An Unfortunate Interlude

March 14, 2016

Look.interlude

I know I said I wasn’t going to write about politics in Toronto while living down here in Los Angeles in my self-imposed exile. And I know what I’m about to write has already been written about by others, more than just a few others, so I’m just echoing in the echo chamber. But I feel this is something that needs to be said, said often and said by many.

SmartTrack and John Tory.

SmartTrack was always bullshit, right from the very start. It was never a transit plan. It was an election strategy, to elect a candidate who was unprepared to stand up to the ridiculous politicization of transit planning that had overcome the city during the Ford years. SmartTrack was simply just another sharpie line drawn on a magic marker map of vote-getting transit… no, not ideas, that gives them far too much credibility. Schemes. Plots. crayondrawingFlights of pure political calculation.

One penny spent on studying the feasibility of SmartTrack was a penny too many, and Toronto has spent hundreds of millions of pennies already studying SmartTrack. Each new report reveals it to be the sham that it is, shrivelling its desiccated frame even further, to mere whiffs of its former self, fragments, shards. The once vaunted heavy rail Western spur, gone. The 22 new stations now down to 9, then 5, maybe 4.

SmartTrack as a figment of a campaign team’s lack of imagination. We need to do the exact same thing as the other guy except different. Be Bold. Assail your critics. We can fix it later, patch it together in editing.

Now as mayor, with his signature transit platform being picked clean, John Tory wants us to credit him for listening to the experts, gleaning the facts and figures and being willing to change plans, adapt and accommodate, reach a consensus. (Something his immediate predecessor was never able to bring himself to do, Mayor Tory reminds us.) I say, fuck that. cuttothebone1None of these ‘new’ facts or figures now emerging from staff reports are in any way new or unforeseen. SmartTrack’s non-workable components were obvious from the get-go, the timeline dubious, the scope and cost highly suspect. As a candidate, John Tory swatted away these criticisms as little more than a symptom of our culture of ‘No’, a timidity, a lack of Vision.

So, give him no credit for changing his tune. It is nothing more than a cynical ploy, another cynical ploy to add to the mountains of cynical ploys that have plagued transit planning in Toronto for decades now. This is not an example of being reasonable or adaptable. The mayor continues to blow smoke up our asses and wants us to thank him for some sort of colonic treatment.

Besides, SmartTrack is far from being dead and buried, a painful relic. Professor Eric Miller, a SmartTrack champion from the outset, grading it an A+ during the 2014 mayoral campaign and, as director of the University of Toronto’s Transportation Research Institute, hired by the city to assess its feasibility, isn’t backing down on his bold claims. wishfulthinking“The Stouffville (GO) line [the eastern leg on the SmartTrack map] has the potential to become the Yonge St. [subway line] of Scarborough — a strong, north-south spine upon which one can then hang effective east-west lines,” Professor Miller told Tess Kalinowski of the Toronto Star.

That statement comes with plenty of qualifiers. “If it’s operating in a competitive way…”, Miller believes SmartTrack can be as important a component to redefining public transit in Toronto as the long vaunted relief line. If it’s run at subway-like frequency. If there’s rail capacity to do so and capacity at Union Station to handle such an increase. If there’s proper integration with GO fares and SmartTrack service is delivered at a TTC price.

That’s a lot of ifs that have plagued SmartTrack from the very beginning, and have yet, nearly two years on, to be satisfactorily answered. fingerscrossedAs Stefan Novakovic pointed out in Urban Toronto, the continued studying of SmartTrack’s viability may well be negatively affecting actual, honest to god, necessary transit plans like the relief line. Instead of running that line down along the King Street corridor where ridership numbers warrant, plans are brewing to put it under Queen Street instead, in order to avoid overlap with the possible southern swing of SmartTrack if that were to happen which remains in the highly doubtful category. Is SmartTrack stunting the relief line even further, as Steve Munro suggests, by threatening an over-build of rapid transit in Scarborough, with its eastern leg competing with the proposed Scarborough subway extension, combining to squeeze out a more sensible northeast passage of the relief line?

Just more questions to add to the many existing questions that continue to point to SmartTrack as an obstacle to Toronto’s public transit future rather than contributing any sort of positive solution.

So yeah, unless Mayor Tory steps up and admits that his SmartTrack is a terrible idea, was always a terrible idea, and the only reason for its existence was to get him elected mayor of Toronto, he deserves zero credit for his willingness to change course now. californiasunshine3Any iteration of SmartTrack will be a setback for transit building in this city, and if the Toronto Star’s Royson James is right, and what we have on the table now is as good as it’s going to get, then John Tory will have succeeded only in cementing the politicization of transit planning for decades to come, generations even. The mayor deserves no reward for that.

