As Battle for Toronto Mayor Seat Gets Under Way, Transit City Plan Thrown Into Contention

» Candidate Rocco Rossi suggests banning bikes from major roadways and halting implementation of ambitious light rail program.

With 75 miles of light rail service in planning and two major subway extensions soon to begin construction, Toronto has one of North America’s largest transit construction schemes in the works, much thanks to the work of outgoing Mayor David Miller, who has been in office since 2003.

Depending on its outcome, the mayoral election this fall might put those projects in question. With no clearly expected winner and no incumbent, candidates from across the political spectrum are pouring into the race with the goal of radically altering the city’s strategy for urbanism. If several of the candidates on the right prevail, Canada’s largest city could be in for a major backwards turn.

Mayor Miller’s two terms in office have been remarkable in the degree to which they have reoriented the city towards sustainable transportation. In 2007, he announced Transit City, the initiative that would run seven new light rail corridors across the large city with the goal of reinforcing existing subway service with new right-of-way-separated transit. In 2009, he was successful in convincing Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to fund four of the projects, and the Sheppard East Light Rail line entered into its construction phase last month, under the auspices of the province’s transit system, Metrolinx (though the city-run Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) will run the lines).

Now that he’s declined the chance to run for a third term, those who would seek to erase Transit City from consideration are lining up.

Last week, Rocco Rossi, the manager of John Tory’s failed conservative campaign for mayor in 2003 (lost to Mr. Miller) and the former national director of the Liberal Party, made a big deal of what can only be summarized as anti-transit positions. In a speech to the Empire Club of Canada, a wealthy social group, Mr. Rossi suggested putting all of the proposed Transit City projects on hold to reconsider their value — with the exception of the Sheppard East line already under construction. This is in spite of the fact that three other corridors are fully funded and in planning. He would replace the current public board at the helm of the TTC with a private-sector board, which he assumes will be able to find cost-cutting possibilities, namely through the outsourcing of services to private firms.

But the proposition that reportedly got the most applause at the Empire Club was Mr. Rossi’s argument in favor of banning bike lanes on arterial roads. This includes corridors like Jarvis Street, which under current plans would have one of its five lanes converted to a two-way separated bike path. Jarvis Street cuts east of downtown and midtown and in any other city would be considered a prime candidate for becoming an urban boulevard, not an automobile highway, which is evidently what the candidate would prefer.

Mr. Rossi’s rhetoric is a straight-out appeal at right-leaning voters living in the suburban fringes of the city — a group that may or may not be large enough to propel him into the mayor’s office. He is just one among many candidates; in a recent poll, former Deputy Premier of Ontario George Smitherman has a large lead in the race, though the election is taking place October 25th, so plenty could change between then and now.

But the less-than-ideal reputation of the TTC could be a decisive factor in determining voter response, especially since Mr. Rossi is clearly planning to make transportation an electoral issue. Apart from the Transit City projects, which are far from completion, the City of Toronto’s primary public transportation initiative came in the form of the separation of the right-of-way of the St. Clair Streetcar line. The 6.8 km project was supposed to be done in 2007 at a cost of C$48 million; instead, it won’t open entirely for service until this summer, at a cost of C$105 million. There are some reasonable explanations for the delays and cost increases, but public perceptions of a “fiasco” that has stretched on too long and severely damaged local businesses cannot be denied. Meanwhile, a token shortage at the end of last year — customers were forbidden from buying extra tickets because of an upcoming fare hike — was inexplicably frustrating.

These feelings were compounded by a recent overplayed incident in which a photograph of a ticket collector sleeping in his booth made it big-time across the internet.

A candidate running against the TTC, in other words, may find significant populist support, especially since Mayor Miller has low approval ratings, probably one of the reasons he didn’t choose to run for a third term.

This situation could be reinforced by the fact that the two major candidates on the left, Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone and counselor Adam Giambrone (who hasn’t yet announced his candidacy), are closely associated with Mr. Miller. Toronto has never had back-to-back progressive mayors.

How disappointing it would be if that trend sees no reversal this year. On the brink of a transit renaissance, Toronto needs a leader who would push strongly to rebuild its public transportation infrastructure with major investments and a rethinking of mobility in the city. As TTC chair since 2006, Mr. Giambrone was one of the primary creators of the Transit City plan. Unlike most politicians, this potential candidate has in-depth knowledge about the way the trains actually run and he offers genuinely good ideas about how to resolve the city’s transportation issues into the future.

Mr. Rossi, with his pro-car bias and suburban mentality, would come nowhere close to providing the same perspective.

In some ways, Toronto’s mayoral race could come to resemble the 2009 Seattle election. In the first round, pro-transit Mayor Greg Nickels was eliminated from consideration, pushed back by two candidates, one on the left and one on the right. In the second round, Mike McGinn, a staunch environmentalist and a solid supporter of public transportation, came from behind to take the lead. The end result was a new administration that may be more progressive than the one that preceded it.

