This piece originally ran on The Transport Politic.
Transportation is an intensely political game in Toronto. Canada’s largest city, home to millions of daily transit users, has been fighting for half a decade on how to expand its rail network over issues that might be familiar to inhabitants of many metropolises. Should trains be put in a subway or remain on the surface? Should extensions be developed downtown or in the suburbs? Should funding come from the public or private pocketbook?
The election of Rob Ford to the mayoralty in fall 2010 seemed to answer some of those questions: All new urban rail projects would be built underground in order to avoid disrupting traffic. Most new lines would be designed to extend into suburban business districts, rather than reinforce the network in the center city. And an emphasis would be placed on finding private financing to cover costs. Almost as soon as he entered office, Ford managed to dismantle the light rail surface-running, publicly funded Transit City plans his predecessor David Miller had imagined and, in one case, actually brought to the construction stage.
In the process, no one seemed to notice that the mayor, who never sought full approval from the council in renegotiating the funding contract with Ontario Province, didn’t have the legal authority to trash the plans.
For Toronto, this once again puts the city’s public transportation future up in the air. Miller’s project would have funded three new light rail lines and a refurbishment and extension to another by 2020; only a six-mile segment of the Eglinton Crosstown corridor would have been underground, compared to 29 miles overground on the rest of the plan, all at an Ontario-funded cost of C$8.2 billion. Ford squashed plans for the Finch Avenue and Sheppard Avenue light rail lines and killed the planned extension of the Scarborough RT; in their place would be a 12-mile fully-underground Eglinton line and a refurbishment of the Scarborough line — a total of about 15 miles of fixed-guideway transit at the same cost, serving far fewer Torontonians in the process. A subway extension along the Sheppard corridor would be paid for by the private sector. In theory.
The new mayor claimed he had a public mandate to build only subways; people hated Miller’s cheaper light rail lines, he said.
These changes brought on by the mayor’s honeymoon in office, however, have come to an end. Left-wing and centrist members of the city council banded together to push back on the administration’s efforts to reduce public services a few months back — and now a majority may be in favor of going back to Miller’s Transit City plans, especially since many on Finch Avenue northwest of the city center feel completely excluded from current plans. Ford’s own counselors suggested that private businesses would only be able to contribute 10 to 30 percent of the Sheppard subway’s costs. Karen Stintz, who chairs the board of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), recommended last week moving parts of the Eglinton corridor back above ground to save up to C$2 billion, limiting the extension of the Sheppard subway to one stop (instead of five) at a cost of C$1 billion, and adding a busway to Finch Avenue for C$400 million.
Ford’s response so far: “I did what the taxpayers want. They want subways. That’s it. They don’t want streetcars.” At a meeting today, Ford sympathizers on the TTC board voted against continuing to work with provincial planners despite Stintz’s recommendations — putting her future in jeopardy, according to one observer. The mayor, who continues to label the Transit City light rail services designed to run in independent guideways “streetcars,” does not take criticism well.
But the mayor may be an increasingly irrelevant player here, since a majority on the council may be able to overrule him. In the process, Toronto may backtrack on its transit policies, taking the city two years back in time.
As for the public reaction, people do not seem to be screaming in the streets about the potential loss of their much-promised subways in favor of twice as many route miles of above-ground light rail. In the name of fiscal efficiency, one does wonder how it ever made sense to anyone to prioritize building subways through areas of only moderately dense development. Ford’s unwillingness to change rather comes across as the same old fight to “end the war on cars” he promised during the 2010 elections, a stand against getting in the way of a few drivers for the sake of speeding the commutes of many transit riders. In the meantime, the inhabitants of Toronto have seen few improvements to their daily commutes and delays in acting on future proposed services.
Nonetheless, the intense disagreement between Ford and his council counterparts — one that seems unlikely to die down at least for the next few months — suggests that public involvement is necessary. It might be reasonable to suggest a direct vote on the options available: With C$8.2 billion, what would you do? Think big: You never know what might come next.
Yonah Freemark is a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he is the research director of the Land Use Lab at Urban. His research focuses on the intersection of land use, affordable housing, transportation, and governance.