The Explanation Gap

June 3, 2016

In amidst the most recent twist of the stomach turning, head spinning, logic defying debate over of the one-stop express (thank you David Rider for that) Scarborough subway extension headspinning– Chapter It’s Time To Talk About Expropriations – I was struck by how one local resident reacted. Scott Cole, who received a letter last week from the TTC telling him that his property could be subject to expropriation by the city if a proposed alignment of the extension ended up running along nearby McCowan Road, was, how would I put it, none too pleased. “I’m not going, they’re going to kill me to take me out of here,” Mr. Cole told the Toronto Star. A firm, first play negotiating stance, aggressive, leaving plenty of walk-back space.

But that wasn’t what really caught my attention.

“In my opinion, they’re just going to sell all of this to big developers and make tens of millions of dollars,” Mr. Cole stated.

Huh. Wow.

Of all the dark, dank angles and levels of subterfuge in this fetid debate over the Scarborough subway, this was one I hadn’t ever contemplated. moneymoneymoneyOf course, with any big infrastructure project, the possibility of somebody being involved purely for the money makes sense. But as the prime motivator at the heart of it all? That takes some genuine cynicism to get there, even if it is your house sitting under the shadow of expropriation.

That’s just how some people roll, I guess. Easy answers to complicated matters. It spares the brain from doing much heavy lifting.

I will, in this case, cut Mr. Cole some slack, however, and not simply because he’s looking down the barrel of being ousted from his home, even at fair market value. In a debate that often transgresses the boundaries of reason and common sense, there’s lots of room for detecting sinister specters. When a supposedly cash-strapped city is determined to spend a couple billion dollars on a one-stop express (thanks again, David) subway station that will move only 7300 riders during the peak morning rush hour, any grasping at straws for the reasons why shouldn’t be considered too outrageous.

Mr. Cole isn’t alone in expressing his dim views of transit building in Toronto.

Nick Kouvalis, the man who helped elect the last two mayors of this city and, I don’t think gets enough credit for his integral role in debasing the debate about public transit here over the last 5 years, jfkdonaldsutherlandtweeted out similarly baleful thoughts about another subway project when its proposed alignment went public this week. “Investigate this DRL [downtown relief line] route & land holdings of TTC Pension Fund & understand real politics.” That’s Oliver Stone level stuff, right there. Follow the money. Always follow the money.

In under 140 characters, Mr. Kouvalis manages to impugn the character and motivation of city staff and everyone else involved in pushing forward a subway project that has been on the demand table for decades now. Relief line? Relieving all of us of our hard earned tax dollars for no discernible return, amirite? That’s the kind of besmirching that earns Nick Kouvalis the big bucks and makes Scott Cole look like a rank amateur in comparison.

While I can’t figure out Kouvalis’ motives for weighing in on this subject at this time and in that manner, aside from perhaps just some simple union bashing, it reveals what I’ll call an explanation gap. With pro-Scarborough subway proponents desperately scrambling to justify the clearly unjustifiable building of their pet project, throwing out rationale after rationale, none of which hold up to much scrutiny but, stitched together with a thread of divisively parochial city building to create a loose-fitting blanket of… spidersinthebrainbecause, that’s why, there’s plenty of room left over to be filled with equally questionable ruminations. Defending politically based decisions leaves too much to the public imagination, too much space between the lines to read into.

That is where, there, be dragons.

And it just takes the one, in this case, it’s a big, $2 billion one, to throw into question the whole process. If the Scarborough subway is about nothing more than political theatre trumping good planning practices, why not the relief line too? What’s up with that? Who stands to profit?

It’s a contagion of suspicion that can cast a pall over every proposed transit project. Such a degree of mistrust will lead ultimately to a system wide paralysis. A situation, one might argue, we’ve been enduring and are currently suffering the ill-effects of. If the Scarborough subway is being used as a politically expedient route to pop open the spigot of public willingness to accept the cost of more transit building (and I’m being very generous in that interpretation), then do us all a favour and couch it in those terms.

Sure, that might lead to a whole bunch of Me-Tooisms, copycat demands for nothing but subways which, whispersas irony dictates in these cases, is one of the basis for building this subway. In the end, though, it’s probably preferable to the damaged credibility to actual, fact-based transit projects and the undercutting of legitimacy for the entire decision-making process that comes from pretending the Scarborough subway is anything but a political machination.