And now, back to our regular scheduled, southern California programming.

re-calmly submitted by Cityslikr


Pacific Standard Time

January 27, 2016

So here’s how it happened.

I was at my doctor’s, checking in for my annual checking up. To see what condition my condition was in. (I am of that age, yes.) sayahhEverything but my attitude came out just fine.

“You have the heart of a 57 year-old man,” my MD informed me.

“But I’m only 54.”

“A very healthy 57 year-old man,” the doc said, as if somehow… Never mind. That’s beside the point of this particular story.

Like I said, I was not feeling particularly ebullient at this juncture. It could be just a case of the post-holiday, January blues, my doctor suggested. “SAD, maybe.” He told me to seek out some light, shine it on the darkness.

“The days are getting longer.”

While I felt comfortable leaving my physical health in this man’s hands, I was less inclined to adhere to his mental health diagnosis. I knew the January blahs. feelingblueI’d never been prone to the deeper seasonal affective disorder, and wasn’t entirely sure why I might be now.

No. This was different. I didn’t feel sad or depressed or down in the dumps. I was just angry. Anger mixed with an occasional dose of despair. Angrair. Despry.

“What on earth do you have to be angry about?” my doctor asked me. “You’re a healthy, middle-aged man with no family history of prostate cancer. You know how many people would be ecstatic about that prognosis? Get your angry ass out of my office.” A little too dismissive, I thought as I headed down the hallway toward the receptionist’s desk to make an appointment for my next physical a year from now. But not entirely without merit.

I have very little to be angry about, let alone despair. Aside from all that creeping mortality business that begins to make a serious appearance when your life’s well more than half over. I know, I know. 55 is the new 25 and all that. That’s what the kid’s are saying these days, isn’t it?

Still. You do reach an age when you always think before getting down to shovel the snow from the walk, angryWill this be my last shovel of snow? Dying with your winter boots on.

That said, in my medical opinion, this wasn’t really about my impending death. It had more to do, in my humble opinion, with what I was doing with my dwindling time here on earth. Pounding your head ceaselessly against a wall doesn’t feel like a productive use of your time. I’m not sure it ever did. It’s just started to feel especially useless at this point in my life.

And let’s face, that’s what I’ve been doing, have been doing for at least a year now here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke. When the Ford’s were defeated back in October 2014, I imagined myself stepping back from the fray, the political side of things, to concentrate on the stuff that really interested me. The nuts and bolts of building a better, fairer, more sustainable city. Lots of the nerdy, geeky stuff I didn’t know enough about but wanted to learn in more detail.

Obviously, that’s not what happened. While I never entertained the highest of hopes in John Tory, I never thought he’d flounder as much as he has. angry1Competent if not inspirational or reform-minded, I’d hoped, for no other reason than hoping for less would be too soul crushing to imagine.

Maybe he has turned a corner with his recent conversion on the public transit file. Maybe not. Maybe competency is possible! I don’t know and, frankly, it just makes me angry and despairing more than a little that that’s the straw I’m left clutching at. Maybe our mayor may just be less worse than he was shaping up to be.

Huzzah and hurrah!

Angrair. Despry.

Which brings me to the point of all of this, if you’re still following along.beverlyhillbillies

LA, CA. Los Angeles, California. Swimming pools and movie stars. That’s the place I ought to be.

Until April, at any rate. Until the snow begins to retreat. Until it’s baseball season again

It’s an enforced step back that I could not execute under close proximity. A little breathing space. Some distance.

Now, there’s a little history between Los Angeles and me. This ain’t my first… a-hem, a-hem… Rodeo… Drive. LA and I go back some.

Back to the early-90s, when I had dreams of being a big time sitcom writer. (Don’t believe everything you read in the About section of any blog. Hell, you might not want to believe anything I’m writing right now.) laxI had my Home Improvement and Murphy Brown spec scripts tucked under my arm, and made my way south and westward to find the kind of fame and fortune that is so lavishly heaped upon screenwriters. Swimming pools, movie stars.

The early-90s turned out to be an interesting time to live in Los Angeles. Fires, floods, riots, lurid celebrity murders, surreal police car chases and trials, earthquakes. Did I miss anything? A “string of disruptions and upheavals, both natural and civil,” as David L. Ulin, who moved to LA from the east about the same time as I had, describes it in his recent book, Sidewalking.

