Photo: wikipedia commons

In what has to be one of the worst decisions in Toronto City Council’s history, an unlikely alliance of self-serving and short-sighted councillors have brought back mayor Rob Ford’s favourite fantasy, the Scarborough subway, from the dustbin of history to which it had rightly been consigned. While the new approval of council is allegedly contingent on funding sources that may or may not exist, a point that makes the decision even more ludicrous, this reversal gives the province and the federal government even more ammunition to, ultimately, do nothing to build transit in the country’s biggest urban centre and to be able to, not entirely disingenuously, blame it all on the duly elected coalition of right and left that has rejected a comprehensive and actually funded, started and achievable plan for a far smaller, dramatically more expensive illusion.

This is the latest chapter in the long, twisted and tragic tale of Toronto’s transit woes, and it means that not only will far more extensive and far-reaching transit infrastructure in neighbourhoods and communities that desperately need it and are woefully under-serviced now not get built, but also that Rob Ford, in spite of the complete catastrophe that he has been as a mayor, and despite his own political incompetence and grotesque personal misconduct, may yet get reelected and may have seen his political future revived.

In the present context, the mayor’s long push to build a Scarborough subway simply makes no sense at all. While ideally subways may be preferable in some cases, though not in all, to LRTs, they are far more expensive to build. Building a single Scarborough subway line means, by the city’s own acknowledgement,  that many other transit lines, some of which had been accorded a higher priority in terms of need, will almost certainly have to be cancelled, postponed or scaled back, including other transit lines in Scarborough itself, making it a net loss for the community, not a gain.

As a background report prepared by the City Manager in conjunction with the CEO of the TTC put it:

Based on ongoing preliminary work the top five unfunded rapid transit proposals include Waterfont WestLRT, Don Mills LRT, Downtown Relief Line (East), Scarborough Malvern LRT and Waterfont East LRT. The Bloor – Danforth subway extension places in the next five rapid transit proposals that also include Jane LRT, Steeles West LRT/BRT, Downtown Relief Line (extension to Eglinton Avenue), and Eglinton LRT extension to Pearson Airport. The decision to adopt subway technology could impact the ability to fund the other priorities that are ultimately established through the current Official Plan review process.

The push for subways is entirely political. Subways sound good. They appeal to the notion that they will zip along underground, out-of-sight and mind and the right, for some unknown reason, has embraced them with a populist  zeal that they have woven into a ridiculous narrative that portrays LRTs as street destroying, car impeding, neighbourhood annihilating disasters, which is not at all the case.

LRT systems are widespread in Europe and have proven highly effective in American cities like Portland and San Diego. They  allow for far-flung, rapid transit lines without either the intensity of construction disruption or the cost of subways.

As a recent editorial in the Kansas City Star noted, calling on Kansas City to emulate the Portland model:

The most noticeable difference between the Kansas City and Portland metropolitan areas, however, has nothing to do with geography and nature….

You see it as you leave Portland International Airport, from the freeways leading to the city center, and in the suburbs. This difference is pervasive, intentional and man-made.

Public transportation is a priority in Portland. Despite having about the same number of citizens as Kansas City, Portland’s transportation system far exceeds anything that Kansas City dreamers dare to imagine. In 2011, Portland riders boarded buses and trains 100 million times. The east-west segment of the light-rail system carries 26 percent of evening rush-hour commuters leaving downtown Portland.

I lived in Portland when they began building the light-rail system. The initial 15-mile segment that opened in 1986 has expanded to 52 miles. I suspect that strident voices spoke disparagingly when construction started but I don’t remember them. A person would be hard pressed to find many naysayers today.

Forty-three percent of adults in the Portland area use public transportation at least twice a month. Eighty-four percent of the riders have a car available, but they still choose to use buses and trains.

For a city that considers itself, almost pathetically so, to be “world class”, however, Toronto, its residents and its politicians are incredibly insular and unusually lacking in the long term visions that make truly “great” cities great. They are seemingly beholden to narratives that are meant to benefit their own immediate re-election chances or to aid the efforts of one or another of the political federal or provincial parties that they are, despite the absurd claim that parties do not exist at City Hall, the municipal mouth pieces of.

How else does one explain the former Deputy Mayor, Doug Holiday and provincial Tory leader Tim Hudak, campaigning in a provincial by-election at Kipling station in Etobicoke, praising (and Holiday subsequently voting for) a Scarborough subway plan that would basically ensure that the riding they are trying to take from the governing Liberals, Etobicoke Lakeshore, would get less transit infrastructure and funding, not more? Outside of the inane context of what has become of Toronto politics, this makes no sense at all.

The fact is that the subway vs. LRT debate is not really about subways and LRTs. If it was, the outcome would be obvious. The Public Works Chair, a right-winger who is generally a Ford ally, Denzil Minnan-Wong called the subway plan “a fiscally irresponsible “vote-buying exercise.””, which it clearly is. But it also more than that. It is part of a right wing revolt against what they see as an assault on a suburban, car loving, self-indulgent lifestyle by downtown “elites”. 

