Committed To Talking About Transit

What can we do in the face of an overwhelming lack of leadership?powervacuum1

I was thinking that, listening to Premier Kathleen Wynne explain to Matt Galloway on Metro Morning today why she’d announced pulling some possible revenue tools last week to help fund transit building. You could actually hear the political calculus at work. Or maybe it was the sound of transit planning coming to a grinding halt.

No one doubts the premier is in something of a bind here. You could make the argument she’s looking down the wrong end of history’s barrel, with twenty years of anti-tax and small government sensibilities having taken solid root in the political soil, dating back to the rise of the Reform Party in the early 90s. The Chretien/Martin deficit cutting and downloading frenzy. Mike Harris. Mel Lastman. Stephen Harper. Rob Ford.

Taxation not even seen as a necessary evil but simply evil.

Of course, her own party’s recklessness with public funds doesn’t help her cause any. taxesareevilWe all know the names by heart. Ehealth. Ornge. Gas plants. It’s a bit tough at this point for Premier Wynne to step up and ask for more money from Ontario’s residents. Trust us. We’ll spend it all very, very wisely.

And the politicking doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The opposition parties at Queen’s Park have constructed their own anti-reality bubbles in terms of revenue sources to dedicate to transit. Everybody’s got some magic beans they’re shilling, ways to get the transit needed at a cost that will come from almost nobody’s pockets. Don’t worry, folks. This won’t hurt a bit.

My guess is, as we head into the provincial budget process, the government has just handed concessions over to the NDP by vowing not to increase the gas tax, the HST or income tax on middle-class families in order to fund the Big Move. Your move now, Andrew Horwath. What does your party suggest? Using exact figures, if you don’t mind.

Who’s going to step forward first and sign their name to a tax increase or new user fee?

Because everybody knows this can’t continue. Public transit in the GTHA has to be built. That fact, at least, cuts across political lines. checkersOnly the supremely delusional Tim Hudak-led Tories are insisting it can be done without raising more revenue.

Yet, here we are, gridlocked and deadlocked.

The Liberal government has been provided with plenty of cover to take the important next step in this debate. From the non-politically realigned Metrolinx and the premier’s very own appointed Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel, to organization as disparate as the Toronto Region Board of Trade, CivicAction Alliance, the Pembina Institute, right down to grassroots groups like Code Red TO, all have talked up revenue tools. The pump has been primed, the ground broken.

Yet, here we are, gridlocked and deadlocked. Still.

The ugly truth about this, unfortunately, is that the well being of the party takes precedence over the strength of the idea. We’ve all been told that if party X runs with this and takes a beating in the election because of it, well, we’re right back to square one or so. partyloyaltyThe fate of transit in the GTHA hinges on the party that best touts the least amount of pain necessary to voters in order to build it.

No one’s gutsy or astute enough (both integral components of actual leadership) to step forward and challenge the conventional wisdom that voters summarily oppose taxation and are unwilling to pay more for improved service. Instead it’s just more nibbling around the edges, reframing the debate in the exact same dimensions we’ve heard for the past 20 years. Empty, empty pledges of new stuff free of charge. Promises to deliver the undeliverable.

All of which serves only to make us more cynical, more apathetic and less likely to take anything any of our politicians say seriously. Who wants to go to bat for somebody ducking from the first inside pitch they face? Why waste your time and effort?

At this point, there can be little doubt that the 3 parties representing us at Queen’s Park have failed miserably at displaying anything close to resembling leadership on the transit file. Each have wilfully disregarded the hard work and dedication put in by groups and individuals, goitalonefighting to ensure that we have a robust debate and positive outcome in dealing with an issue that threatens nothing short of our well-being and way of life in this region. We’ve been abandoned by our elected leaders.

If our provincial politicians are unwilling to provide the appropriate leadership for us, we really should start talking about why we continue to finance them and subject ourselves to their inaction and indecisiveness.

dim viewly submitted by Cityslikr

The Naked Untruth

I’m not going to lie to you, folks. It’s really and truly getting damn near impossible to come up with new and exciting ways to have this discussion. Concerns over kicking a dead horse, jumping the shark and all that. The trouble is, it just needs to keep being said. Over and over again in the hopes that finally somebody clicks and gets a big, bright idea. The proverbial lightbulb. A sudden gush of much needed and long awaited wisdom.