With my career plans not panning out like I’d hoped and the city I was pursuing them in feeling more and more like Old Testament times, I decided to cut and run back home to Toronto, never to return but twice. sidewalkingIn 1995 to pitch a sitcom pilot to the Seinfeld production company, Castle Rock, the closest I would come to a full on sitcom career, and not again for nearly 20 years, a couple years back, on nothing more than an extended long weekend visit.

A funny thing happened in those ensuing two decades. I had begun writing about city and urban issues, albeit one city in particular but not without some wider overlap, and Los Angeles, for its part, had started taking on some of those same urban issues. When I left the city in the fall of 1994, there was one light rail line and a 5 station stubway, largely serving downtown LA. Outside of that, it was buses operated by a litany of municipalities that make up Los Angeles County. It was generally acknowledged that to live in LA, you drove in LA.

Today, the city has two subway lines, consisting of 22 stations and 4 light rail lines serving nearly 70 stations with further expansion right around the corner. It’s pushing dedicated bus lanes in other under-served areas. In the kingdom of the private automobile, the last two mayors of Los Angeles have seemed serious about pursuing mobility alternatives to the car.

During that same time span, Toronto has what? Built a stubway of its own after having buried a previous project already underway. Converted a couple streetcar lines into their own ROWs without any other sort of traffic priority. californiadreamingThere’s another subway extension in progress and only a couple years from completion. The Eglinton Crosstown LRT is still 4 years away.

And plans for more. Plans, lots of plans. Always with the plans.

You see what I’m talking about here?

We need a little break, me and Toronto. A trial separation. If you can’t say anything good, then maybe don’t say anything at all. Shut it down and open up space for other, more constructive, voices to speak up and be heard.

Settle in for a spell, down here in Southern California. Take in how another city is attempting to deal with the 21st-century. Don’t get caught up in the politics of it all. Just observe and report. californiadreaming1What’s working. What’s not. Why and why not.

Maybe try to learn a thing or two instead of driving myself and everyone else crazy with the know-it-all pose. Stop being so angry and try to embrace the whole mellow thing. At least for a couple months. A little change of perspective might go a long way to brightening my outlook when I get back home.

dreamingly submitted by Cityslikr


This Is Not A New Message

December 4, 2015

Just in case you were wondering, I am indeed acutely aware of my increasingly out there position on the Mayor Tory crank scale. Where others detect glimpses of positive in his governance approach, I see lapses of courage and conviction. Well, at least it’s something leadership now passes for a welcome breath of fresh air. It Could Be Worse, Our Strength.

But honestly, I look at this…

johntoryvision

… and think, Are you fucking kidding me?

That picture and headline (taken from a news article) strikes me as more depressing and discouraging than anything I saw during the Ford administration. Yeah, seriously. You could take comfort, albeit a cold kind, during the Ford years, warmed by the knowledge that the darks days couldn’t last. Wobbly almost from the outset through the weight of sheer incompetence and personal demons, it had to eventually, and fairly quickly as it turned out, come crashing down. Shocking for sure but kind of like an unsuccessful siege. Damage inflicted but the fundamentals left intact, relatively sound.bloodied

Perhaps the worst outcome of the Ford mayoralty is that now, a full year out from its official end, we as a city reward any politics that aren’t crack and booze fueled. We grant anything as ‘vision’ that isn’t… a-hem, a-hem… blurred. Doing the right thing means not doing the wrong thing.

Mayor Tory’s proposed .5% Capital Building Fund levy is the wrong thing going generally in the right direction. But times being what they are here in Toronto, the Ford spectre still looming large, we call such an announcement visionary. ‘Modest’. ‘Sensible’. ‘Workable’. ‘Unsexy’. Even, incredibly, ‘a new vision’.

After writing about this yesterday, I sat down and re-watched City Manager Peter Wallace’s budget pre-presentation, let’s call it, to Executive Committee this week. I urge everyone to take 30 minutes or so and give it a look. It’s clear, easy to follow and very direct about what we have to do (and what won’t really work) in order to develop a sustainable fiscal plan (especially on the capital side of the ledger) going forward.

I want to focus on this one slide. (Lifted right from Steve Munro as I’m too much of a technical knucklehead to figure out how to convert a PDF to JPEG. Thanks, Steve!)

stateofcityfinanceschart

While it is true that, since 2000, Toronto’s property tax rate increases have been kept to below the rate of inflation, all property taxes have not been treated equally. In order to bring certain business and ‘non-residential’ property taxes (including some very residential apartment buildings) more in line with other GTA municipalities, in the spirit of competitiveness, the Miller administration set in motion a re-jigging of the ratio between residential and non-residential rates. wonkyIt’s a process that’s still going on but, in effect, it’s meant that any property tax increase over the last decade or so has been felt more heavily on the residential side.

