Missed Opportunity

August 8, 2013

You guys know me. I’m partial to municipal politics and politicians. ballotboxIt’s not that I’m disinterested in the other two levels of government but I approach them with much suspicion. In the end, we’re not even voters to them but just votes. Our interaction comes almost exclusively at the ballot box.

And yet, nearly everything any elected official does ultimately affects us at the local level. Immigration, transportation safety regulations, healthcare decisions, all have an impact where we live. Our streets. Our schools. Our homes.

In spite of that, our municipal governments have the least amount of control over these decisions than either their provincial and federal counterparts. They have limited access to the purse strings. Their jurisdictional reach is likewise stunted. Municipal politicians have all sorts of responsibilities but very little power in conducting their business.

Not surprisingly, local government doesn’t always attract the best and the brightest to its ranks (with exceptions, of course). twitWhy would it? There’s more money to be made, more glory and exposure to be had, for, arguably, less work as an MP or MPP. Even in a big city like Toronto with lots of media swirling around, the lure of the backbenches at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa is considerable for many toiling away in the relative obscurity of City Hall.

This creates one of those chicken-or-egg scenarios where it’s impossible to answer the question: Do municipal politics get the politicians it deserves or do municipal politicians deserve the politics they get?

I mean, how many times have you found yourself in a conversation, bemoaning your city’s inability to bring about some change in your day-to-day life owing to the fact it doesn’t have the proper powers to do so, and the response is always, You want more power in the hands of these jokers?

twit1No?

Really?

That’s a discussion I have, like, a couple times a day on average.

Clearly I need to get me some new friends.

It certainly doesn’t help my Up With Municipal Politicians cause when they pass up a golden opportunity to prove their worth, to show those who’ve cast a ballot for them that, in fact, they are competent public officials with the best interests of the city’s residents at heart.

I’m talking about Toronto city council’s most recent Scarborough LRT subway decision / indecision / debacle / clusterfuck, natch. twit2As outlined in last week’s letter from Metrolinx honcho Bruce McQuaig to city manager Joe Pennachetti, all work on the Scarborough LRT will now grind to a halt, pending council’s search for the extra cash needed to convert it to a subway. Money, so far, not evidently forthcoming from either the province or the feds which, according to a flurry of amendments at last month’s council meeting, would be absolutely necessary for the subway dream to remain alive.

Now look, I’m not letting either of the senior levels of government off the hook on this. There’s little question the provincial government, facing the August 1st by-elections, played footsie with city council and didn’t discourage talk of re-opening the Master Agreement with Metrolinx in order to promote a Scarborough subway. Their winning candidate in Scarborough-Guildwood, Mitzie Hunter, proclaimed herself a ‘Subway Champion’ and joined the ranks of the other Scarborough Liberal MPPs who’ve marched in lockstep demanding equality of treatment that can only be provided by a subway.

And the federal government? MIA when it comes to any sort of transit discussion.

But this was a chance for our local politicians to step up and be the adults in the room. To set aside thoughts of political ambition or survival and decline opening up this debate once again. offacliffThanks but no thanks, they could’ve collectively said. We’ve thought long and hard about this and have decided the LRT option is the way we’re going to go. The money’s there. The plan’s in place. Let’s keep those shovels in the ground.

While it’s easy to blame the mayor for this unwelcome turn of events, it wasn’t his fight to win or lose. He’d been relegated to the sidelines on the transit debate over a year ago. Only the echoes of his Scarborough Deserves Its Subway chant remained and council could’ve just plugged their ears and stopped listening, recognizing the mayor’s contribution for nothing more than what it was. A politicized, ill-informed view of public transit planning that has resulted in massive delays and unnecessary costs.

Instead, a majority of council chose to follow him down that particular rabbit hole, succeeding in only more delays, more costs and, most importantly for my purposes here, cementing their reputation as bumbling, inept, dithering, irresponsible local representatives. You want more power in the hands of these jokers?

I know, right?offacliff1

It’s hard to argue with that, listening to Councillor Josh Colle’s interview with Matt Galloway on Metro Morning. Oleaginous is the word I want to use to describe it. But that’s not quite right. Evasive. Disingenuous. Not exactly forthcoming in a smarmy fashion, if I’m free to use more than one word. In no way contributing in any positive sense to building transit in this city. Pointing the finger rather than stepping up and accepting responsibility to provide leadership for this city on a matter of vital importance.

Unfortunately, there have been too many Josh Colles on city council lately especially on the issue of transit. It’s a willing acceptance of the supplicant role of municipal politicians in our governance framework. Don’t look to us for answers. We’re just here to help further gum up the works. Never seizing the initiative. Only looking to wipe their hands clean of it so they never have to accept the blame for anything.

disappointment

Misrule by don’t rule.

Making it hard for us municipal politics boosters to continue throwing our support their way.

sadly submitted by Cityslikr


And In Other News

August 23, 2010

… meanwhile, over at Metrolinx…

Funny how in the midst of a tempestuous election campaign, the business of actual governance gets pushed off deep into the background. So much so that some candidates out there on the hustings go as far as to suggest that elected officials should not be making any decisions that may outlive their time in office. Election year lame ducking, you might call it.

