The Politics Of Transit

January 26, 2012

If you’ve ever played one of those 3-D board games, like say, chess or Battleship, you can get a sense of what’s going on currently with public transit planning here in Toronto. Layers upon layers of intrigue and political jockeying where one seemingly unrelated move has serious ramifications on the machinations happening below. It sets the head a-spinning, and not necessarily in a good way.

Not to drive a wedge in the opposition now coalescing against Mayor Ford’s harebrained ‘Subways Only’ Transit – I mean, Transportation – Plan, and, oh yes, opposition is clearly coalescing. Last week, TTC Chair and Team Ford stalwart Karen Stintz openly mused about bringing the eastern portion of the Eglinton LRT back up from underground where the mayor had single-handedly banished it last year. She wasn’t the first one of the mayor’s gang to question the wisdom of burying it. Councillor John Parker had called the idea ‘goofy’ a few weeks back. But certainly Councillor Stintz as head of the TTC, her words carried significant weight. Enough certainly to draw Scarborough councillor Michael Thompson out of the woodwork as he expressed no particular drive to keep the Eglinton LRT buried.

Now the Chair was political enough to offer Mayor Ford a compromise of sorts, a facing saving out. She proposed that any money saved by keeping some of the Eglinton LRT at street level would be ploughed into building the mayor’s cherished Sheppard subway extension. But… but here’s where it gets murky, possibly operating on a second level. If the mayor were to take the money to build the subway, wouldn’t he be breaking one promise to keep another? He said there’d be no public money needed for Sheppard, and here he’d be taking public money.

A moot point perhaps, as the mayor seems categorically incapable of accepting compromise as was on display last week during the budget debate. Instead, the loyal members of his entourage went on the offensive. Mark Towhey, the mayor’s Policy Director proclaimed, “Residents don’t want trains running down the middle of the street.” Then Councillor Doug, the mayor’s brother, went full on bluster with the Toronto Sun. Forcing taxpayers onto streetcars or LRTs (Stalin style) relegated them to “second-class” citizenship. And apparently, according to the councillor, all that money that was diverted from other Transit City projects in order to bury the Eglinton LRT would somehow not be there if that decision was reversed. “There is no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow for $2 billion to fund something else.”

And where the mayor and his brother go, so goes the likes of Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, right?

Not so fast. This morning in the National Post Councillor Mammoliti is on record gently disputing Mayor Ford’s claim that everybody loves subways but not nearly as much as they hate streetcars. Read this last paragraph and tell me there isn’t an open revolt brewing within Team Ford’s ranks.

Councillor Mammoliti, who has pushed for a subway on Finch Avenue, says that if a forthcoming report on how to build the Sheppard line determines that private-sector funding will be hard to come by, then “we should be looking at improving what is there to begin with” on Finch. He favours a swift surface light rail line over a dedicated bus lane. As for what should happen on Eglinton, Mr. Mammoliti said that “during the election I didn’t hear anybody on the eastern side say they had some concerns with [surface light rail].”

If you’re counting at home, folks, that’s the TTC Chair, 2 members of the all-powerful Executive Committee and one staunch supporter of Mayor Ford openly and frankly challenging his Transportation City vision. It’s the kind of internal disarray proponents of a more sensible and feasible transit plan couldn’t be happier about. Alas, it’s also the kind of discord our ultimate political overlords at Queen’s Park can use to give them the appearance of having sound judgement and being above the fray.

“The city still doesn’t have its act together,” said Bob Chiarelli, the Minister of Transportation. “We have the chair of the TTC speculating about changes. We have some city councillors, we have the Mayor really not commenting on it. So, we need some clarity from the city.”

AAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRGGGHH!

It’s this kind of multi-levelled, political gamesmanship that has stunted transit planning in this city for three decades now. If the province had remained resolute and kept to the already agreed upon Transit City plan last year, we wouldn’t have lost another 12 months or so chasing the mayor’s phantom transit vision. If the premier had called for a “formal proposal” from city council then to change course as he is right now to change back to the original plans (????), we might’ve had this discussion last year not now.

Instead, he capitulated in the face of the mayor’s self-proclaimed Ford Nation, signed on to the Memorandum of Understanding with the mayor, end-running city council, to use all the province’s money to bury the Eglinton LRT in what could only be seen for personal political reasons. Facing an election with, at the time, very dismal prospects, and a mayor of Toronto in his ascendancy, he chose to sacrifice the city’s transit future for his own political one. Unfortunately for the city, it wasn’t the first time such a thing has happened.

But… but… again, this is where it gets murky. I don’t credit Premier McGuinty with many things but his political acumen isn’t one that I question. Perhaps, he knew that if he forced the transit issue to a vote at city council last year, Mayor Ford may well have won the day. Transit City would truly have been buried for good along with the Eglinton LRT. By making nice and surviving last October’s election while exposing the ethereal foundations of Ford Nation while at it, he kept Transit City alive. The honeymoon now over, Mayor Ford faces a rejuvenated city council and very vocal, well-organized opposition to his transit plans.

Wheels within wheels. What should be a fairly straight-forward how to build a better transit system for the city situation is anything but. Perhaps the most aggravating aspect of it is that those who rely on public transit here the most aren’t the ones contributing to the decisions. It’s left in the hands of those who view it in terms of little more than their personal and political gain.

head spinningly submitted by Cityslikr