Toronto: Whose Fault is it?
Part III: Dalton McGuinty?

Previous in the Blame Game:

McGuinty Voting

If I had written this article a year ago, it would have been a lot less sympathetic to the current premier of this province.

In 2003, Dalton McGuinty was elected with considerable promise. Indeed, urban activists at the time saw this as the dawning of the “3M Era”: the elections of McGuinty, Miller and Martin was to finally place the right leaders in the right places to ensure that cities like Toronto got the attention they deserved. Yes, it was optimistic. All three leaders proved disappointments in different degrees.

McGuinty promised several things: increased funding for our cities in the form of a portion of the provincial gas tax. More powers, and possibly a charter for the City of Toronto. Certainly a relaxing of anti-Toronto policies from the outgoing Harris/Eves government that had kept Toronto’s hands tied for the past several years.

I was a little more cautious about McGuinty’s election. I was worried that the Liberals’ policy on public transportation was anemic. Harris had already acknowledged his mistake of pulling the province out of public transportation funding, and was now covering a third of all public transit capital expenses in the province. The Liberals promised spot funding for particular projects, but didn’t even mention maintaining Harris’ anemic 33% capital commitment.

And upon McGuinty’s election, disappointments mounted. The new gas tax was slow in coming. Toronto had to go to the province repeatedly for additional funds with which to balance its books. More damningly, a Harris-era charge against the City of Toronto pulling $125 million out of our education taxes and spending them in schools elsewhere in the province, was not repealed (it still exists today). McGuinty’s plans for public transit continued to be based more on the more photogenic projects, such as the extension of the Spadina subway to Greg Sorbara’s riding instead of paying to replace the TTC’s aging streetcar fleet, or even addressing the problem of the aging Scarborough RT line.

Yes, McGuinty could point to the $5.6 billion deficit that Ernie Eves had failed to call for in his final budget as an excuse not to follow through on certain promises as quickly as he had intended, but questions surrounding Eves’ hidden deficit had already surfaced before the 2003 election, including questions in Queen’s Park by Liberals MPs. The sudden, “shocking” appearance of this deficit struck me and others as a convenient scapegoat to point to in disappointing the electorate.

All in all, as the 2007 election approached, I was ready to give the McGuinty government a failing grade. They had been timid in giving Toronto the powers needed to solve their own problems. The taxes that they’d allowed the city to levy were precisely the wrong ones to protect the city during an economic recession and a failure of the real estate market. The only major public transportation initiative they were funding within the 416 region of the GTA was the rather unnecessary extension of the Spadina subway to York University and beyond into Vaughan. Neither the city nor public transit seemed to be a priority for them.

And then, in June 2007, everything changed. Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals unveiled MoveOntario 2020, an ambitious $17 billion spending program on 52 projects (admittedly, cobbling in some already funded projects and some odd distinctions to inflate that number) to expand public transit infrastructure in the Greater Toronto Area.

It was the boldest public transit plan announced by any provincial government in a generation. Yes, it was basically a campaign document, highly conditional on the Liberals’ re-election, but it addressed most of my concerns about the Liberals’ previous transportation initiatives.

Was there favouritism of politically sexy (but wasteful) subways over more cost-effective LRT projects? Nope — the Liberals proposed to fund Toronto’s Transit City initiative in addition to the northerly extension of the Spadina and Yonge subways.

Was this an announcement of new studies amounting to nothing? Nope — the announcements tended to favour projects that had already been studied half to death, significantly shortening the approval process and suggesting that shovels could get in the ground as early as the end of 2008. Some projects, like the first Transit City lines, could be completed or well on their way to completion in time for the next municipal election.

Was this an initiative to spend just a third of the total cost, conditional on the municipalities and the federal government ponying up their share, and absolving the province of their responsibility should any side fail? Not really. Although a third of the cost was still to be paid for by the feds, the province absolved the municipalities of their share, removing a point of failure. They even suggested that the province could it alone, only slower, based on the $12 billion the province intended to commit.

The announcement changed my opinion of the McGuinty government overnight. It made me rethink my initial decision to vote for John Tory (I eventually voted Green). And, since then, things have moved forward. Some construction work (and Federal spending) have been announced for the York University subway extension. The City of Toronto hopes to have shovels in the ground for the Finch and Sheppard LRT lines in Transit City early in 2009. Despite the fiscal scare last July, a new sense of cautious optimism can be sensed in the air around public transportation advocates, and McGuinty directly contributed to that.

McGuinty’s record for the City of Toronto remains mixed. Toronto’s unfair taxation remains, and the powers that the premier has handed to the city are short of what’s needed to fix the structural problems that plague the Greater Toronto Area. However, the fact remains that, in the 2003 election, he ran on a campaign that acknowledged Toronto’s problems, and he has been able to follow through on some measures that have offered redress.

Ultimately, Dalton McGuinty is not the premier of Toronto. He has an entire province to run. He had a large deficit to overcome, and chronic underfunding throughout his jurisdiction to reverse. McGuinty has not given Toronto everything that the city could hope for, but it is still better treatment than they’ve received from Queen’s Park in almost twenty years. For that, I am thankful.

But he has about eighteen months to two years to get some concrete examples of his policies on the ground before my attitude towards him sours again.

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