Once upon a time there was Transit City.
It was a plan to build public transit (‘Moving Toronto Into the Future’), modest in the sense of seeming achievable in a reasonable time frame and at a feasible cost. Both levels of government, municipal and provincial, were on board and, despite a scaling back of projects by the province in the face of the 2008 recession (brewing bad blood between Queen’s Park and City Hall that would open the door to bad faith actors intent on killing the proceedings), work was begun in 2009.
A year later, barely a month after being elected mayor, transit unenthusiast, Rob Ford, unilaterally declared Transit City dead, having no authority to do so, only bluster and the fabled Nation behind him. The bluff worked. His opponents, along with many of the plan’s original proponents, quaked and caved, some even hopping on the Scarborough Deserves a Subway train, initiating what would turn out to be nearly a decade and a half (and counting) of transit planning turmoil. Revisions and reassessments. Delays and ballooning budgets. No new project yet completed, fourteen years on (and counting). Only the promise of bigger and better –the likes of which this city has ever seen! to tap into the hyperbolic that the premier of Ontario, Transit City’s assassin’s brother and collaborator – now offered as a dubious consolation prize.
As news breaks of entirely predictable fuckery with the building of the Scarborough subway, no money in the kitty to design and operate dedicated, separate bus lanes when the Scarborough RT is decommissioned later this year, leaving Scarborough commuters stuck on buses that are stuck in traffic for at least the next 7 years if a 2030 completion date for the subway is to be believed, but why would we believe that? Metrolinx, the provincial agency in charge of overseeing the transit building, hasn’t yet finished the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, already 3 or 4 years late and with no end in sight. The Finch LRT likewise delayed. And the boondoggle-in-waiting, the Ontario Line subway, barely begun and already over-budget and causing expected traffic chaos with no serious mitigation plans in place.
Etc. & Etc.
This is the end result of allowing, encouraging in many cases, bullshit to pass as actual transit planning. Since 2010, we have indulged in the chimerical. Elevated the highly improbable to the realm of the possible, the preferable even. So desperate for an updated and upgraded public transit system that we’ve collectively embraced glaring political nonsense and accepted gross incompetence (and dollars to deutsche marks when all is said and done we’ll almost certainly discover a trainload of crony corruption) as simply part of doing the messy business of building massive infrastructure.
Yesterday, the Toronto Star published a column by Ed Keenan titled, Doesn’t anyone in this town know how to build a railroad? In it, he cites examples of subway timelines from the good old days. “Construction on the original Yonge line, from Eglinton to Union, took less than five years,” he writes. “Construction of the University segment to St. George took four years. The Spadina line extension north to Wilson took five years to build.” Even the, arguably, overbuilt Line 1 six-stop extension up through North York into Vaughan – the precedent setting project for ‘deserving’ subways, if Vaughan gets a subway, why not Scarborough? – only took 8 years, about a year behind schedule.
What’s happened to us, we’re left wondering.
Obviously, there’s no single answer to that very valid question.
But I will offer up one possibility.
The day before Keenan’s column, mayoral hopeful and current sitting MPP for Scarborough-Guildwood, Mitzie Hunter, announced that if elected mayor in the upcoming June byelection, she would proceed with… wait for it… More Subway Building! Extending the orphaned Sheppard subway, itself something of a political white elephant, the result of the willful burying of the hole that was to be the Eglinton subway by Mike Harris, mostly to thumb his nose at his predecessor, and a sop thrown to then-mayor Mel Lastman in the hopes of keeping him quiet about all the damage being inflicted on Toronto with amalgamation, is Hunter’s latest pitch in the subway sweepstakes, digging both east to the Scarborough subway (fingers-crossed!) and west out to Downsview. Completing the circle, sort of. Never mind that Doug Ford’s government has essentially assumed control of all subway planning and building for the city. Something Hunter probably is aware of, what with working up at Queen’s Park for the past decade.
No matter. Public transit has become all about the announcing, details and follow-through for another day. Something Mitzie Hunter is well aware of, having declared herself the ‘Subway Champion’ back in 2013 in her successful bid to win a provincial byelection, fully embracing the Ford mantra ‘Subways! Subways! Subways!’, presumably with the Liberal government’s support since she was running on their ticket, signaling for all to see that it too was done with the notion of rational transit planning. To be fair, they weren’t alone on that in the race. One of Hunter’s opponents Adam Giambrone, NDP candidate and former… wait for it… TTC chair back in the day when Transit City was announced, attempted his level best to not be undone, pledging, if elected, to bring [quote] downtown-style transit network [end quote] to the non-downtown areas of the city like the one he was campaigning to represent. You don’t have to squint too hard to read between the lines on that one.
If the primary objective of your public transit proposals is to gain some sort of political advantage or to use as a political cudgel (the added bonus of helping out your developer donors comes with actually getting elected), the actual execution of those proposals is utterly beside the point. Just ask John Tory. His ‘London-style rapid rail’ SmartTrack died a slow, ignominious death to no serious detriment to his career but did put the city on the hook to pay for stations that will make up part of the province’s planned GO expansion. Sorely needed improved transit but at a disproportionate cost that comes with lax, whimsical, politics-first plans.
So, we should stop being surprised when these gambits blow up in our face. When costs soar. When work gets delayed and postponed. When there’s no practical strategy in place to help accommodate the movement of people when the building actually begins.
Mere afterthoughts when forethought has been replaced by political machinations.
Applaud harder and louder, Toronto, in the hopes that the latest transit Tinkerbell won’t arrive D.O.A.