Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The St. Clair West fiasco should be a lesson for Toronto Council

A looming battle at Toronto's City Hall over the future of the municipality's public transportation is going to settle less about that issue than it is a stage for the mayor's opponents to flex some muscle where they see an opportunity. City Council is a continual conflict between the committed socialist and conservative factions, with the outcome decided by a few non-aligned politicians who vote, depending on who were talking about, either on the basis of their assessment of a proposal or on what they see as the most personally advantageous position to take.

The Transit City battle pits the mayor and his allies who want a subway against the Millerite  socialists who are pushing for an above-ground light rail system that was the legacy of the so-called Transit City proposal.

But what is actually best for the city? 

The mayor argues that the above ground system's requirement to have exclusive use of two traffic lanes would increase congestion on an already gridlocked road, while providing only slightly better travel time than a streetcar.

The light rail supporters claim the subway's expense is unfeasible despite a recently commissioned study which reported a contrary conclusion.

If recent history is a guide,it appears the real motive of the light rail advocates seems to be more a disdain for Toronto Mayor Rob Ford than the best transit proposal for the city.

A few years ago, a similar proposal to the light rail was put into place on St. Clair Avenue West. A pair of dedicated streetcar lanes was supposed to streamline transit, speed up travel times and revitalize the area at a relatively minor cost. The project was shepherded by the Toronto Transit Commission Vice Chair and Ward 21 Councillor Joe Mihevc, one of the main backers of the current light rail proposal.

The St. Clair line was handled devastatingly badly. It ran three times the cost estimate, it did irreparable damage to a number of local businesses as traffic was disrupted over the years of construction that went far beyond the time it was supposed to have been completed.

As someone remarked to me at the time, "Why couldn't the city just paint two yellow lines around the inside lanes, put up 'streetcar only' signs, and save 5 years and $100 million?" At the time, the answer seemed to be because politicians love spending other people's money and the power and influence that comes along with it.

Now, years later, traffic on St Clair, which has two more lanes than the relatively narrow Eglinton Avenue, is bottle-necked for cars at major intersections and the streetcars continue their old practice of moving in packs, meaning sometimes three will show up within two minutes leaving riders an up to 20 minute wait at times. Once you're on the streetcar, the ravel time between Christie and Yonge Streets, which is about half the length of the St. Clair line, has only improved by about three to four minutes from the days before dedicated lanes dominated the street.

The above ground dedicated lanes have also created a new barrier between the north and south sides of St.Clair which makes it more difficult for pedestrians to cross the street, leading to an unusual north/south divide that hadn't existed.

None of this has happened on Bloor/Danforth of University where the city's current subway lines speed people to their destination efficiently and at faster speeds than cars could take them through the city's crowded roads.

Bruce McCuaig, the head of Metrolinx, the Ontario government agency responsible for transportation coordination, has just chimed into the debate on the mayor's side, saying Mr. Ford’s preferred plan for underground light rail on Eglinton Avenue “delivers greater benefit” than the Transit City version a coalition of councillors want to revive.

For those of us who have seen what that coalition of councilors achieved in the past, Mr. McCuaig's assessment sounds like a 'no-brainer'. Unfortunately, when talking about City Council and a few of its members who are oppositional because of ideology and grudges, sometimes a no-brainer requires more brains than they seem to have.

8 comments:

Skippy Stalin said...

You're sort of half honest on one major point, Richard.

The "commissioned study" you refer to, presumably Chong's, said that subways were economically feasible provided they were paid for with things like road tolls and dedicated gas taxes.

Chong further stated that Ford's idea that the private sector would foot the bill is little more than a fucking fantasy, which Ford himself is even too smart to mention anymore.

Look, I prefer subways, too. But I insist that they be paid for. And Hizzoner hasn't figured out a way to do that yet, mostly because he's an electioneering putz and singularly incapable of governing.

I'm betting that the transit fiasco kills him dead in three years.

Richard K said...

Whaddya mean 'half honest'.. anyway, that road toll stuff, while it will never fly, has been pushed for by the far left for ages to discourage individual car use and be used for an 'environmental tax.' Now that it is being proposed for public transit, which is also environmentally beneficial, suddenly the council lefties hate it just because it's coming from Chong for the benefit of Ford`s plan..

In any case, the whole thing does not have to be built at once. Do it incrementally and see how the money can be reaized from stage to stage. The city had gone this long without either a subway or light rail on Eglinton - it will survive a few more years.

And you just wait until a certain ambitious rookie midtown mushy middle councillor becomes Mayor and, in Liberal fashion, tells everyone what they want to hear while doing nothing other than what he likes.

You will long for the days of Ford.

Skippy Stalin said...

Does that mean that we can we wait for Ford to abandon his "no new taxes pledge", too? How many promises are conservatives going to let this guy walk away from before they admit that they only support Ford because he pisses off the right people? A plus-sized George W. Bush, as it were.