Now, while I still believe that for the services we receive and demand from the city, Toronto homeowners are getting a pretty sweet deal on their property taxes, the dynamic as shown in the above slide from the city manager provides a picture of why they may be feeling a little squeezed. Since about 2005, residential property tax rate have gone up above the rate of inflation. In a surprising bit of information, and running contrary to the Ford narrative of respecting the taxpayers, the city manager pointed out that over the past 4 years, residential property tax hikes have gone up at an increasing rate!

So, homeowners, those vaunted hardworking tax payers, have not been wrong in feeling that they’ve been squeezed, certainly in terms of their property taxes.

Listening to this, reading through the prepared documents, what is Mayor Tory’s response? To increase property tax rates by an additional .5% above whatever annual bump will happen. fingerscrossedbehindbackHe and his supporters can call it a levy. They can try to pretend it’s something it isn’t. But it’s a property tax increase.

I don’t think it’s accidental that throughout the Executive Committee presentation, the city manager continued to point in the direction of the Land Transfer Tax. He called it a lifesaver, and that without it, the city would’ve been forced to face the financial wringer sooner. Lookit it, people. Lookit this source of revenue. Controversial? For some. Sustainable? Probably not, and certainly not at the level it’s been at during our housing market boom. But lookit it. You see what the city manager sees? It’s not the property tax.

This is why Mayor Tory should not be applauded for his announcement. An additional property tax isn’t in any way, shape or form ‘a new vision’. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Even Rob Ford was in favour of increasing the property tax to help fund his Scarborough subway vision.

Mayor Tory was presented with an opportunity for a wider conversation about revenue tools and he chose to ignore it. charliebrownInstead, he simply continued to pile on the property tax base, and at a rate that, in the end, won’t even make much of a dent in the capital state of good repair backlog let alone build anything much new. And if one nickel comes out of this fund for SmartTrack… ?

When we come up short again — and the proposed implementation date of this Tory tax in 2017 means we’re already short in 2016 – and another round of discussions about revenue tools raises its head, people will be indignant. We are being nickel and dimed to death! What about that .5% levy, they’ll ask. Where did all that money go?

At best, this should be seen as a sideways move, a side-step, another dodge by a politician unwilling to face up to reality. Yet, for Mayor Tory, it’s like he’s invented the wheel. It’s not much (modest) but it’s better than nothing (workable). This is exactly what exceeding exceedingly low expectations looks like.

crankily submitted by Cityslikr

 


Half Measures

December 3, 2015

Earlier this week, I wrote a little something something about the “incrementalism” of Mayor Tory, as mostly supporters of his might call it. babysteps“Small, tangible actions that add up over time to real progress,” according to Siri Agrell, director of strategic initiatives in the mayor’s office.

Yesterday, in his State of the City speech at the Economic Club of Canada, Mayor Tory unleashed some of that incrementalling with a surprise announcement of a .5% Capital Building Fund levy to be added to our municipal tax bills beginning in 2017. Additional money that will be dedicated to alleviating some of our much needed capital infrastructure in transit and housing. Capital investment, currently unfunded to the tune of $20 billion or so, portrayed as a menacing iceberg in City Manager Peter Wallace’s powerful presentation to the Executive Committee on Tuesday.

Woah!

Could it be, might it be this mayor finally gets it? The news from the new city manager that the city is, in fact, revenue starved got through his low-tax mantra haze? capitalicebergFrequent critics of the mayor, Metro’s Matt Elliott and the Toronto Star’s Edward Keenan, folks I rarely have policy issue beefs with, were more than cautiously optimistic about Mayor Tory’s seeming about-face. A new era of forward-thinking might just have been ushered in at City Hall.

I don’t know, though. Call me skeptical.

Incrementalism or a half measure?

In presenting staff’s 2016 budget, the city manager forcefully opened the door to a much needed, larger discussion about how Toronto funds the kind of city it wants. Let’s talk first about the things we want to do, want to build and then proceed to the way we plan on paying for it. For too long, it’s been done the other way around. Here’s what we’re going to spend and here’s what we’re going to spend it on. (Steve Munro does a much more thorough job explaining the process than I could.) emptypocketsMoney for our civic aspirations has remained in short supply.

To my mind, rather than seizing the opportunity presented to him to lead that vital conversation, Mayor Tory’s sudden jerk in the right direction, nipped it in the bud. See? I listen. I respond. I am doing something.