12 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • It’s a little weird that Toronto has so much opposition to transit investment, while in Calgary it’s uncontroversial.

    • DBX

      I think it often comes down to who uses transit. Having not been to Calgary I’m somewhat at a disadvantage but I get the sense in Toronto that — like a lot of cities in the eastern half of the US — there’s a problem in getting middle class people beyond a certain age to use transit. In the west, where transit is available, I’ve seen a wider variety of transit users; a willingness by voters to back even some rather stupid schemes rather than send planners back to the drawing board; and very rapid progress where you wouldn’t expect it (e.g. half hourly off-peak commuter rail in Salt Lake City). I also think western cities in general are less paralyzed by race and class. Eastern cities in the US can’t even deliver funding for new transit with simple majority voting (e.g. St Louis and Kansas City); San Jose voters approved the south bay BART scheme — a questionable project, given how much more could have been done with other modes of transit for that amount of money — despite a two-thirds majority requirement.

      Perhaps it’s also the cultural face of east versus west. My experience with transit customer service, in the US and Canada, deteriorates the farther east I go. That has an impact on voters too, as the TTC sleeping ticket agent proves.

    • John W

      It could simply be due to how big a whack of the overall city budget Toronto’s investment represents. Calgary’s plans over the next decade or so are in the hundreds of millions, Toronto’s over ten billion.

      • DBX

        Definitely a point there. And then you also have the small matter of the federal government weaseling out of its share, leaving the city effectively stuck with two-thirds instead of one-third.

    • lukev

      Toronto certainly does not suffer from transit segregation by class. In the morning commute, more executive get to work by transit than by car. And the people in your rush hour train will probably be a wealthier demographic than the city at large.

      The problem with transit investment in Toronto, I kid you not, is that the citizens think anything less than a full subway is not “world class” enough. Because apparently, “world class” cities do not have LRT, and Toronto is supposed to be a “world class city.”

      Calgary wins because they don’t trip over their own ego in the process.

  • Unfortunately, it looks like Silverman has the same backwards views on bicycle lanes. While routes on quiet streets are fine, most destinations are on main streets. Copenhagen tried exactly what he is proposing back in the 70s. It didn’t work. Cyclists still used the main streets. The city then put in separated bike lanes on main streets and now they are on of the best cycling cities in the work.

    Vancouver has built a good network of bikeways on quiet streets that are pretty popular but a lot of people still cycle along the main streets either risking life and limb on the road or illegally riding on the sidewalk. Hopefully, separated bike lanes on arterials will be a big part of the next bicycle plan.

    It is a bit of a risk being not as pro cycling as other candidates. Cyclists tend to be well organized and take advantage of social media. The last election in Vancouver seemed to support this as, in general the candidates that are most pro-cycling won. There are now 8 regular cyclists on council and the rest are very supportive. The last mayor’s final press release before he lost the nomination to a candidate that was more pro cycling detailed recent cycling improvements.

    TO might be different though as there are a lot more suburban voters but who knows.

  • Woody

    As I recall from earlier posts here, Montreal has its own plans underway to expand subways and light rail, so if Toronto decides to pull back . . . Hey, a little competition can be good for a city.

  • That last bit about Seattle was just silly. As a former Seattleite I’ve been watching McGinn from a nearby county. So far, I’ve seen no evidence that he is either an environmentalist or interested in transit.

    As far as I can see, the building of good transit will be delayed by the McGinn mayoralty. The proposed First Avenue line, which looked very much like going forward, gets no mention from McGinn, who prefers to take credit for the First Hill line, which is being built entirely independently from his efforts.

    Aside from the First Hill Streetcar, being built by Link, I would be very surprised if there is any improvement in Seattle transit while McGinn is Mayor.

  • Justin Bernard

    George Smitherman is considered the leading Mayoral candidate has criticized Rossi’s comment as “terribly amateurish”. My bigger concern is Giambrone taking away votes from Smitherman.

  • Matt

    One of the biggest flaws in the transit city scheme is that it was rolled out as a sort of every ward wins plan…. “ambitious light rail scheme across all parts of the city”… the reality is that with the exception of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT and the Don Mills LRT – which should be built as subways – the other routes could be served by BRT lanes.

    Another point that should be noted it that all of these proposed LRT lines are going to flood the already packed subway system. Toronto should be looking at some kind of downtown subway expansion to help relieve congestion at transfer stations heading into the city core.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I wounder would the streetcar lines be able to to link into the light rail lines to let the streetcars run on them? It looks like they could extend a few of the streetcar lines out from the streetcar core.

  • I was wondering why the Downtown Connector wasn’t on the map…

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