In his campaign to extend the Sheppard subway into Scarborough, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has taken to the streets lately with his SAFE (Subways Are for Everyone) campaign to ensure the optics of public support for this project.
And, in his usual clipped tone, Ford has tossed a line to the media with: “Get a shovel in the ground, build a couple stations and just keep moving ahead as time goes on.”
For Ford, that would mean beginning with extending the Sheppard line east to Victoria Park. The idea that money will flow once construction starts is really putting the proverbial cart before the horse. If nothing else, Ford can at least be credited with an abundance of optimism.
But let’s not allow his magical thinking to detract from the importance to this city’s future of a viable extension of our subway system.
And while the issue is still one of financing, or lack thereof, the subway issue has managed to get people’s attention away from the vexing issue – also nurtured by Ford – of trimming the city’s budget.
Ford is onto something when he said that we should use the money we have to start building what portion of the subway we can afford with the $1-billion available. Although, reasonably, funding has to be concrete before we “get a shovel in the ground”.
At its current 2.6 million, this city’s population has grown exponentially, and in the next 20 years is projected to reach some 3.2 million, however, our infrastructure has not been keeping pace. The result is a logjam of cars on our roads that is costing the city both in lost productivity and poorer air quality.
The inadequacy of our roads to handle the daily traffic load is costing the city some $3.3 billion in lost productivity annually, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), while nearly 2,000 people die prematurely each year and another 6,000 are hospitalized because of poor air quality in part related to vehicular exhaust.
Ford’s catchy SAFE is on target. We need to advance a public transportation system that makes everyone want to use it. Expanding the system of subway lines is therefore not just a matter of boosting the image of the city; it is vital.
While we’re at it, let’s have a real look at where extensions are most needed, extending the Eglinton line to Scarborough, for example. Or what about a parallel line along Bayview and, of course, the Finch line?
At the very least we have Ford to thank for keeping this issue in the public consciousness and insisting on being a voice for those who understand the necessity of expanding underground.
But, apart from our aspirations, there is the need to be realistic. So the question remains, how do we get from here to there?
It’s already clear that a strong contingent on Toronto City Council is in favour of going ahead with the already funded plan Transit City has laid out for the above-ground Light Rail Transit (LRT) to Scarborough.
Council members have said that the issue is funding and that one plan already has funding while the other – Ford’s plan – doesn’t. But politicians do listen to voters. Ford alone can’t change the decision by the province to fund LRT construction, but if a substantial enough portion of the electorate make it clear that they prefer to head in the direction of subways, then the politicians would be moved to respect those demands.
At the same time, we have to accept that someone has to pay for this service. Ford has hastily rejected an increase in taxes and other revenue tools, opting for private funding, which has yet to materialize. We are therefore left with the alternative of finding ways to build that fund through public monies. So an increase in property taxes has to come into the discussion; parking fees should still be on the table and public transit users should also expect to pay a building fund fee as an addition to transit fares.
Torontonians have to come up with the funding because the reality is we can’t have more subway lines on wishes and words alone.