It is otherwise impossible to explain totally idiotic comments like Tim Hudak’s  claim that he favours subways because:

“The world-class cities, they build subways, they build underground,” Mr. Hudak told reporters under a scorching morning sun. “You don’t rip up existing streets and make traffic even worse.”

This is mind-numbingly wrong and stupid. He seems to think that subways are built with no digging at all, but it also is an outright lie about what LRT’s look like once they are built. Here is a video of an actual LRT.

As can be plainly seen, Hudak is simply either completely misinformed or lying.

But he is not alone. Hence Rob Ford, in this video debating the normally snooze inducing centrist Josh Matlow, manages to talk about LRTs in a manner that bears no resemblance  to reality.

It is worth noting, that basically nothing the mayor says here is correct. The comments are baseless and completely unfounded.

This is made obvious, for example, in the letter from Metrolinx President Bruce McCuaig to the city which states, among other things (emphasis added): 

The conversion and extension of the Scarborough RT to an LRT has been the policy of the TTC, the City and Metrolinx for a number of years. The upgraded and extended line will be operated on a fully grade-separated corridor, on its own right-of-way, separate from roads  and streets. It will travel at speeds similar to subways. It serves a large population with its station locations along the existing corridor, as well as the extension to Sheppard Avenue. The line will meet forecasted levels of demand for the foreseeable future, and has room for growth beyond. It is part of a longer term plan to extend rapid transit further to other communities in Scarborough.

Yet Rob Ford, as part of his self-proclaimed counter assault against the “war on the car” that helped to bring him to power in 2010, made “car friendly” subways a cornerstone of his campaign. Essential to this was to paint LRTs in a farcically negative light that, to anyone who has ever even traveled to a city with one knows,  is demonstrably false.

Given that the mayor’s power and influence over policy were in absolute free fall coming out of a spring of drug scandals and total ineffectual governance, and given that City Council itself had repudiated the subway idea in favour of LRTs, it took a stunning series of developments to bring it back to life again.

Royson James of the Toronto Star summarized it very well:

By some political fluke, the Scarborough subway debate has been resurrected. Last year, Toronto council voted for an LRT instead of the more expensive subway to replace the Scarborough RT. (Mayor Rob Ford refused to apply property taxes to the project so council balked.)

Ford threatened to campaign against the Scarborough councillors who didn’t back his unfunded subway plan. Then when two councillors revived the subway option, Ford again voted against the subway because a property tax increase was required. The matter seemed dead.

Then a number of unexpected and strange things happened. The provincial Liberals, who are funding the entire project, found themselves needing to win an Aug. 1 byelection in Scarborough. Polls show high support for a subway in the area.

Then city council voted on a funding plan for transit in the GTA and rejected everything but a sales tax increase. Tacked onto that vote was a motion to consider a subway instead of LRT. It passed.

The provincial Liberals saw an opening to move some Scarborough votes into their harbour and soon Scarborough councillors with ties to the Liberal government were arguing for the very thing they rejected not long ago.

The final unlikely alignment came last week when Mayor Ford, realizing he would again be offside on an issue that is his to win, politically, agreed to a property tax hike for a Scarborough subway.

In other circumstances the fact that Ford and City Council, who had previously had their heads in the sand pretending that a city can build mass transit without anyone paying for it, had now accepted the necessity of tax hikes might almost be seen as a victory. But in this case it is not as the sudden embrace of a still entirely insufficient taxation plan is simply a way to win a specific vote. One that Ford still should have lost.

However, in a surprising development, Ford also got the support of erstwhile allies like Karen Stintz and supposed “progressives” like Joe Mihevc (this is particularly ironic given that Mihevc was relentlessly demonized by the right in Toronto for his support of the St. Clair streetcar right-of-way project that they use, completely falsely, to attack LRTs) who seem to have felt that it would somehow benefit them or their objectives to have been seen as being onside with the mayor with this one. 

Intentionally or otherwise they have also thrown the embattled mayor a desperately needed lifeline. They have made him relevant again. They have handed him a victory that was both completely unnecessary and that was a repudiation of where council previously stood. They have endorsed his falsehood that a subway is inherently better than an LRT and they have de facto accepted his premise that subways are what the “taxpayers” want, that LRTs will damage neighbourhoods, that one subway line in a low density part of an area that does not need it is preferable to several LRT lines in neighbourhoods that do, and they have given him, whether the subway is ever built or not, a narrative upon which to run for re-election.

They have brought the Ford Administration back from the dead. One has to hope that whatever sad political  calculation that led them to do this was worth it, because they threw the city and its citizens under the proverbial bus, or subway, by doing it.

Photo: wikipedia commons