When Voting for the Lesser of Two Evils Could Save a Transit System

» In a three-way race for Toronto mayor, picking the best candidate could result in the worst outcomes for the city.

Because the U.S. political system is basically a two-party duopoly, few electoral races offer more than a singular comparison between a Republican and a Democrat. In terms of transportation issues, there frequently is little question about who is the better candidate. Nonpartisan elections offer an alternative by opening up a broader range of choice for voters.

Case in point is Toronto, where local voters are going to the polls Monday to pick their new mayor. There, three candidates have made it to the end of the race, right-wing Rob Ford, centrist George Smitherman, and left-wing Joe Pantalone, the last being the heir to current Mayor David Miller. A new poll suggests Ford is leading the race with 43.9% of expected votes; Smitherman follows with 35.6% and Pantalone is expected to receive 15%. The election has one round and is not an instant runoff.

Despite the choice this election offers, voters interested in preserving the quality of North America’s third-largest transit system may unfortunately have to stomach voting for a less-than-ideal candidate to prevent a truly dangerous one from winning. Ford’s positions are dangerously anti-transportation alternatives and could spell trouble for Toronto’s chances to dramatically improve its mobility options over the next decade. For people hoping to keep up the momentum, voters would might naturally prefer Pantalone may have to choose to be strategic rather than idealistic by supporting Smitherman instead. Multi-party electoral systems have their downsides, too.

Mayor Miller has been in office since late 2003 and has been a strong proponent of increased investment in his city’s transit capital program: His 2007 announcement of the eight-line light rail Transit City program and his subsequent campaign to get Ontario provincial funds to pay for the projects were groundbreaking and entrepreneurial on a scale few cities have dared to dream up. After all, 75 miles of new rail lines serving new crosstown routes are no drop in the bucket; if built, they would fundamentally change the ability of people in Toronto to get around by rapid transit.

Yet candidate Ford, who at the moment appears to be on a fast-track to winning this race, would discard the Transit City plan full-stop. Using rhetoric to inflame already disenchanted suburban residents, concerned that their priorities aren’t being considered by a center-city focused city hall, Ford has declared that he will fight to “end the war on cars” (words that are uncomfortably similar to those of British Conservatives). How will he do so? By eliminating bike lanes from major streets and, even worse, by dismantling the city’s 47-mile downtown streetcar system, which serves 285,000 daily customers. Ford claims that these are disruptive to the free-flow of automobiles in North America’s most-congested city, but removing the transit infrastructure now would likely mean never getting it back.

Ford’s comments are couched in familiar conservative terms of “fiscal responsibility,” but it is clear from his message that he is simply more interested in promoting car travel than transit. By removing streetcars, Ford would have to cancel an already finalized C$1.2 billion contract with Bombardier for 204 new trains at a potential penalty of C$100 million and buy 550 new buses as well as construct two new $100 million bus garages. Because Toronto’s streetcar vehicles carry three times as many passengers as buses, operations costs would expand dramatically and the number of buses on the streets would multiply significantly; meanwhile, passenger comfort would decline. How more buses carrying fewer people would result in less traffic congestion as Ford seems to imply is unclear.

In exchange for the large network of light rail lines Mayor Miller has proposed to implement (construction is underway on one corridor already), Ford would build new subways that sound good in theory but which would ultimately mean far less transit expansion because of their higher costs. But subways are more convenient for Ford because they’re buried underground, safe from interrupting the travel of his precious automobiles.

Joe Pantalone, on the other hand, has been a full-throated defender of investments in public transportation, pushing the Transit City plan as strongly as the current mayor. He has promoted a 1,000-kilometer bike route plan that would ensure increased safety and convenience for those who choose to cycle around. Under his leadership, it is hard to imagine the city falling behind in the development of alternatives to the automobile.

Unfortunately, Pantalone is so far behind in the polls that a vote for him would help split the vote enough to put Ford in office. People who want to see the improvements he is promoting may have to vote against Ford, not for Pantalone.

