given the choice, I would much rather deal with Rossi’s suggestion that we study the idea of completing the Spadina expressway, than Ford’s insistence that we remove streetcars from Toronto’s streets within ten years.
Finally, as a political move, Rossi’s tunnel proposal is brilliant. For the past day, now, Rossi and his idea has dominated the Toronto news cycle, pushing Rob Ford into silence. Ford can’t do much here to gain an advantage. Many supporters see Rossi’s idea as being both beneficial to car drivers and constructive for all Torontonians, whereas Ford’s idea seems short-sighted and almost vindictive to anybody who doesn’t drive a car. Ford can’t suddenly throw his support behind the Rossi’s idea without being seen as a copycat. Rossi’s tunnel might give Ford supporters, eager to drive their cars but leery of Ford’s belligerent style, a reason to switch their vote.
And Rossi’s move may well be a gift for Joe Pantalone — the lone candidate that continues to advocate for current mayor David Miller’s vision of the city. Rossi’s proposal may galvanize Pantalone’s campaign, as people incensed by Rossi’s proposal wake up to start fighting for the city they believe in. Though Smitherman’s campaign has been trying to attack Rossi on his tunnel plan, Smitherman doesn’t have Pantalone’s advantage, here. Smitherman, like Rossi, has spent most of his time running against Miller’s record as mayor. Rossi’s tunnel proposal is one of the most provocative statement against that record, and Smitherman can’t attack that without starting to align himself with the administration he so roundly criticized.
Which might just turn this mayoralty race into a two way battle between Pantalone and Rossi — two candidates we haven’t heard much from until recently. Given the nature of the proposals on the table, their fight could become a battle of ideas — a much more positive and invigorating debate about the future of the city than the mudslinging between Smitherman and Ford.
If that happens, even if Rossi’s tunnel doesn’t see the light of day, he will have done much good for this city.
Ironically, Rossi’s tunnel proposal may end up breathing life into another Miller initiative. If we’re going to extend Allen Road through a tunnel south to the Gardiner Expressway, why not put the whole thing into a tunnel? There have been proposals to deck over Allen Road (which runs in a ditch from Eglinton north to beyond Lawrence), creating space that could be redeveloped in such a way as to reconnect and revitalize the Lawrence Heights neighbourhood. Well, why not? As Mike Brock pointed out, the costly and disruptive Big Dig project in Boston is finally producing dividends, with revitalizing neighbourhoods through Boston’s core. If Rossi’s proposal to build and cover over the Allen Expressway from the 401 all the way to the Gardiner succeeds, perhaps we could take that experience and apply it to the Gardiner itself, burying it at last.