An Open Letter to Rocco Rossi

Rocco Rossi

You probably don’t know me from Adam and, strictly speaking, I can’t vote for you, even if I wanted to. So what is a man from Kitchener doing writing this letter to a candidate in the race to be mayor of Toronto? Why do I care about your policies for my old home town?

Though I left Toronto back in 1991, I remain firmly attached to my city. One doesn’t forget the place where one grows up. Also, it is a simple fact that, given the economic weight of Toronto, and given the city’s media presence, I know far more about Toronto city council meetings, much less the Toronto mayoralty race, than I do about local politics here in Waterloo Region. And as prosperous as Waterloo Region is, our economic wellbeing is hampered if the City of Toronto underperforms. It is in my own interest, both in terms about how I feel about the city I grew up in, and how I live in the city I live in now, that the next mayor of Toronto knows how to address the challenges facing Canada’s largest city.

I have complained bitterly about the quality of the candidates as a whole in this mayoralty race. I fear that Smitherman is resting on his laurels as a front runner, has no clear ideas on where to take the city into the future, and has an ascorbic personality that will deepen the dysfunctional nature of Toronto’s city council. I believe many of the candidates in this race have embarked on foolish negative policies simply on the basis that incumbent mayor David Miller used to support them, thus throwing the baby out of the bathwater. And the less said of Rob Ford, the better.

But I have been intrigued by your candidacy. You have interesting ideas about where to take this city, and in spite of your negative take on Transit City, your overall campaign hasn’t been as negative as the others. I appreciate your sentiment that Torontonians shouldn’t wait for the province to fund needed transit improvements, and the idea of selling Toronto Hydro, using the funds to clear out the city’s debt, and using the interest savings from that to fund slow and steady subway development, is workable in theory (though I have my doubts about it in practise). Your performance in the recent mayoralty debate, where you spoke sensibly and pragmatically against Rob Ford’s tirade against Tamil immigration shows me that you think well on your feet, and you try to accommodate and negotiate rather than harangue and confront. Toronto city council could use more of what you offer.

And I can’t help but notice that you’ve attracted a number of people who supported John Tory’s campaign for mayor — my second choice in the 2003 election. While I believe that Mayor Miller has done much good for the city, I’m not confident that Pantalone has the charisma to win this election or to carry Miller’s policies forward. Besides, maybe it’s time for a change? Maybe it’s time for a new way of doing things? So, in this open letter, I’d like to share the concerns I have, and offer suggestions on how to improve your platform.

I am particularly concerned about your public transit policy, and cannot in good conscience support your candidacy until those concerns are addressed. I have long had a strong interest in improved public transportation, both in Toronto and elsewhere. With a group of other Torontonians, I help run the web site Transit Toronto (/). For the past fourteen years, we have diligently recorded the history of public transportation throughout the Greater Toronto Area. We love the TTC. It was an important part of growing up in the City of Toronto, offering us teenagers the mobility other teenagers could not experience until the purchase or gift of their first automobile.

And while we grew up, we watched the Toronto Transit Commission transform from an envy of North American cities to a beleaguered institution, strapped for cash and embarrassing the city with decrepit vehicles and stations. We saw ridership drop by 25%, and we saw buses and streetcars come less frequently and grow ever more crowded.

And we’ve seen things turn around. We’ve seen vehicles, stations and riders come back. The Toronto Transit Commission now carries more passengers per year than it has ever done in its history. We are all well aware that daunting challenges remain, but we’re very interested in ensuring the agency doesn’t slide back to the state it was in during the mid 1990s.

As a candidate from (apparently) the centre-right, you are campaigning towards a sentiment that the city needs to control its costs, possibly by cutting services, possibly by taking a hard line against the unions backing Toronto’s city workers. Your plan to re-launch slow and steady subway construction aside, I fear that a Rossi mayoralty would reduce transit service throughout the City of Toronto, increasing crowds on buses and streetcars and possibly forcing riders to pay more for that privilege.

But my greatest complaint about your transit platform has been your negative approach to the previous council’s Transit City initiative. This strikes me as both disruptive and fiscally unsound. You have suggested cancelling construction on the Eglinton and Finch West LRTs when both projects have been fully committed to by the province of Ontario, absolving the City of Toronto of its construction costs, here.

You have likened these LRT projects to slow streetcars, but that’s simply not true. With Eglinton proceeding through a tunnel from Black Creek to east of Laird, and on grade-separated right-of-way all the way to Don Mills, the Eglinton LRT here is functionally no different from a full-fledged subway line. Travel times on Eglinton between Laird and Keele drop from 48 minutes to 19 under this plan. At the same time, the LRTs offer the flexibility of coming to the surface, west of Jane and east of Laird, bringing higher order transit service to these parts of the city for a fraction of the cost of new subway construction. This is particularly worthwhile considering that the projected ridership levels of these segments, while more than what a bus could handle, is still low enough that subway stations built on this part of the route could be as deserted as those seen on the woefully underused Sheppard subway line.

It seems ludicrous to me that you would be opposed to these transit improvements, particularly when the province has committed to them, and particularly when they would make the lot of transit riders through these parts of the cities much better. Besides, with the money freed up, in theory, by your sale of Toronto Hydro, you could spend it on transit improvements elsewhere in the city, spreading the improvements wider (such as a Downtown Relief subway line) rather than re-inventing the wheel and redoing something that has already been started (such as an Eglinton subway).