In this case, that means checking off the box for George Smitherman. Though his transportation proposals has been relatively vague and he has not proven himself to be willing to put his political ambitions on the line for improved transit, Smitherman has generally supported the Transit City plan and has developed a plan to fund the local transportation network through gas taxes and profits from the power and parking authorities. He has regrettably asked for a moratorium in new bike lanes.

Steve Munro, an influential local transportation advocate, has reluctantly endorsed Smitherman, suggesting that the three-candidate election leaves progressive voters no choice but to vote centrist unless they want the conservative to win with a minority of votes. If Smitherman isn’t perfect, his efforts will be improved by the decisions of the larger city council.

Is Munro right? Is it worth sacrificing one’s ideals and voting against someone rather than for someone else?

Update, 25 October: Rob Ford has won the race, getting about 50% of the vote.

Image above: Streetcar in Toronto, from Flickr user Diego Silvestre (cc)

29 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • David Oleesky

    Unfortunately for transport enthusiasts, Ford is right about the need for fiscally responsible government. Most of the Toronto tram system seems antiquated, with little reserved track and passengers boarding in the middle of the street, thus contributing to traffic congestion; the trams still use trolley poles! There are some light rail developments in parts of Europe, mostly using reserved track, but they are very expensive, and some (e.g. in Edinburgh) are proving to be a financial nightmare. Elsewhere in Europe, unmodernised tram systems (e.g. in Kaliningrad and Voronezh) are steadily being scrapped, and that in Toronto is likely to suffer the same fate.

    • Kaliningrad and Voronezh, mid-sized Russian cities, are not really good examples of typical Euro-developments.

      I think that in most parts of Europe, the tendency is to give streetcars their own right of way, and get some streetcars underground.

      Ford, just like Christie, is not about financial responsibility. He’s just fighting for car owners. For him, transit users are “the others” and bicyclists are just stupid for swimming with the sharks.

      Building subways is generally not fiscally responsible. But it’s doubtful that many streetcars will be replaced with subways. It’s just an empty promise to decrease the resistance when shutting down transit networks — the same was done in the 50ies when the elevated subway on 2nd Ave (etc.) in NYC was torn down. And that turned out to be a real fiscally responsible decision…

    • Leo

      Toronto’s government is fiscally responsible. Our operating budget is balanced, and spending is not outpacing revenue. Unlike a lot of American municipalities, our books are in a good state.

      We do take on some debt for capital projects:

      http://www.toronto.ca/finance/debt.htm

      Ford is running to cut revenue and is hoping to finding spending to cut as well. The track record for that sort of thing is not very good.

  • Andrew

    Don’t tell me that replacing the downtown streetcars in Toronto (which I know are lousy, I live in Toronto) with buses will be an improvement. Since buses have less capacity than streetcars (especially the new longer streetcars that will replace the old streetcars shown here), replacing the streetcars with buses will require more buses and more drivers, cause even more overcrowding and increase air pollution. I would be perfectly willing to support a candidate who wanted to replace the downtown streetcars with subways, which are vastly superior to streetcars in mixed traffic and badly needed in some places, but Rob Ford is proposing to build his subways in the suburbs on Sheppard Avenue, where ridership would be far lower than say, a subway underneath Queen Street. (And LRT actually makes sense there because Sheppard is a very wide street where there is lots of room to put a dedicated right-of-way. In fact, in most sections of the proposed Sheppard East LRT, no car lanes will be lost at all because there is currently room for 6 car lanes along the road, but only 4 were built, so the road only needs to be widened to allow 2 LRT lanes and 4 car lanes. In comparison downtown has narrow 4-lane roads where there is no room for a dedicated ROW without severely reducing car capacity so streetcars get stuck in mixed traffic and go very slowly.)