But just how much exactly is he doing by floating this .5% capital building fund levy? Concluding a lengthy Twitter essay (yes, such a thing does exist), Councillor Gord Perks suggested that at its height in 2022, after a 5 year roll out, the levy will bring in about $65 million a year. “The $65 miillion tax increase proposed by @JohnTory will only cover 1/20th or 5% of our unfunded capital.”

Is that somehow supposed to show the other levels of government that the city has finally put on its adult breeches and is prepared to pony up and pay its way? Here’s a nickel on the dollar. We’re good?

Underwhelming, I’d call it. Mostly for show. It’s hard to imagine it really addressing the city manager’s call for a serious discussion.

While applauding the mayor for proposing the levy, Sheila Bock of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives urged council to think bigger, revisit the revenue toolbox it has at its disposal. comingupshort“These untapped powers provide the city with a menu of options that could raise more than $400 million annually,” she wrote. Remember that Vehicle Registration Tax that got repealed a few years back? Generated about roughly the same annual amount as the mayor’s levy will in 2022.

Too rich for Mayor Tory’s taste, it seems. Little steps instead. Walk before running. “Small, tangible actions,” like his director of strategic initiatives might call them.

Or, as some of us less persuaded might see it, blunting any chance at forward progress or real change. The fact that the mayor vigorously denied the levy was actually a property tax increase in order to keep his campaign pledge of maintaining property taxes at or below the rate of inflation suggests that he’s not really prepared to take on the hobgoblin of misguided, small-minded Fordian penny-pinching ways at city council. babyfalldownHis initial attempt at implying his levy was simply replacing the Scarborough subway tax that was set to end in 2017 (spoiler alert: It isn’t) also doesn’t augur well for the strength of his convictions on revenue generation.

So yeah, I continue to see the glass half empty in terms of Mayor Tory’s motives with this move, half empty like the gesture it is, a mere token. Should he be applauded for giving the impression of being almost, kinda decisive? I don’t know. It’s been pretty much his approach to governance since day 1. Nothing about this strikes me as new or encouraging. A small step when what’s required is a big, bold leap.

unconvincedly submitted by Cityslikr


Leaving Town To Sell SmartTrack At Home

October 23, 2015

We hear it regularly from our mayor that, as CEO of the corporation of Toronto, one important aspect of his job is to be the city’s ‘chief salesman’. salesmanPitch it. Sell it. Tell the world this is a great place to live, work, a prime location to set up a business in.

Thump the Toronto tub. Cheerlead. Boost civically.

Nothing wrong with that. In the urban age we live, it can’t hurt to have someone out there, trying to get a place noticed although I am more a proponent of actions speaking louder than words. Build a livable city and they will come which, of course, is much easier said than done.

But have at it. Go forth, Mr. Mayor, nationally, internationally, sell the product that is Toronto. Hey, world! We are open for business.

It’s tough, though, on his current trip to London, England, to figure out what aspect of this city Mayor Tory’s trying to sell. Most of his second day over there was spent comparing his barely embryonic SmartTrack transit plan to that city’s Crossrail project, well underway and under the streets of London. boosterismMaybe this isn’t a sales trip so much as a journey of discovery?

Or perhaps, and much more cynically, this official excursion is about selling SmartTrack to its critics back in Toronto. Photo ops with Mayor Tory swooning over transit maps and tunnels, citing Crossrail as the inspiration for his SmartTrack plan. “Talking to UK Transport Minister Patrick McLoughlin about Crossrail & what we can learn as we build SmartTrack,” tweeted the mayor’s office. If Crossrail exists (and it does, we have pictures to prove it), so does SmartTrack.

The mayor is even receiving some uncharacteristically uncritical boosterism from the Toronto Star whose Jennifer Pagliaro is over there, covering the trip. “Touring the future 118-kilometre rail line in London, Mayor John Tory sees a future he’s been dreaming of for Toronto,” states the article’s sub-headline.

The tour Thursday appears to have renewed Tory’s resolve to make SmartTrack work no matter what. For too long, he said, there has been arguing without end in Toronto, which has struggled to secure the kind of funding it needs from other governments to build bigger and better transit. It’s what Tory calls the “Old Toronto way.”

“Crossrail went through a whole lot of stages where people were doubting it, people wondered if they had the money . . . the private sector participation wasn’t assured and so it had a lot of hiccups along the way but now they’re sitting here saying, ‘Thank god,’“ Tory said. “For me the lesson is also patience.”

Never mind that SmartTrack itself is contributing in a major way to Toronto’s transit argument ‘without end’, as the mayor puts it. An election campaign platform hastily grafted onto an already overdrawn transit wish list map, it has, once more, thrown concrete planning into disarray, nudging other, longer established priorities into limbo. crossrailAs for patience? 22 stations in 7 years, we’re told. The clock is ticking. Tick tock, tick tock.

