Map courtesy OneCityTransitPlan.com
Historic changes could be heading for Toronto that would not only alter our subway maps, but could also put this city on the map for another reason. This morning TTC Chair Karen Stintz and Vice-Chair Glenn De Baeremaeker unveiled OneCity, an ambitious new transit plan that would extend subways and LRTs into every corner of the city at a cost of $30 bil over thirty years. A two per cent property tax increase dedicated to transit, about $180 per year for the average homeowner after a four year phase-in period, would raise $272 mil a year for the city’s share with the remaining funds coming from federal and provincial governments. Chances are you’ve heard a little bit about it.
One criticism of the plan is that it remains only partially funded and leans heavily on the assumption that other levels of government will offer matching funds. Ottawa’s willingness to contribute while they gleefully cut public sector jobs remains in doubt. But on the other hand, the OneCity proposal lines up nicely with Queen’s Park’s regional transit plans. Metrolinx CEO and President Bruce McCuaig released a statement cautiously supporting OneCity saying, “Metrolinx recognizes the need for new local transit infrastructure to complement The Big Move, our planned regional system, and so we are encouraged that Toronto is addressing its local needs.” Calling the funding proposal a “positive development,” McCuaig’s statement lends some credence to Stintz’s comment that if Toronto comes in “with some skin in the game,” other governments will follow suit.
This grand, visionary proposal is exciting, especially for a traffic-choked region that loses $6 bil a year to gridlock. It has all the makings of the transit fix Torontonians have been begging for except for one key ingredient: the mayor’s approval.
Surprising literally no one, Mayor Rob Ford explicitly rejected the OneCity proposal out of hand saying, “The taxpayers cannot afford it.” He maintains the city can build subways with private sector funds, even after his proposal for puny Sheppard subway extension flamed out in dramatic fashion earlier this year. He and his allies have already mounted a Tea Party style media campaign complete with fear mongering from Cllr. Denzil Minnan-Wong and choice sound bites from Cllr. Doug Ford like, “This is about saving Glenn De Tax-maker’s political ass.” Plus there’s the Toronto Sun’s less than enthusiastic headline.
But despite all the chest thumping, there’s a good chance the plan will move forward without the mayor’s blessing. As Toronto Sun reporter Don Peat points out, there are already motions from Toronto & East York Community Council and Ford’s Executive Committee heading to council in July that would allow Stintz and DeBaeremaeker’s plan to go to staff for study with a simple majority, as opposed to the two-thirds required from a member’s motion. Taking the 25 — 18 vote in favour of Stintz’s LRT proposal in February into account and barring a seismic shift at council back in the Mayor’s favour, odds are good that OneCity will at least move forward to the next phase of development.
Stop and think about that for a minute. A major public transit project could be built with the mayor’s explicit objection. Has this ever happened before? Forget Toronto or Canada: is there precedent anywhere?
Taras Grescoe, author of Straphanger and transit history buff, can’t recall. “There are a lot of places where transportation networks have been built against municipal will. I’m thinking of Robert Moses, who, over decades, established the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which became a separate power in New York City, ramming highways through the boroughs, often against the will of the people and their elected representatives,” he said. “Subways, metros, and bus networks tend to be municipal responsibilities, so if they’re going to get built, mayors somehow have to be brought on board — or, if they’re unpopular, absentee, or lame-duck leaders, voted out of office.”
He added that in cities like Paris, New York, Los Angeles, Bogota, Toyko and Copenhagen, going back to the 19th century, mayors have all been on board with transit projects. The only project he can think of that was built without municipal approval (or knowledge!) was Alfred Beach’s Pneumatic Transit, built in 1870 under the streets of Lower Manhattan in secret without the knowledge of the de facto king of New York, Boss Tweed.
With the OneCity Transit Plan seemingly bound for approval, the stage has been set for Rob Ford to preside over the biggest investment in transit anywhere that a mayor didn’t want. If the shovels do go into the ground (and Ford doesn’t resign), it will be a historic moment for the city and hilarious piece of odd-ball trivia for political junkies around the world.
But Rob Ford has never seemed comfortable presiding over anything outside of football practices and family barbeques. While Stintz and DeBaeremaeker were presenting OneCity to the public at City Hall Wednesday morning, Ford was visiting a resident’s home in Etobicoke checking out a moth infestation. Fitting for a man clearly more suited to complain about small problems of the day than tackle any of history’s big ones.