And flipping on road tolls and vehicles taxes to support subway ridership just because a conservative might support it doesn't change the fact that it's using the tax code for social engineering. Christ, this could be a mirror image of the individual mandate debacle.

And look, I'm not being any tougher on Etobicoke Slim than I was on the Blonde Shadow although, as a fiscal conservative, I probably should be. The difference is that no one voted for Miller because they thought he knew the value of a dollar. Yet Ford ran on the idea that every day should be Christmas and the goddamned blogosphere is still lapping it up.

The fact remains that Ford's platform was a fucking joke when he proposed it and enormously damaging to conservatism in the long run. Unless and until the right holds their side to their promises - and makes them pay the consequences for breaking them - it'll be no better than the fucking left. And we'll deserve to lose.

Richard K said...

I hear where you're coming from, Skippy, but the difference between Miler and Ford that you're taling about at this point is one of what the former did versus what that latter might do.

Miller massively raised property taxes, brought in new taxes in the form of garbage pick-up fees, and stuffed City Hall with thousands of new CUPE workers who dug the deficit deeper (and was a smug, imperious SOB, but I wouldn't hold that against him so much if he actually wasn't such a terrible mayor). And then of course, there were his negotiating skills with the union on behalf of the city, which made him so beloved that he had to scurry out of office like a frightened blond cockroach.

Now let's look at the big guy, and what he's done: No new taxes in year 1, modest property tax (below what Council's left wanted) in year 2. He eliminated the Vehicle Registration Tax, lowered Councillors office expense stipends, is getting rid of over 1000 CUPE workers and is working on getting rid of a few thousand more.

I don't know the details of the deal with CUPE that is going to go to a ratification vote, but I'm betting the City gets a far better deal than anything Miller ever had or would have achieved if he were mayor for 1000 years.

Sure, you're looking at the numbers and thinking, 'this doesn't make sense', road tolls, figures that don't add up, it's going to cost bazillions that will require taxes and bigger deficits. But none of that has happened and my guess is it won't.

I've noticed a liitle pattern with these things coming from Ford in that he likes to terrify people with these scary scenarios, but when it comes to actually putting in the real proposal, it's soemthing completely different that makes people think "well at least we didn't have to swallow that other nasty deal."

Ford does come from a background of running a successful business, and he knows how to use effective business negotiating methods.

The pissing off the right people is just icing on the cake.

Skippy Stalin said...

First, there was a poll in the middle of the campaign - months after he said that wasn't running - that showed the Blonde Shadow beating the field by something like nine points. He had shitty polling that drove him out of the race in January, but the actual candidates in the race made him look pretty good by the end of the summer.

Second, Etobicoke Slim doesn't have a background of "running a successful business." He came across that the same way he came into his political career: He inherited it from Daddy. And most of the time that he "ran" the business, he full-time job was saying no on City Council.

Riddle me this, Richard. Would a halfway bright businessman pitch a fantastical notion to his shareholders without knowing good and godamned well that his financing was secure? Moreover, would he throw out a model that actually was fully-financed based on nothing more than a jingle to a fucking commercial?

Maybe, but his Board of Directors would think that his mind had been destroyed by syphillus and would throw his out on his well-cushioned ass. And that's pretty much what happened last night.

"My way or the highway" is only an "effective business negotiating method" when you know that your side is powerful enough to fucking well win. When it isn't, you wind up with congenital, almost demonic, scumbags like Dalton McGuinty laughing at you.

"Ford Nation" has been dead for almost a year. Last night it received it's properly undignified burial.

Richard K said...

Hey, Skippy! I said 'ran' a successful business, not started it from the ground up. I'm not buying the "he just inherited everything from daddy" line, which I've also heard from Adam Vaughan about Ford. Yes, he inherited the business, but lots of kids inherit businesses that end up going bust or downhill. As I understand it, the Fords' label company has grown from when Rob took it over to become one of the most successful businesses of its kind in North America. His job as mayor isn't to build Toronto, just fix it.

To answer your riddle, and I can tell you from personal experience: "yes."

It happens all the time in businesses that you pitch what you think is a great idea without having secured the finances first. Everything starts with an idea, and then you try to secure the financing. What you don't do is break ground, so to speak, before the financing is in place and I haven't seen Ford walking around with any shovels lately.

OK, Skippy, I'll give you the "Ford Nation" stuff is a bit silly. After "Colbert Nation" and now even Charles Adler is talking about "Adler Nation" it's all just worth an eye roll..although don't for a minute think I'm not proud to be a member of Skippy Nation.