What inspiration SmartTrack drew from London’s Crossrail is also not immediately obvious to the naked eye. Both could be classified as using surface rail — although the mayor liked to refer to SmartTrack as surface subway until some people frowned on that usage. How about regional rail ‘urban service’? While we saw lots of pictures of Mayor Tory touring tunnels yesterday, as Steve Munro pointed out, at the beginning, there was no talk of SmartTrack tunneling. In fact, that was the exact up sell selling point about it. Using existing infrastructure to speed up the delivery and reduce the cost of a new transit service.

SmartTrack is nothing like Crossrail, and not just because the latter exists while the former doesn’t aside from the stubborn figment of one man’s election campaign promise. crossrail1When Crossrail opens in 2018, it will be after a 40+ year, up and down, back and forth stretch of time that wound up incorporating both private and public funding, and will serve as a long sought after link in what is already a very extensive transit network. Compared to it, SmartTrack is an unwelcome interloper that will do little to alleviate Toronto’s transit backlog and bursting at the seams system.

If Mayor Tory was truly taking in the lessons of Crossrail on his trip to London, he’d come home convinced that his SmartTrack dream is not only wholly inadequate but equally as implausible. Good public transit planning is a tough slog. You can’t just summon it out of thin air during a night of election strategizing. It isn’t cheap and someone else isn’t going to pay for it. smarttrackAn overseas PR exercise won’t magically bring it into existence.

Like I said, I’ve got no problems with our mayor and other elected officials hitting the road to sell the Toronto brand. I’m less sanguine about a trip abroad used, at least in part, to convince those of us already living here about the viability of a clearly troubled transit plan. Say what you will about Rob Ford, but it’s hard to imagine him wasting hard-working taxpayers’ money to travel outside the 416 in order to try and persuade people back in Toronto that the People Want Subways. Subway! Subways! Subways!

not buyingly submitted by Cityslikr


The Fault, Dear Brutus

March 9, 2015

Look, I’m not going to shrug off some $400 million cost overruns in a $2.5 billion project. Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of money. moneymoneymoneyMoney, in tight budgetary times like ours, that could be put to better use. Another $400 million and those repairs on the Gardiner Expressway would be done in no time.

Nor am I going to defend the TTC’s oversight. Maybe as an organization they aren’t up to the task of managing major infrastructure builds like a subway. Hell, there are days the TTC doesn’t seem capable of simple route management, so yeah. Questions need to be asked about the role the TTC played.

But I’m not going to sit here and listen to easy solutions offered up about how all this could’ve been avoided, the budget blow throughs, the delayed completion time lines. “An entrenched culture of nonaccountability at city hall,” according to Mayor John Tory. You should’ve used an Alternative Financing and Procurement, Premier Kathleen Wynne said. Ahhh, P3s. Is there no problem they can’t solve?

Perhaps both are right. Each has an element that may’ve factored into the mess. Not only are the cost overruns and delays problematic but timely reporting on them seems to be lacking. Who knew what and when? fingerpointingDid the mayor and TTC chair Josh Colle only find out about them when the public did last week?

And as was pointed out by Trevor Heywood at Metroscapes, there is currently another transit project being done here in the city, the Union-Pearson rail link, using an AFP model with no talk of overruns or delays. Was an AFP contemplated for the Spadina subway extension? If so, why wasn’t it implemented? If not, why not?

Still, I don’t think either of these ideas fully explains what’s happened with the TTC and the Spadina subway extension. Both offer up easy explanations for what is clearly a complicated situation. Digging and building underground always will be fraught with unknowns and unexpected problems. You can work in contingencies (as contingencies are in budgeting big public work projects) but, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are known unknowns and then there are unknown unknowns.

In other words, shit happens, yo.

No, I think there are bigger questions and concerns to address with this, especially as we go forward to build more public transit.wantwhatnow

That this happened should really come as no surprise to anyone. The Spadina subway extension was a political transit decision from the outset. The province wanted it, the city less so. As lore has it, the subway was the price the city had to pay to get Queen’s Park to play ball with other transit projects it deemed more pressing. Without the Spadina subway extension, would there ever have been Transit City?

Certainly Toronto couldn’t have been all that happy about the extension of the extension, up 2 stops past York Univeristy into Vaughan. No question that York was in need of some form of rapid transit (whether or not it should be a subway is a good point of conjecture) but the decision to carry on, north past there wasn’t really in the city’s best interests. Yet, here we are.