Another concern I have is your platform’s proposals on privatization. I see this as potentially and needlessly antagonizing the people who already work very hard at keeping this city functioning. However, I must point out that I am not outright opposed to privatization; I am just sceptical about it. I am aware that examples exist of privatization producing improvements to certain public services, but I’m also aware of many other examples where the promised savings never materialized, and the public ended up with services that were less responsive or available than before. Privatization is not a panacea. However, I remain open to the possibilities privatization offers.

For instance, take the TTC’s washrooms, please. The TTC maintains washrooms at ten stations. (Kennedy, Warden, Bloor-Yonge, Kipling, Finch, Sheppard, Eglinton, Wilson, Downsview, and Don Mills). All of these stations are within the top twenty list of busiest subway stations on the network, and the washrooms themselves have been a notorious source of complaints (although the situation is improving).

Given the high level of foot traffic of these stations (collectively, at least a half million riders per weekday), then one could think that a franchise such as Tim Hortons, Second Cup or Starbucks might jump at a chance to open up outlets at each of these stations. So why not make a deal with them? Renovate and expand the spaces currently occupied by the washrooms and offer that to these franchises as a place to build one of their shops at a modest rent, on the condition that the businesses keep their washrooms accessible to the public and, most importantly, clean?

Given the high level of foot traffic in the other stations of the top ten that don’t have washrooms (St. George, Union, Dundas, King, Queen) and in the one station that used to offer washroom facilities but no longer does (Islington), one could conceive of this as a way of opening more washrooms on the subway network, increasing the comfort of subway patrons without a significant investment from taxpayers. Then, if you reassign the janitorial staff charged with maintaining current washrooms to other duties elsewhere in the system, you improve the cleanliness of the network, again without increasing costs. It’s a suggestion.

But my greatest concern about the transit policies on your platform is that I don’t know much about them. Beyond slow and steady subway expansion and dissing Transit City, what does your campaign propose to do about crowded buses and streetcars already in operation?

For all the faults of the previous administration, much good was done to public transportation in this city. Most of Toronto is now within 300 metres of a bus, streetcar or subway stop that operates at intervals of thirty minutes or better from 6 in the morning to 1 in the morning next day. This opens up so much of the city to people who cannot easily drive and is an important feature to an accessible, pedestrian friendly city.

If your platform calls for constraining the costs of transit, how does it propose to do it? The Toronto Transit Commission is one of the two most cost-efficient transit agencies in North America. Making back 75% of its operating costs from fares, it receives less government subsidy per capita than even New York City. I cannot see how cutting the TTC’s subsidy means anything less than forcing riders onto progressively more crowded vehicles that arrive less often, if at all, and paying more for the privilege. Unless you intend to campaign hard on getting the province to supply more of the operating costs, or try to find some way of reducing costs internally (I have doubts you will be successful there), I cannot see that a Rossi mayoralty will mean anything but worse transit service for all Torontonians.

So, please address this: can you promise here and now that TTC services won’t be cut? Not a bus, not a streetcar and not a subway car? You are encouraged to explain how you’d do this, but for me, I’d rather pay higher fares for better service than current or lower fares for worse service.

Address this, and I believe you will have filled a gap in your campaign platform, and you will have made yourself a well-rounded candidate, and an excellent prospect to be mayor of a dynamic City of Toronto.


If you want another suggestion for an interesting campaign platform that improves on rather than simply destroys the Transit City proposal, consider this: while deriding the Eglinton and Finch West LRTs, you have said that there is nothing you can do about the Sheppard East LRT, now that construction has started. This isn’t exactly true, and an opportunity might exist for you to step in and improve the Transit City plan rather than just destroy it. Although construction has started on the Sheppard East LRT project, it has started on work centred around a railway crossing in Agincourt. The money being spent here benefits not only the Sheppard East LRT, but also GO Transit riders on the Stouffville line. More importantly, given the proposal that exists to extend the Sheppard subway to the Scarborough Town Centre, this is not an area where the subway will go.

Early construction of the Sheppard East LRT heads east from the Agincourt crossing, since Metrolinx is still planning out how to connect the LRT to the Sheppard subway stub line in the west. So, theoretically, there may be time to intervene. Offer Metrolinx Toronto’s debt-freed money towards finishing the Sheppard subway, and let the Sheppard East LRT (paid for by the Ontario government) connect to the line at Kennedy rather than Don Mills.

Then let Metrolinx proceed as planned with the Eglinton LRT, the retrofitting of the Scarborough LRT and the Finch West LRT. These are important services that will improve public transit throughout the city in cost-effective ways. Once the money freed up by the sale of Toronto Hydro pays for the completion of the Sheppard subway, tackle another priority that is currently low on Metrolinx’s list, but high on the minds of Torontonians: the Downtown Relief subway line.

(Update: August 26 at 4:53 p.m.) I’d like to note that Mr. Rossi gave me a classy reply, which I greatly appreciated. Rossi wrote:

@jamesbow Thank you for your thoughtful letter. Your passion for transit is evident and I appreciated reading your views and insight. My campaign appreciates all ideas, and takes them into consideration, on how to improve our great city.

We shall see what we shall see.

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