Think About Transit on Finch and Sheppard, But Not Yet

On May 30, I sat through a bizarre debate at Toronto’s Planning & Growth Management Committee.  Two motions proposed at Council were referred off to this Committee for action, one regarding Sheppard and the other for Finch.  The intent of these motions was to provoke a discussion of and request detailed information about the status of transit on the now-abandoned parts of the Transit City routes beyond the scope of the proposed subway extension project.

First up was Sheppard.  Councillor Raymond Cho, whose ward encompasses the northeastern part of Scarborough, is very disappointed that plans to improve transit to his constituents, and to the outer part of Scarborough generally, have been cancelled.  He asked that, at a minimum, consideration be given to taking the rebuilt SRT (now the Eglinton Crosstown line) further north to Sheppard as this would bring the rapid transit network across the 401 and much closer to Malvern.

Councillor Karen Stintz (also chair of the TTC) proposed that discussion of the issue be deferred “until such time as the Toronto Transit Commission’s plans for improved public transit on Sheppard Avenue are known”.

This is an odd stance to take given that there is no indication the TTC is working on any plans for improved public transit beyond the scope of the proposed Sheppard Subway to Scarborough Town Centre (STC).  Cho asked that at least a time limit for such a report be included in the motion, but this idea was not acceptable as an amendment by Stintz.

Councillor Joe Mihevc (former TTC Vice-Chair) argued that avoiding discussion now would lead to a finished product being presented for an up-or-down decision with no time for debate or public input.  He argued that people affected by the cancellation of Transit City want input into alternative plans now.  Stintz replied that Metrolinx is running a series of meetings regarding the Eglinton line, but what these have to do with service on Sheppard and Finch is hard to fathom.

Councillor Anthony Perruzza (another former TTC Commissioner) asked about the cost to the city of the cancelled Transit City projects.  Stintz went into a convoluted explanation claiming that Transit City was put together before Metrolinx existed, that it was worked out as input to The Big Move, and that since Metrolinx decided to change its plan, there was no cost to the City.  Stintz claimed that since Transit City was never funded, there could not have been any costs.

This is simply not true on a few counts.  Metrolinx was created as the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority in 2006, and changed to its current name in 2007.  At the beginning of David Miller’s second term as Mayor in December 2006, it was already known that Queen’s Park was working on a comprehensive new transit plan in anticipation of the fall election.  Whatever Toronto had on the table would likely become part of it.  Transit City was announced early in 2007, and in June 2007, Premier McGuinty announced MoveOntario2020.  Metrolinx was charged with sorting through all of the projects in a long shopping list from the GTA regions and this, eventually, became The Big Move.

The TTC, with the approval of City Council, undertook a number of Transit City studies, and carried their costs on its own books.  Once the projects were officially funded, Queen’s Park reimbursed Toronto for the costs to date.  Some projects, such as Jane and Don Mills, never reached funded status, and the sunk costs on those projects remain on the City and TTC books.

The Memorandum of Understanding between Mayor Ford and Queen’s Park explicitly states that Toronto is on the hook to repay any subsidy already paid on Transit City projects (such as preliminary engineering and Environmental Assessments)  that are no longer part of the overall plan.  This affects the Finch and Sheppard LRT projects, and probably the SRT extension.

As for Metrolinx changing its plans, it was no secret that Mayor Ford was immovable on the elimination of surface LRT from the plans, and that Queen’s Park needed to salvage the Eglinton Crosstown line by making it an LRT subway.  The decision to cut Finch and Sheppard East out of the plan was simply a way to placate Ford, to free up additional funding for Eglinton, and to get out of the way of Ford’s Sheppard Subway.  This was not a unilateral Metrolinx decision.

As the debate continued, it was clear that Stintz was being too clever for her own good by trying to treat work-to-date as not part of “Transit City”.  This is an example of the gyrations through which Mayor Ford’s team will go to warp history to fit their agenda.

Councillor Adam Vaughan grilled Stintz on the issue of tolls, a subject recently raised by Gordon Chong who is running Toronto Transit Infrastructure Limited (TTIL), a TTC subsidiary.  Stintz attempted to claim that she has no reporting relationship with Chong even though she Chairs TTIL’s parent body.  Isolated by the TTIL board on which she does not sit, Stintz claims she has no responsibility for what Chong might say.  The irony here is that Chong, as a Ford crony, really doesn’t report to Stintz who is more and more only a figurehead at the TTC where major financial decisions are concerned.

Vaughan continued with questions about funding of the Sheppard line and the amount of development needed to generate revenues that would finance its construction.  He proposed that the Chief Planner report on development sites along the corridor and the potential effect of large-scale redevelopment at densities much higher than have been contemplated as part of Transit City.  Councillor Peter Milczyn (chair of the P&GM committee and vice-chair of the TTC), punted that idea off the table by suggesting that this be done as part of the quinquennial review of the Official Plan that will get underway later this year.  Vaughan and others responded that people should know now, not in the indefinite future, the implications of Ford’s financing schemes for development in their neighbourhoods.

Councillor Ana Bailão spoke laughingly to Vaughan as if Transportation City were already a done deal when in fact neither it nor the Ford MOU has ever been to Council, unlike Transit City which required both funding approvals and Official Plan Amendments.

The entire debate took on a surreal tone with the Ford faction (who control both the committee and the TTC) weaving a fable about how discussion now would be premature, and that the new “Transportation City” plan was getting the same level of debate and consideration as “Transit City”.  In fact, it is getting almost no debate, the very issue this faction complains about every time they talk about Miller’s exclusion of the right in the Transit City planning.

The Ford team spends far too much time justifying its actions, its lack of consultation and transparency, by reference to the Miller years.  That was a weak excuse months ago, and now it’s positively laughable.  A city is not governed on resentment for a man, for a regime no longer in power, but on a coherent, believable vision for the city.

In the end, the same fate met the requests for additional reports on both Sheppard and Finch — the issues, even a request for information, are deferred until the TTC gets around to proposing something specific for each of the corridors.  We already know what the Finch report looks like complete with its confusion of a golf course for a college in the route planning.  Nothing has been presented to the TTC on the Sheppard east corridor.

“Transparency” is not a word I would use to describe transit planning in Toronto under Mayor Ford.  In time we may see what, if anything, the TTC comes up with for the two corridors.

Meanwhile, the 2012 operating budget, almost certain to bring service cuts and fare increases, is expected to surface at the June 8 TTC meeting.  The city’s huge deficit going into the budget process will make any talk of new service on Finch, Sheppard or any other corridor seem like a distant memory.