If the city was so reluctant for this subway, forget the construction costs, concerns about the operational costs of it were present from the outset, how it was going to have to be subsidized like the Sheppard line, taking money from the rest the system to its detriment, why did it agree to build it? Was the option on the table for the city to step back and say to the province, Have at it? You want it? thanksnothanksYou use your precious AFPs to build it.

So was this miscalculation on the TTC’s part or coercion from the province? Either way, I think it’s safe to say that the political (rather than a transit) oriented nature of the Spadina subway extension created the opportunity for unpleasantly unexpected turn of events. A scenario we should acknowledge as we proceed down the profoundly political path of the Scarborough subway extension.

The larger concern, however, goes to what the mayor called ‘an entrenched culture of nonacountability at city hall.’ While we know who the target was in the mayor’s mind — city staff — I think we should try to cut a wider swath in this. Let’s call it, the nonaccountability of unrealistic expectations. You want a subway? I can get you subway. You want to pay how much for that subway? … Sure, I can get you a subway for that much money. No problem. Sure.

We elect politicians who tell us we can have the infrastructure of our dreams for no money down, no interest ever. The private sector will build it for us. lessonslearnedHave you ever heard of something called Tax Increment Financing? Seriously. It won’t cost you a dime.

The notion we could build a subway, first for $1.5, then $2.5 billion for what became 6 stops, 8.6 kilometres was never going to be a slam dunk. Even if it comes in at $2.9 billion, about $337+ million per kilometre, it wouldn’t be some grotesque outlier in terms of international costs for building subways. For every Barcelona, Helsinki and Sao Paulo, there’s New York’s 2nd Avenue subway or London or Amersterdam.

The Spadina subway extension is not out of whack in an international comparison. While we most certainly should examine ways it could have been completed less expensively, this indignant outburst at the news of cost overruns stems more from our entitled belief that cheaper is better and somebody else should pay for the things we want than it does any systemic failure on the part our public sector to be able to build infrastructure. cheapSure, let’s point out all the examples of cost overruns on projects throughout the city in addition to the Spadina subway extension. Nathan Phillipps Square. Union Station.

But in an environment where the bottom line often means the bottom dollar, the lowest bid, city staff must find themselves in the uncomfortable position of speaking forthright versus being painted as naysayers and no-can-doers. An extreme case would be former TTC CEO, Gary Webster, delivering an opinion on the LRT-subway debate that ran contrary to the administration and finding himself quickly relieved of duty. A politician gets elected telling voters this won’t hurt a bit and then expects city staff to conform to that way of doing things. It’s called a mandate.subwaystop

Maybe the problems start with voters who demand the impossible from politicians and the bureaucracy. If you want a great city, a former mayor once said, you have to pay for it. Seems we’ve chosen to go another route, insisting more on a OK-is-good-enough and can’t-somebody-else-foot-the-bill-for-us trajectory. When reality rears its ugly head, somebody’s got to pay. Again, not us. Somebody else.

money-for-nothingly submitted by Cityslikr


DesulTORY

January 29, 2015

I detest hypotheticals. (Also, I defy you to say that out loud and not almost say ‘testicles’.) But indulge me this, and hypothetical away with me for a moment.

rodserling

Imagine, if you will, a campaign stop during last year’s municipal election. Candidate Olivia Chow is asked how she’s going to pay for some expensive promise she’s just made, what she’s going to cut or how much she’s going to increase taxes in order to balance the city’s operating budget. Ms. Chow responds, Easy. Imma take a line of credit out from the province, use it to plug the gap. Won’t that just cost us more, an incredulous media asks? With interest charges and all that? Putting off dealing with the shortfall for later? Not to worry, the candidate shrugs.hypocrit What’s a couple of dollars for people in the long run?

Imagine, if you will, her opponent, John Tory, his team’s response to that. Just imagine. The shrieks of outraged joy. TAX-AND-SPENDER!! PROFLIGATE NDP CANDIDATE!!

Just like we heard back last year when Chow proposed increasing buses and bus service. How much will that cost, Olivia? Where you going to get the money, Olivia? If only she had come up with the bright idea of borrowing money from Queen’s Park. Like Mayor John Tory is now to help paper over his increases in spending on things like – I know, right? – increased bus service.

The depths of hypocrisy to which his administration has dug itself into in just 60 days in office is spectacularly audacious. I can’t come close to summoning up the appropriate broadside Christopher Byrd did a couple days ago at the Torontoist. It boils the blood.

