» 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.