Still, the odd piece of business can pop up that does impose itself on the campaign. Take, for example, the minor brouhaha last week over the almost completed construction of the so-called Dufferin Jog. This is the long overdue reconnecting of Dufferin Street at Queen. For the past century or so, weary travelers making their way along Dufferin Street in either direction had to jut around the railway bridge at Queen to continue their sojourn north or south. This minor diversion has long caused traffic chaos along that section of Queen Street.

But as of sometime in the early fall, we’ll be able to breeze up and down Dufferin Street like it’s PCH 1, zipping effortlessly beneath the rail underpass on our way to the Home and Garden Show or… for whatever reason it is people go north on Dufferin Street.

But wait, not so fast. Metrolinx – the vaguely provincial government transit agency in charge of orchestrating the entire GTA’s Big Move — has asked the city to delay wrapping up construction for a couple months, maybe 4 or 6, so they can lay down another track for trains operating on the Georgetown corridor. Why this is only being brought up now, who knows? For our purposes here, let’s just chalk it up to another example of problematic overlapping governmental jurisdictions.

As of now it seems the city will ignore Metrolinx’s request and go ahead to complete construction, leaving the question of additional tracks for a later date. This decision imposed itself on the council race in Ward 18 where the Dufferin Jog is located and which is the seat of power for outgoing TTC chair, Adam Giambrone. Ana Bailão, a candidate to replace Giambrone as councillor in Ward 18 and whom Giambrone defeated for the spot in 2003, suggests her former opponent is setting common sense aside and proceeding with completion simply in order “… to cut the ribbon for the project” before he leaves office. She contends it would be cheaper and less hassle to finish the whole thing up now rather than having to restart construction at a later date.

Kevin Beaulieu, another candidate competing for the Ward 18 council seat and former Giambrone executive assistant, thinks there’s more to it than that. He contends Metrolinx is trying to covertly expand the railway in order to accommodate their diesel engine technology at the expense of electrifying the corridor, a sentiment shared by at least in part by some at council including Councillor Gord Perks. We leave it to those better informed about transit and that particular issue to try and disentangle it but a couple Metrolinx matters – and the gist of this actual post — did jump to our attention while we were reading through the minutae of the imbroglio.

News filtered out late last month that the Metrolinx-SNC Lavalin private-public partnership deal to build and operate the Union Station-Pearson Airport rail link was dead. According to John Lorinc in the Globe and Mail, “… SNC Lavalin and its lenders pulled out because Ontario refused to provide operating subsidies for the 46-year deal, meaning the private sector consortium would rely only on fare revenues to meet its profit targets.”

Huh. Imagine that. The fearless private sector got cold feet at plunging into the public transit game because the provincial government “refused to provide operating subsidies”.

“Naturally, we are disappointed by the outcome of the Toronto Air Rail Link Project. Given the state of financial markets over the past few years, lenders, both in Canada and elsewhere, are reluctant to lend money for full revenue-risk projects.  As a result, an agreement that met our own standards of risk tolerance could not be reached with interested lenders,” SNC Lavalin said in an official statement [bolding ours].

Attention should be paid, you candidates bellowing about how the private sector will eagerly sign on to build all those subways we want. Apparently a little cost analysis reveals that making money from public transit ain’t that easy. At least not without some stinky government cheese thrown in, and if that’s what it takes to get PPPs up and running, why bother? If the Ontario government isn’t going “to provide operating subsidies” to, say, the TTC, they shouldn’t be expected to do so with private companies.

Of a second Metrolinx related note, outgoing President and CEO of the organization, Robert Pritchard who is moving up to become its chair of the board, will be replaced by Deputy Minster of Transportation, Bruce McCuaig. McCuaig is a veteran bureaucrat and his appointment puts a politician in charge of Metrolinx. That is, if spending 26 years in bureaucracy qualifies him as a politician. And if it does, that means a ‘career politician’ now has his fingers in the pie of public transit planning which appears to be an about-face of professionalization of such matters that the government’s been touting for the last little while.

Again, we’re not well enough informed about public transit policy to debate the merits or lack of them in such moves. We point them out only because they seem to be running contrary to the voices of debate going on during this municipal campaign in Toronto. The private sector should not be counted on to build public transit. SNC Lavalin’s exit from the airport rail link table serves as yet another example of this failed experiment. Secondly, we cannot entirely de-politician the public transit planning. As strong as that appeal is especially when anti-incumbency is as thick in the air as it is this year, it seems neither sensible nor workable.

Anyone running for office who advocates such ideas (Mssrs. Ford and Rossi are merely the most extreme cases) must be vigorously challenged on these points. They are pushing theories and ideas that don’t seem to be viable and certainly are not working out there in the real world. It would be negligent on our part to put such baseless dreamers in a position of power that well might undermine public transit planning into the foreseeable future.