It always starts with the same question.

What is it with fucking right wingers and their refusal to deal with the truth? I’m not necessarily talking about outright lies although that plays an integral part of their everyday discourse. It’s the half truths and distortions of facts and figures that really do the trick. Dissembling, prevarication, misdirection and misleading statements. Their reliance on what Stephen Colbert dubbed ‘truthiness’. If it looks like the truth and quacks like the truth etc., etc.

Witness the Twitter exchange for the last couple days over the plan to remove bike lanes on Jarvis Street. On one side are those against the move. The other comes from Mayor Ford’s side of the fence offered up by Mark Towhey, the mayor’s director of policy and strategic planning.

From Towhey’s twitter feed (@towhey):

  • Actually, wrong. Staff report shows travel times are up by 1/3, ie 130% on average #justthefacts
  • Wrong, actually. Report says 2-3 mins is average over 8 hour survey period. Peak delay is much, much higher #justthefacts
  • But your argument was about environmental impact, not social activism. Even the lefties say you’re, in a word: wrong #sosad
  • Pembina Institute says Ford plan reduces more GHG and takes more cars off road compared to Transit City #topoli
  • When did TEA stop being about the environment and start being an NDP front group? Was it always?
  •  #justthefacts 94% of Jarvis commuters use cars not bikes. Commute times for cars have increased; 33% Gridlock costs T.O. $billions each year

It’s hard to know where to start. There are so many distortions, cherry picking of facts and misuse of statistics at work here that it reads like a lesson plan on How to Win an Unwinnable Argument. Mr. Towhey obviously isn’t interested in having a debate but, instead, wants to print off bumper sticker slogans.

The Pembina Institute report he makes reference to does indeed suggest that the mayor’s transit ‘plan’ would take more cars off the road and reduce more greenhouse gas emissions than Transit City. That is, once the Sheppard subway is built. You know, the mystical, magical subway that the mayor believes will appear if he claps hard enough. Otherwise, the plan such as it is now is simply Transit City with more of the Eglinton LRT buried underground minus the Sheppard and Finch LRTs which, according to the Pembina Institute will take fewer cars off the road and won’t reduce more greenhouse gas emissions than Transit City (not to mention serve less riders.)

Towhey also attempts to conflate the very real problem of congestion in the GTA with the bike lines on Jarvis. He does this by taking reports that traffic times along Jarvis Street during peak rush times have risen by 1 or 2 minutes since the bike lanes were installed and blowing them up to eye-popping but meaningless numbers. 33%! 130%!! The power of Big Numbers and False Analogies. Congestion is costing us money. Jarvis bike lanes are causing congestion. Therefore, bike lanes equal money lost.

He does all this with such condescending assuredness (“Wrong, actually.” “Actually, wrong.”), utilizing dismissive Twitter hashtags like #justthefacts, #wrongwayonJarvis and #neverwasaplan that any reasonable person would conclude that he couldn’t possibly be bullshitting. Only someone absolutely certain would state things so emphatically. But remember what the master of modern propaganda told us. It would never come into their heads [the people] to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously.

For the Twitter uninitiated, you might be thinking that serious debate cannot occur in 140 characters. That’s true, but imagine Twitter as a delivery system for abstracts. Here’s a thought. Here’s a link. Let’s have a discussion.

Note how in none of Towhey’s tweets does he link to any of the data he’s citing. It’s all about flooding the social media with empty talking points that supporters can run with. Unlike someone like, say, Matt Elliott at Ford For Toronto. He tweets and links to reports and articles that explore issues fully, thereby making a deeper discussion possible. Read through just a couple of his takes on the Jarvis bike lane issues (here and here) and then let the debate begin.

But that’s the nub of the matter. Right wingers don’t won’t a serious debate. Why? My instinct tells me that, again citing Stephen Colbert, ‘reality has a liberal bias’. They can’t win on facts and figures. Their politics are based purely on ideology not reason or logic. So they must do what they do best. Fudge facts. Disfigure figures. Misstate. Misrepresent. Dissemble. Prevaricate.