  • Justin Bernard

    David, Ford may call for a fiscally responsible government, but his desire to scrap the streetcar shows he is not fiscally responsible. The cost to dismantle the system will cost hundreds of millions, and the cost to build new garage, and buy new buses will cost even more. That is not fiscally responsible. Ford’s financial plan does not clearly state where he will find significant savings, only that he will.
    The streetcar system has been rebuilt extensively over the years, so there is no reason to call it “antiquated”. It is quite a modern system, and to assume it is “antiquated”: because the system uses trolley poles and runs in mixed traffic shows a level of ignorance.
    Even if Rob Ford is elected, it’s unlikely he will be able to get much of his agenda passed. Ford is not known for working with council, or even understanding how municipal politics work. He is going to have to deal with a council that will most likely be hostile to his ideas.

  • Ocean Railroader

    It sounds like a new bus could easly go for a $100,000 to $500,000 eatch tiems that by 500 to 600 buses and they already have over a billion dollars paid out to order over 200 new modern streetcars. So from that aspect Ford would be better off leaving the existing system alone.

    • Leo

      The hybrid buses Toronto has been buying cost $750,000 each.

      A new bus garage costs $100 million. We’d need two.

      • Ocean Railroader

        That sounds like a money melt down nightmare it would be cheaper for him if he wants to save money to leave the streetcar and transit systems alone and let them keep running. Richmond Vrginia removed their streetcars in the 1940’s and now we have six to eight lane wide streets with never ending rivers of metal in them and a million and one stop lights. And no mater how much Vdot tries to widen the roads the builders keep building more subvisions like hotcakes and they keep getting filled up.

  • One of the good things about the myriad byzantine rules concerning Federal project funding in the US (I don’t know about Canada) is that it makes it more difficult for hostile politicians to cancel projects already under construction–let alone dismantling systems in operation. If you do that, and the project is federally funded–the Feds come demanding their money back.

    Projects early in the planning phase (such as the New Jersey tunnel, or Midwest HSR) are more vulnerable to political hitjobs of this nature, but things which are complete are more difficult to remove.

    Of course, this works both ways–removing freeways is often politically difficult, even when there is a local consensus that it ought to be done. Likewise when the project turns into an obvious boondoggle and money-sink.

  • Justin Craig

    Not only is Ford a far-right anti-transit regressionist, he is a virulent Islamophobe who actually believes, like the now-infamous Juan Williams, that Muslims perpetrated the “9/11 attack” on the U.S!

  • Dexter

    It would be extremely short-sighted for Ford to scrap Toronto’s streetcar system just because he thinks transit causes congestion. Wait until the streets reach gridlock without the safety valve of transit, then Toronto will be in the same boat many American cities find themselves in.

  • Oemissions

    I support a WAR on CARS.
    Whatever it takes to reduce the use/abuse of them..do it.

    • Eric

      LOL. I do too, and I just don’t comprehend anti-transit sentiment from “suburban voters” who fear change and don’t look at what’s good for the general region. Reducing/neglecting transit isn’t good for car enthusiasts either, because it forces more cars on the road. And don’t these people want to at least have the option of driving or taking transit? A handful of parking garages won’t solve any problems, because parking at these places will cost a lot of money (due to limited space available) rendering them useless to people who commute into the city centre daily. Hence the need for transit. Transit just makes so much sense, unless Ford wants to dismantle Toronto’s awesome downtown, and turn into an ugly ocean of parkng lots. Some people who are still stuck in the 1960s think that this would be “progress”….expensive “progress” that would turn away visitors and their tourist dollars. The “fiscal conservative” argument is very often the most expensive -not the cheapest- option, as many other posters also pointed out.

  • Tom Marney

    Oh, this is epic. From http://www.robfordformayor.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Transportation-Plan4.pdf :

    Total Roads Plan Costs: $700m

    Source of Funds: $700m from sale of development rights along the subway corridor.