John Tory was supposed to be a sober fiscal steward. The municipal budget represented his first real opportunity to make a tough decision, take a tough fiscal stand. He could have decided that City services aren’t worth paying money for; we might sharply disagree with that, but cutting services is at least an honest choice. He could have decided that we all need to pony up for the services we want the City to have. Both of these options would have been unpopular with part of the electorate, but they would have been fiscally responsible.

But Tory didn’t do either of those things; instead, he’s creating additional debt that the City simply did not need to take on—and doing so only to avoid making a difficult call. It’s a cowardly, weak decision, and bodes poorly for his mayoralty.

Yesterday, Matt Elliott laid out 6 ways the mayor could balance the operating budget without resorting to a provincial interest bearing bail out line of credit. reallyWhile time travelling would be lots of fun (and so many problems we could fix without, hopefully, changing the future), I’d say a combination of 1) raising property taxes a little more than the rate of inflation, with a smidge of 2) using some of the 2014 operating surplus might get us over the hump for this year at least. It also might contribute indirectly to 4) convincing the provincial government to reverse the funding cut. Maybe not this time around but in future negotiations. Show the province we’re willing to reasonably tap our revenue sources. In return, maybe they might start looking seriously at other ways they’re putting undue financial pressure on the city. Their half of the TTC operating budget perhaps?

Instead, Mayor Tory took the easy (for now) way out. He goes to the province, cap in hand, and comes back not with chump change, but with an even bigger debt load the city now has to bear. Prudent. I do not think that word means what our mayor thinks it means.

As terrible a mayor as Rob Ford was, even he didn’t try to take out a loan to balance our operating budget. dealwiththedevilHe got up to a lot of tricks, made certifiably outrageous claims, called things by different names to make it seem as if they weren’t what they were, like ‘service adjustments’ instead of ‘service cuts’. But he never took out a loan.

He couldn’t even if he’d thought of it. Can you imagine, with the toxic relationship he had with the provincial government, Rob Ford broaching them for a line of credit to balance the city’s operating budget? They’d laughed in his face. They wouldn’t even have to make up an excuse why not because, as was pointed out this week, the province’s very own law makes it illegal for municipalities to borrow money to balance their operating budgets. Municipal Act, Section 17, subsection C, I believe it is.

Unless… I’m now guessing… you borrow that money from the province?

No, cities can’t go to a financial institution for a loan in order to fund their ongoing expenses. Neither can cities sell of any assets to do that. This restriction does not apply, it seems, if the province is doing the lending or fire sale purchasing.masteroftheuniverse

Leading me to wonder if the Liberal government has come up with a novel approach to assist them in their own current fiscal struggles. Bankrolling municipalities. It’s an effective if ethically dubious strategy. Keep us financially dependent and then cash in loaning us money when we find ourselves strapped. Deliciously IMF-ish.

This presents nothing but upside for the province. The question is, what’s in the deal for cities? Why would Mayor Tory want Toronto more beholden to the province, the senior partner in this relationship, already pulling so many of our governance and fiscal strings?

Three theories spring immediately to mind.

The mayor’s in over his head. While it’s great political rhetoric to demand government operates like a business, the reality is much more complicated. suspicious“Shareholder value” means entirely different things in the two realms. Even balancing public sector books is counterintuitive to self-proclaimed businessmen like our mayor. If Rogers needs more revenue, it just bumps up the price of delivering in their services. The city? More revenue requires tax increases. But tax increases are bad. Square peg meets round hole.

Another possibility is that Mayor Tory is as ideologically hell bent on downsizing the city as his predecessor was. Shrink it into shape and size. Speak of efficiencies and doing more with less. Don’t say as much but all your actions suggest you believe the city has a spending not a revenue problem. Taking on more debt is as good a way to apply downward pressures as any.

The third option might be even more unsettling. Given the mayor’s insistence on deeply entangling the city’s transit plans with the province’s using SmartTrack (Steve Munro provides some examples of that in his interview with Matt Galloway this morning), maybe there’s an even wider convergence, let’s call it, at work here. Further reduce what little independence the city of Toronto currently has in an attempt to wrestle Toronto into a more manageable package as part of an integrated regional form of governance. emptyhandedRather than use the enhanced powers the province granted Toronto back in 2006 to sort out some fiscal sustainability, Mayor Tory chooses to further indebt us to Queen’s Park. Beggars can’t be choosers. Fall into line or we’ll tighten the purse strings.

That one may be too, I don’t know, House of Cards. Sometimes the best explanation is the simplest one which, in this case, would be the mayor’s flying by the seat of his pants, making it up as he goes along. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t bode well for Toronto.

uncertainly submitted by Cityslikr