Don’t leave an explanation gap for people to fill because fill it they will. Once that happens, a competing narrative, regardless of how iffy and baseless, can take on an oversized life of its own. That, in fact, is how we ended up with this kind of debate on the Scarborough subway.

explicably submitted by Cityslikr


A Sad Symmetry

June 1, 2016

I pretty much had the story already written in my head as I was making my way out to the state of T.O. transit planning public meeting at the Scarborough Civic Centre last night. symmetryIt would be full of beautiful symmetry with a healthy dollop of delicious irony. The last time I had made the trek for the same purpose, back in 2012, just after then mayor Rob Ford had lost control of the transit file, the gathering descended into a verbal melee with then TTC chair Karen Stintz the brunt of much yelling and abuse. Gordon Chong, one of the evening’s panelists, asked her (very rhetorically) if she was ‘thick’. A woman near where I was sitting, outside of the council chambers, just kept yelling, “Where is your plan, Karen? Where is your plan?!”

Oh, Councillor Stintz had a plan alright. It just didn’t pan out very well. For anyone concerned.

With the news coming out a couple days ago, just ahead of last night’s meeting, of possible home and property expropriations as part of the emerging preferred staff route for the one-stop Scarborough subway along McCowan Road, I thought, this’ll be perfect. disbandedtheptaSame place, same subject, 4 years later. Only this time around, the crowd will be screaming against subways! Just like a Simpson’s episode.

Alas, reality does not always break like you hope it would. Probably a good thing, in the end. The reality in my head sometimes even scares me.

While last night’s meeting had feisty spikes from the packed crowd, it felt more discouraged and disgruntled than angry. In no way could I describe the vibe as anti-subway. There were just problems with this proposed subway alignment. Why just one stop now? Why not 2? There seemed to be significant support for keeping a Lawrence stop. Or converting the whole thing to an articulated electric bus network since projected ridership for the subway proposal seems to diminish with each iteration.

It would be easy to just throw up your hands and shake your head, writing off such mob mentality. The issue of expropriation only really flared up after the formal staff presentation and questions from the audience when a man start shouting at Councillor Paul Ainslie, demanding to know if he’s ever had his property expropriated. rageYeah, that Councillor Ainslie. The only Scarborough councillor to hold steady against the building of a subway.

The man should’ve been shouting at another Scarborough councillor, Glenn De Baeremaeker, who was holding court just a few feet away, brushing aside questions of the low projected ridership for his pet project with a glib list of subway stops with even lower ridership numbers. Should we close them too? Why do ridership numbers only matter in Scarborough? It’s only fair. North York has X number of subway stops. Scarborough deserves more to even out the score.

We are currently experiencing a catastrophic failure of political leadership with the transit failure. It didn’t start with Rob Ford, or did it end with him. Glenn De Baeremaeker has become an abhorrent local representative with his subway mania. Karen Stintz gambled a mayoral run on championing a Scarborough subway instead of a sensible transit plan. The current mayor, John Tory, tossed in his own little bit of nonsense, SmartTrack, which, as staff admitted last night, shadowpuppetsis pushing the proposed subway alignment further east than it probably should be, possibly contributing to deflated ridership numbers and bringing up the spectre of expropriations.

And the provincial Liberal government, supposedly the adults in the room, have only helped fan the flames of divisiveness, resentment and bad transit planning. Many of their Scarborough MPPs were former city councillors, and they have drawn a line in the sand. Give them a subway or give them death! Mitzi Hunter was elected to Queen’s Park, touting her credentials as the Subway Champion.

The problem is, the numbers don’t support a subway. They never have. The Scarborough subway is purely political. It’s proven to be great policy for getting elected but a terrible one for getting people around.

None of this is news or any sort of revelation. The public hunger for a subway and their anger directed at any public official who seemed to be standing in the way of it was understandable when the debate was still theoretical. notthisagainSubway versus LRT. But as the studies progress and the numbers continue to roll in showing just how bad an idea building the Scarborough subway extension really is, anger turns to frustration and dismay. Why is this taking so long? Just build something already. Wait, not there. That doesn’t make any sense.

That’s a different kind of symmetry than I originally envisioned. It does, however, follow its own logical arc. Hope becoming cynicism with the eventual realization that politicians are pursuing policies that benefit their own self-interests not those of the wider public.

similarly submitted by Cityslikr