So we charge into next weeks’ city council debate on the fate of the Jarvis Street bikelanes. An item that arose in stealth near the end of the last Public Works and Infrastructure Committee meeting when another lackey of the mayor’s, Councillor John Parker, sandbagged his colleague, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam whose ward the bike lanes are in, with the removal motion after the deputations about the wider bike plan had finished. No debate. No discussion. No transparency.

Mayor Ford said on the campaign trail last year, “It would be a waste of money to remove it if it’s already there, that is unless there was a huge public outcry in the area.” So, where’s the ‘huge public outcry’? Funny you should ask. Just this week the mayor stated that 70% of the phone calls he’s received have been in favour of removing the bike lanes. But as HiMY SYeD tweeted today, when he called to register his pro-bike lane view a staffer for the mayor informed him they weren’t keeping track of who called or their position on the matter. Where’s the mayor’s information coming from then?

Bringing us back full circle here. How do fight a phantom? If the old saying is true that ‘a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes’ (and that was pre-internet), how do we rein it back in? Do we start hitting back below the belt, fight fire with fire, and heap on layers and layers of bullshit? It seems counter-productive and, more disheartening, takes us further and further from the truth.

After all, that is what we’re trying to achieve, isn’t it. Arriving at the truth. At least, that’s what I was raised to believe.

reasonably submitted by Cityslikr

The People’s Mayor

Having rid beleaguered Torontonians of the scourge of a vehicle registration tax and the Cecil B. DeMille excessiveness of councillors’ office budgets, Mayor Rob Ford has now set his sights on the 5¢ plastic bag fee. Why? Because over the holidays, the mayor talked to a lot of people who didn’t like it. No matter that all indications point to such levies reducing the demand for plastic bags and therefore doing their part, however humbly, in reducing our contribution to landfills. No matter that it’s just 5 fucking cents we’re talking about here. The mayor’s spoke to a lot of people. The people don’t like it. So it’s gone.

I wish, I really wish, I could share the magnanimity toward Mayor Ford that Eye Weekly’s Edward Keenan exhibits. Mr. Keenan wonders if our mayor isn’t more of a populist, just giving the people what the want, than he is a right wing, anti-government ideologue. The mayor as a mere conduit through which the peoples’ will is done.

Certainly, the mayor’s been talking up doing the people’s will with almost every pronouncement that he’s made lately. Why just yesterday in response to a study suggesting that his move to scrap Transit City made little sense, either fiscally or any other way, Mayor Ford stated, “It’s very simple. I campaigned on subways, I was elected as you know by a large mandate…People supported my subway plan and that’s what we’re going to go ahead with.”

Yet he seems much more flexible in regards to his ‘large mandate’ when it comes to property tax increases. That should be very simple as well. The mayor campaigned on a platform of keeping any property tax increase in line with the rate of inflation, I believe, poo-pooing his opponents’ call for a 0% property tax increase as being fiscally irresponsible. But now, well, the people “…just need some breathing space.”

The fact is, Rob Ford’s ‘large mandate’ was predicated on nothing more than restoring fiscal sanity to City Hall. He was given a ‘large mandate’ to put an end to wasteful spending. 47% of Toronto voters elected Rob Ford mayor on his pledge to (say it along with me) Stop The Gravy Train.

But as the budget process looms, nothing he’s done would suggest that he feels the least bit bound to doing the people’s will. Killing Transit City and replacing it with his subway scheme will be, he claims, revenue neutral but service far fewer people. That’s before any financial penalties manifest themselves for broken contracts and agreements now in place. Can you say, ‘wasteful spending’? His symbolic gesture of slashing office budgets amounts to a tiny, tiny fraction of the revenue lost by abolishing the VRT. Add to this the $55 million lost by not raising property taxes, and the mayor has dug himself a serious money pit that needs to be filled. Let’s not even bring up the subject of the 100 extra police officers the mayor promised.

None of which smacks of fiscal sanity. We certainly know cutting any services that the city provided was not part of his ‘large mandate’. Guaranteed. The mayor can hardly go to that well, claiming that’s why the people voted for him.

So what’s a populist mayor to do when the peoples’ will he is so steadfastly determined to carry out works at such cross-purposes? Hopefully all those people he spends so much time talking to can provide him with the answer. Otherwise, he just may have to make some difficult choices on his own, consequences be damned. The mayor might have to actually lead. And what kind of populist would he be if he had to do that.

curiously submitted by Cityslikr