The Pendulum Swings From Side to Side, Never Going Forward

In the political wrangling at Toronto City Council ahead of October’s election, Rob Ford’s brother Doug took a few shots at potential mayoral rival Karen Stintz by blaming the Toronto Transit Commission’s problems on politicians that control it. His solution: can the politicians and appoint non-politicians in their place.

I’m pretty sure that Doug’s comments were politically motivated, but he’s far from the only person to make this proposal. Until a year or so ago, the TTC’s board, chaired by Karen Stintz, was comprised of seven city councillors appointed to their positions by mayor Rob Ford, with the approval of his Executive Council — Karen Stintz included. As Rob Ford’s hold on Toronto City Council disintegrated, the make-up of that board became a power-play, with Ford loyalists on the committee attempting to push Stintz off, and the majority of Toronto city councillors rallying to Stintz’s side.

The result was a revised TTC board, with Karen Stintz still as chair (a thumb in the eye to Ford), six city councillors behind her (with few Ford loyalists among them), and four non-politicians, picked from the outside community, ostensibly with the business experience needed to provide an expert eye in running the TTC.

Even then, this wasn’t the first time that someone proposed replacing the politicians on the TTC board with private citizens. The idea goes back years. The refrain has been that TTC service continues to be inadequate to serve the residents of Toronto. The buck stops with the TTC board, and their failure to improve things means they’re not up to the job. As several politicians have served on the TTC board, maybe the problem is the politicization of the board. Put in private citizens, proponents argue, and politics is taken out of TTC meetings, and the whole commission magically runs better.

Listening to this debate, I’m struck with a disturbing feeling of deja-vu. These arguments were almost exactly the same ones made in the late 1980s when people demanded that private citizens appointed to the TTC board be taken off the board, and elected politicians put on. So, Doug Ford’s new idea is really a rather old idea, but he seeks to go back to an era that was changed for the very same reasons we want to change things now.

From 1921 until the late 1980s, the TTC board was made up entirely of private citizens. Quite often, these people were lawyers and businessmen appointed to their position by a vote of council. Only a few ever saw elected office, such as TTC Chair Al Leach, who went on to become a Conservative MPP and the Minister of Housing under Mike Harris’ government.

You could make the argument that this system worked for the TTC for at least sixty years, but if that were true, why did calls get so intense to change things? People were saying the same things then as they were now: the TTC board was becoming unresponsive, and increasingly out-of-touch with the needs of riders and the residents of Toronto. By placing democratically elected councillors on the TTC board, people argued, they would be putting in people who were accountable to the electorate, and thus the TTC board would have more accountability.

Agreed, it didn’t quite work as well as people hoped, but it’s hard to imagine a board of entirely appointed non-politicians being more accountable to the public than elected politicians. During the late 1980s, the argument was that people appointed to the TTC board were appointed more on the basis of who they knew at city hall than on the basis of what they knew about transit. There were arguments that the TTC board could (or had) become a haven for patronage.

Either way the primary motivation — that the TTC service wasn’t as good as it should be — is almost exactly mirrored between 1988 and 2014. As a result, I have very little confidence that simply changing the current TTC board from all-political to semi-political to a-political will make for improvements. The truth is, we are dancing around the real problems at the heart of the TTC’s poor service: a lack of money to pay for better service.

Ballparking it, I would say the TTC needs at least another $100 million per year in operating subsidy and at least another $250 million per year in capital subsidy in order to significantly reduce delays and improve reliability and capacity throughout the system. The only thing preventing Torontonians from having the better TTC service they deserve is the cowardice of Toronto politicians in refusing to raise the taxes needed to pay for that service.

That said, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t look for ways to improve how the TTC is managed. Just because a new system isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it won’t be better. And I can’t help but notice that, for two terms in a row, now, the chair of the TTC has left their position to make a run for the mayor’s office. It seems that Toronto politicians don’t get into politics to run the TTC. As important as the job is for Torontonians as a whole, it’s just a stepping stone to the would-be chairs who step forward. Which is a shame, as it results in a lack of long-term leadership and vision.

I wonder if it wouldn’t make sense to, instead of having city politicians appoint themselves to run the TTC, or city politicians appoint people they know to run the TTC, the matter is put in the hands of the voters and the riders themselves. Why not make the position of TTC chair (and associated under-chairs) an elected office in its own right, decided in October by ballot? Why not give Metropass holders an extra vote? Toronto residents deserve a say because their tax dollars go into the operation of the TTC. Metropass holders deserve a similar, if not greater, say, because more of their funds are going into the TTC directly.

Doing this would make for a far clearer mandate of the people who are elected to run the TTC. Karen Stintz and Adam Giambrone and all of the TTC chairs before them dating back to the late 1980s were city councillors first and chairs of the TTC second. The chairs before them were often friends of elected politicians first. An elected chair of the TTC would have a clearer mandate to articulate a vision for transit for the city as a whole.

I know that this suggestion is risky and likely to be far from perfect, but rather than bounce back and forth on who we should appoint to the TTC board, maybe we should consider putting this matter in the hands of the people who care about it the most. Maybe it’s time that voters and riders had their say, directly.

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