City Hall’s failure to lead

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday May 15 2013 in Opinion
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Once again Toronto City Council has found itself in knots about what it needs to do and what it wants to do about public transit. There are some us who continue to promote Toronto as a “world class city”, whatever that means, yet the lack of a vision and a goal seem to have escaped the people whom we elected to formulate these things and begin work in earnest to achieve them.


The voters of Toronto opted to elect a man as mayor whose primary platform was “to end the gravy train”, alluding to a situation that plagues all governments everywhere: the mismanagement of some revenue. The revenue from our taxes is designed to provide the services and infrastructure that will enable the continued economic growth and development of the city, and that is important to manage well. However, nothing else really stood out about Ford’s platform except to rein in spending.


Twenty years ago, there was a realization that massive improvements in public transit were becoming necessary. The city’s population was increasing; the use of private transportation was starting to have a negative impact, both environmentally and practically, so it had become necessary not only to develop plans for the future to move the population around the city, but also to initiate that plan as quickly as possible.


It is worth remembering also that the City of Toronto proper was much smaller then. What existed at the time was the Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto, a kind of super-government to coordinate as much as possible the functions of six cities and boroughs. Metro, as it was known then, had the responsibility for public transit. I will not debate here the merits of this state of being over what followed, the amalgamation of these “mini-states” into one big monster.


Remember also that the planned Spadina Expressway, which caused considerable turmoil within the Municipality, was finally stopped at Eglinton Avenue West. Work began on the development of a subway across Eglinton Avenue with the support of the provincial government at the time.


The provincial government changed hands and, not unlike Ford’s current thinking, the new government ran on and won on a platform of reducing spending. Among its first actions was the cancelling of the cross-town subway on Eglinton Avenue. So, at a cost of millions of dollars, the subway site was filled in and expansion of public transit was essentially left in abeyance. In many respects, one could say that the money slated for transit expansion in the city was redirected to building expansion to the highway system in and around Toronto.


Left with little alternative, the previous councils took a more economical route in trying to achieve expansion of public transit. Increasing right of way for streetcars, edging towards Light Rapid Transit (LRT) was one strategy. The TTC also began upgrading surface routes as much as possible, knowing that, for budgetary necessities, these additional routes could be axed and buses mothballed.


After considerable agony, a decision on transit expansion has been made and work begun. We thought that a decision had also been made on whether Scarborough would get a subway or LRT – LRT being a more economical option and a fight that we thought the mayor had lost. Not so fast. The mayor has apparently not given up on the fight for the subway. Okay, Mayor, how are we going to pay for it?


In the meantime, two years from now, the city will play host to one of the largest events in its history, the Pan American Games. Will we be ready to meet the transit demands expected?


I have said it before, and it bears repeating, City Council appears to be lurching from decision to decision and back again to review a decision already taken. The problem, at its core, is the apparent lack of vision or, more precisely, a vision that is designed and articulated, beyond no new taxes, to take us forward. Mind you, any discussion around new revenue streams to fund the development of transit should not be seen as new taxes – at least, that seems to be the current thinking.


And so the bumbling continues. Clearly, the lack of leadership is causing a lot of speculation and, dare I say, impatience, in looking ahead to the next municipal election. Pressure is building to have someone in place who will not only provide leadership but seem to do so. The hope is to have someone in place who will focus on policies to improve this city rather than the stream of personal lack of judgment and shallow thinking we are now experiencing.


As we look ahead, it is important to bear in mind that resting in the wings is a political party at the provincial level that has an almost single-minded platform of cost-cutting. Should the Progressive Conservatives gain access to power in a provincial election, it is possible that the debate over transit could take a different turn. We may not think they will cancel some of what is underway, but it has happened before under a PC government.


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