On the other hand, the media has been completely wrong about Ford for so long, I wouldn't believe a word I read about his support level from the papers. He has huge support in the burbs - it's only the downtown core where he's not popular and even there he still gets about 33 to 40% support. Ford told me once that Mel Lastman was one of his role models. Lastman was the longest serving mayor in the world when he retired, despite a media that was out to get him, so I think a lesson can be learned there and I'm willing to bet Ford knows that if you keep people happy about constituency issues, call it 'customer service,' they reward you regardless of media carping.

Anyway, now I've got a riddle for you: What do you think the recent CUPE negotiations would have been like if Pantalone or Captain eHealth had won the mayoralty?

Skippy Stalin said...

Richard,

Actually, there are very significant differences afoot here.

Firstly, Hizzoner was explicitly told that the financing wouldn't be there if he killed Metrolinx. He did it anyway, thinking that his bizarre personality cult would overcome the opposition of a provincial government that clearly hated him. That was an almost technicolour kind of stupid.

Secondly, the ground had already been broken on both Sheppard and Eglinton before Ford was elected. It was afterward that he killed the deal that provided the financing. That tends to be forgotten, particularly among his allies and blogosphere ball-washers. Moreover, he then then threatened to campaign against the people who provided the very financing that he rejected.

These are things that you never see in a successful business, which tends to reward intelligence and caution, as opposed to drunken wishful thinking.

As for the political consequences, we'll see. If I were an anti-Ford candidate in a unified field (which I think we'll see next time), it seems to me very easy to point out that the suburbs - and Scarborough in particular - that they started out with something that might be less than ideal, and wound up with nothing.

Another fact is that he's never going to get a better deal than Metrolinx. Period. Etobicoke Slim and his fanbois seem to be operating on the assumption that the federal and provincial fiscal situations are going to get better, allowing them to be more generous to a politician who couldn't be a bigger pain in their asses.

And anyone who knows anything about reality can tell you that simply isn't the case, unless you think that Dalton McGuinty and Stephen Harper should be spending billions more in political vanity projects.

All of the above crystalizes the very un- conservative central premise of Rob Ford's governance: That he'll get everything he wants and somebody else - be it the private sector (which failed under Lastman's originial Sheppard line) or other levels of government (which most conservatives would otherwise point out can't afford it), for no other reason than he's Rob Ford.

Worse still, that undercuts Ford's position against CUPE, rather than reinforces it. If Hizzoner can reliably expected to govern on the premise that other people's money will magically appear in his pocket and bolster his position, why shouldn't the unions?

Look, I hated David Miller with all of my black little heart. But I can't avoid the fact that he at least made a good faith effort to raise the revenue to finance his fantasies, albeit through massive taxes and fees. In that, Miller was probably more tempermentally conservative than Ford, rather than less.

Richard K said...

What can I tell you, Skippy..obviously I'm not as bothered about this as you are..possibly because I'm more cynical about anything that comes out of the mouth of a municipal poltician.

The fact of the matter is that subways are more efficent for city transport (factoring speed, affect on above ground traffic, numbers of people it can transport) than the propsed LRT. As far as I know, no one's disputing that. Sometimes you just have to think big. I know you're worried about where the money will come from., but the fact is that other cities have done it and it's worked. It's a long term plan, all the money that's needed doesn't need to be spent at once.

I can tell you something very definite about Ford that is the main differentiation between him and Miller. Ford is not trying to impose a grand vision that resembles a form of social engineering. He just wants the city to work effieniently for its citizens and believe it or not, he actually does listen to what they want and he wants to help communities get it. That's something you almost never take away from MSM reports about him; you have to deal with him as a constituent (or know someone who has) to know that about the way he operates. Miller behaved like a socialist and everything about his governing style reflected that - the arrogance, the 'I know better than you what's best for you' paternalism, the throwing of civic funds at his pets and cronies.

This transit plan will go one way or another - I'm really not that personally invested in it. I live near St. Clair and already lived through the hell of that. I can tell you first hand, it was a major cluster f**k, the neighbourhood didn't want it, it was grossly inefficient and cost 3 times what they jerks who pushed it through said it would. And the same people on council who were responsible for that mess and are now congratulating themselves about it are the same ones pushing the LRT plan, which gives me zero confidence in their cost estimates for that.

And I'll tell you something else, I know people who hate Ford with all their souls. Most of them are people who think Stephen Harper is worse than Fidel Castro, which is a pretty low bar, since most of those same people actually admire Castro. And I know you're not one of those, but the point is that those people who feel that way are the bulk of the chattering class that despises Ford. They may be louder than most, but that is not representative of the average Toronto voter, particularly outside the boundaries of the lake, St Clair, Broadview and Dufferin.

At the end of the day, Ford got elected because he was the least Miller-like candidate, and I for one don't want to go back to anything even closely resembling Miller..ever. Sometimes it's not about waht you want, it's about picking the best availabale choice. You show me a responsible alternative on the current city council among that gang and I will happily join you in supporting him/her. I don't know about you, but I haven't spotted anyone who fits that bill yet.