    Killing the goose that lays the golden eggs is a great plan, dude. :/

  • It is quite funny that the majority of Torontians consider the transport issue to be the most important and at the same time, Ford still seems to be winning the polls. Not saying much has been done by Miller, but Ford is probably going to completely discard all the plans and beginnings.

  • David M

    The only good thing is that in Canada the mayor is not all powerful, but one vote on a council. However, as the mayor, he will set agendas so streetcars could keep coming up, or progressive ideas may not get on the agenda. Also, I see a lot of fighting with the province, so nothing will get done.

  • Dave O

    David M is correct. The “strong mayor” model in US cities is very different from Canadians cities where the mayor only has one vote out of many in the case of Toronto’s council. With a variety of voices and concerns represented by these councillors, it is unlikely to see a radical shift in policy from the current direction. He may raise a stink on some issues, and he may even garner the votes of several councillors with said initiatives, but I doubt we will see drastic change such as the dismantling of the streetcar system.

  • Brent

    A thoughtful and generally accurate review of how our election has gone.

    As for strategic voting:

    Ford: 47.098% of vote
    Smitherman: 35.602%
    Pantalone: 11.749%

    Smitherman + Pantalone: 47.351%

    (as of 11:20 PM)

  • Drewski

    Ford is no friend of transit. He’s also no friend of better pedestrian or biking conditions, and I won’t be at all surprised if there’s no bike lane on Jarvis–after all, why worry about those downtown residents when somebody from Markham has to get that SUV in a garage on Richmond RIGHT NOW. I wonder how much of a mess he’ll manage to make. Do I have to say the words “Mel Lastman” to remind anybody of the damage a bad mayor can do, even one who’s not a strong mayor?

  • JJJ

    Sounds like a strike is in order.

    If the transit system were to shut down for 3 days, Im sure there would be massive gridlock. Isnt that a good way to show what happens when you cut transit?

  • What about the full 45 member council?

    If Ford is just one vote, he doesn’t have the power to unilaterally dismantle the network, does he?

    He’s elected Citywide, but he’s only one vote on the council, correct?

    How many of the other 44 members of the Toronto City Council are still supportive of Transit?

  • Dexter

    According to the Toronto newspapers that I have read, Ford says that he is pro-subway and anti-streetcar. He says that he will extend major subways, but replace streetcars on major arterials (outside of St. Clair) with buses. Ford is also in favor of bike lanes. This seems like a mixed bag.

    • Eric

      I would absolutely hate to see Toronto’s iconic red streetcars go away.

      Even if Ford hadn’t won the elections…the new proposed streetcars are nice…but maybe the older streetcars could be kept on the city-centre lines.

  • Dexter

    The Transit Toronto blog mentions that Mayor Ford has changed his mind on streetcars and references an article in the Toronto Star. Perhaps he is aware that not all residents share his sentiments.

  • JJJ

    Looks like the political backtracking has already started:

    “But just two days later, his campaign team admitted there was no plan to tear out streetcar tracks.

    His brother Doug Ford said that was a rumour started by the opposition.”

    http://www.citytv.com/toronto/citynews/news/local/article/98150–ford-won-t-replace-streetcars-with-buses-as-planned

  • Matt Fisher

    I’m late in this, but I’m not impressed if Rob Ford axes the streetcars. I hope he will be stopped anyway, the same way it can be done with Transit City. Nevertheless, I am still convinced Mr. Ford will quietly try to close down the streetcars, apparently by administrative fiat. :(

  • Drewski

    http://www.thestar.com/news/article/899641–war-on-the-car-is-over-ford-moves-transit-underground?bn=1

    Lst time it was a combination of Mike Harris and Mel Lastman. That was 1995. In 2010/2011, it’s Rob Ford immobilizing Toronto, and if Hudak and Conservatives take Queens Park in next election (likely), then Toronto can not only say goodbye to any major transit improvements, but there will also be a new war–on streetcars.

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