If I were a Toronto councillor, I think I’d be a very different person than I am now. I would have to be. There’s no way that I, as the person I am, could handle the stress of the long hours, the responsibility, the public eye, or the relentless campaign to hold my place in office. I don’t think I’d have the time to write, or enjoy my time with my kids. So if I were a Toronto councillor and still happy, I would not be a writer, I would have a different relationship with the kids, and I would not be the person that I am now.
So, take what I’m about to say as a bit of a pointless academic exercise. I have strong opinions about transit, and I certainly have strong opinions about how Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is handling the file. I support council’s decision to vote against Ford’s proposal to spend the province’s $8.4 Billion exclusively on an all-underground Eglinton LRT. Going back to the original memorandum of understanding, bringing the Eglinton LRT to the surface east of Brentcliffe and using the savings to build an LRT on Finch West, simply makes more sense to me. You serve far more people across a wider swath of Toronto with the same amount of money.
Currently, the question of what to do with $1 billion of the province’s money now that Eglinton has been raised to the surface and only some of the savings spent on Finch West, is being examined by a panel of experts appointed by mayor and council. What they’re probably doing is trawling through the many volumes of study that have been conducted over the past twenty years on rapid transit for Sheppard East. The question they are charged with answering is, should Sheppard east of Don Mills be served by an LRT connected to the Sheppard subway stub, as planned before Rob Ford took office, or should the money be spent extending the Sheppard subway two stops to Victoria Park.
Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug, devoted to the idea of completing the Sheppard subway to Downsview and the Scarborough Town Centre, are advocating the latter option, and have brought forward (and subsequently retracted) various proposals to generate revenue to bridge the $3 Billion funding gap that would close the tunnel gap. In the Globe and Mail, Rob Ford proposed a “modest parking levy” that could raise $90 million per year. His ally Norm Kelly has suggested a 0.5% sales tax that might raise $250 million per year. There have been suggestions of tolls (some of them arising from HOV lanes on the Gardiner and the DVP that would miraculously build themselves for free), and even the resurrection of the Vehicle Registration Tax that Rob Ford vehemently killed in his first year in office.
The Toronto Sun, whose vision of the city of Toronto would seem boring to a chartered accountant, can’t understand what Ford is doing, and have suggested that if Ford has to raise taxes in order to fund subways, he should simply give up on funding subways and not extend any piece of transportation infrastructure, ever. But Ford is doggedly pursuing the matter. Even as he backtracks wildly, even as Doug Ford calls all taxes “evil”, subways have got to be built, since the people want them. He seems to believe that his ability to start construction on the Sheppard subway will be the legacy by which his mayoralty is defined.
Watching all of this from afar, and seeing the decision that council has to make on March 21, and being the person that I am, I am wondering if there is a point of compromise that we can reach, which will allow Ford to have his Sheppard subway, and Torontonians to have a rapid transit expansion plan that works for the wider city in a cost effective manner.
My point of compromise would be this: we have three questions to deal with — how to use the $8.4 Billion the province has currently committed to rapid transit construction in Toronto (and an additional $300 million the feds have promised if something is built on Sheppard), how to raise the funds required to pay for construction over and above this currently committed amount, and what projects should receive such additional funding in what priority.
With that in mind, I would propose that the $8.7 Billion in committed spending be put towards the subway-surface Eglinton-Crosstown LRT (operating from Jane, along Eglinton and up a converted Scarborough RT to Scarborough Centre), an LRT on Finch operating from Keele (the site of Finch West station on the Spadina subway extension) to Humber College, and a two-station Sheppard subway extension from Don Mills to Victoria Park.
Then, using one of the new revenue streams that Rob Ford initially proposed (either a parking levy, or Norm Kelly’s regional sales tax), start building other transit projects. First, extend the Sheppard subway east from Victoria Park to the Scarborough Town Centre. Then start construction on a Downtown Relief subway line connecting the Yonge and Bloor-Danforth subways. Get the Downtown Relief Line out to the Exhibition and up to the Eglinton/Don Mills intersection, extend the Eglinton LRT to the Airport, build a Sheppard East LRT from Kennedy station on the Sheppard subway line out to Malvern, and so on. The point is, to use the annual revenue stream slowly and steadily to produce a constant pace of construction year over year to build out our transportation network to meet the needs of our growing city. It’s worth noting that once Metrolinx has spent its $8.4 Billion in Toronto, there will be other projects in its plans, and other funds from the province may be freed up to help these projects along.
So, council gets to move towards Rob Ford by granting him funding for an extension of the Sheppard subway out of the funds the province has already committed. Rob Ford moves towards council by accepting surface LRTs on Eglinton and Finch, and providing a steady revenue stream with which to finish his Sheppard subway, and start construction on other subways (with the Downtown Relief Line being the most important priority, in my opinion). This is the middle ground. It is my (likely naive) hope that this would be the deal that everybody could commit to; a remarkable day where two entrenched forces put aside their differences for the benefit of Toronto’s future commuters.
Why a Sheppard subway? Well, beyond giving Rob Ford something to save face with, I have to admit that I’m sorely tempted to finish the project. Some might say that this would be throwing good money after bad, but when it comes to the old Transit City plan, the Eglinton LRT makes sense, and the Finch West LRT makes sense. The Sheppard East LRT doesn’t make nearly as much sense. The Sheppard stub is not as effective as it should be, given that it goes barely half the distance it was planned to go. Worse, it compromises the effectiveness of an LRT that attaches itself to it. The transfer between LRT and subway at Don Mills will be complicated and expensive to dig. The subway line can’t even be easily converted to a tunnel LRT option as the tunnels are too tight and the station platforms are designed for high level loading. It’s a gigantic mess all round, and maybe spending the money to finish it — while more money than we should be spending — will salvage it into something usable. And maybe that is a benefit to Torontonians. Certainly, the steady funding mechanism offers hope that other projects will be added to Sheppard, including the much needed Downtown Relief Line.
Anyway, that’s the deal I would hope, in my rosiest dreams, that the Toronto mayor’s office and city council could forge between now and March 21. And maybe they will. Stranger things have happened, though I’m hard pressed to name examples. Unfortunately, recent developments have dashed what little hope I had that Rob Ford was moving towards a credible funding mechanism to make his subway dreams a reality.
Rob Ford said in print that a parking levy could help kickstart subway construction, then he went back on it. The sales taxes proposed by Norm Kelly have been vehemently rebuked. The resurrection of the Vehicle Registration Tax was probably too ironic to have a chance. Tolls are the answer, except when they aren’t. Levies are the solution, except when they’re taxes and thus, by definition, “evil”.
The only way the above deal will work is if both sides move to that point of compromise, with a firm commitment and a minimum of rancour. There were hints that a compromise between Karen Stintz and Rob Ford was being worked out on the related matter of the composition of the TTC board, but that seems to have been scuppered. There is a lot of confusion out there, and as the mayor’s office flails to find a funding mechanism for the Sheppard subway that isn’t a tax, most of the bluster has come from their direction. It’s not unreasonable to pin the mayor’s office as being the primary source of said confusion, and this is probably why some are drawing the conclusion that Karen Stintz’s recent move to completely rearrange the TTC board is a move by council to isolate the mayor from the business of the TTC and limit the damage he can do (though councillors are saying that this isn’t the case, and Ford backs some of these changes. We shall see).
These are interesting times to be watching Toronto city council, and they’re probably very interesting times to be on Toronto city council. They’re also immensely frustrating times. And this is why I’m glad I’ve never considered a life in politics.