On January 31, 2017, this blog celebrates its eleventh birthday. Collectively, we are up to 1,965 posts and 47,462 comments. Two big landmarks are coming up!
This is a very difficult time politically on many fronts for transit and for informed political dialogue in general with two critical problems running through all debates:
- Nobody wants to pay for anything, even if it might benefit them, but instead there is an endless search for “efficiency” that will deliver more for less.
- “Facts” are whatever someone claims they are, and those who dispute an opinion are at best simple-minded fools, and at worst enemies of the public good.
Regular readers have probably noticed that some of my writing, both here and on social media, has become less tolerant, less willing to accept the premise that the politicians who serve us are simply misguided and open to reasonable argument. That’s total bullshit, and the pols are as self-serving as ever, facts be damned. “Playing nice” only invites the assumption that one can be ignored.
The most recent news, that Premier Wynne has decided that investing in transit should not cost people anything, is only the most ridiculous in a long line of crazy plans for municipal transportation and financing. As reported in The Star:
“I know that people are having a hard time keeping up with the rising cost of living. I hear it from people everywhere I go,” Wynne told reporters Friday at a Richmond Hill bus yard.
“We need to make sure that investing in transit isn’t costing you more money,” the premier said, noting gas taxes will not rise as a result of the change.
Provincial transportation policy for the last decade has focused on voters in the 905, some of whom might actually use transit. Long ago, when “The Big Move” master plan was still a new idea, it was clear, and acknowledged by Metrolinx, that this plan would at best keep congestion from getting any worse than today by diverting most growth onto new transit lines. The Big Problem, however, was the plan’s concentration of capacity on trips bound for Toronto’s core while largely ignoring trips between the outer 416 and within the 905 region and beyond.
Local transit was somebody else’s problem, and only recently has Metrolinx acknowledged that their fully built-out network cannot work without a robust set of local services to ferry people to and from the GO stations. And if you don’t live on a rail corridor? So sad. We might run a bus now and then.
Metrolinx itself is a huge problem. It is a secretive organization meeting only occasionally in public, and then with carefully choreographed sessions in which there is far too little critical discussion of policy options. The organization, especially under the current Minister, seems to exist primarily as a provider of photo ops. The operational side, GO Transit, muddles along providing service within a constained budget, while follies such as the Union Pearson Express and Presto burn through millions with little accountability.
A few years ago, Torontonians might have thought “thank goodness, we survived Rob Ford”, but his political strategies and mindset live on. Promise everything, but expect someone else to pay. Concentrate on keeping property taxes low. Set the suburbs against the old city, the rich against the poor. Play on the politics of “we deserve”.
But John Tory came into office and things did not change much beyond leaving the Press Gallery without their favourite source of civic scandal. Tory governs with Ford’s ghost lurking just over his shoulder, and leaves the civic bureaucracy to find creative ways to stretch artificially constrained revenues.
Tory’s big election promise was “SmartTrack”, an ill-considered scheme to replace every transit improvement in the known universe with one line that would, somehow, solve every transit problem. That’s how it was pitched, along with a transparently unworkable financing scheme that would give con artists a bad name. Bit by bit, SmartTrack dwindled to a set of six new GO stations to be funded by Toronto, and there is no guarantee that these will actually be built.
After he took office, Tory discovered that Ford had cut transit service, and set about repairing the damage. However, the funding to sustain this did not all materialize, and at the current rate of budgetary constraint, the TTC will be back to pre-Tory days in short order.
At the TTC, circumstances have improved somewhat under Andy Byford, but there is still a penchant for only telling “good news” stories, a holdover from the Ford-Stintz era. Despite the cleanup of major projects like the Spadina subway extension and the Yonge-University-Spadina resignalling, major issues remain in the customer service area notably the adequacy and reliability of service, the raison d’être of any transit system. Byford wants to run the “best system in North America” by the end of 2017, but how is that even defined, let alone measured? Will he simply declare victory with riders still waiting in the cold for their buses to arrive?
The TTC, unwilling to rock the boat with calls for added funding, finds ways to trim its budget and give the impression that there is always more to save. They are comparatively silent on how the system might be improved. By implication, what we have is good enough, and any strategy to encourage riders is neither affordable nor even required. Recent political focus is on riders who might not be paying enough, not on services that could benefit everyone.
What is needed?
Above all, Toronto has to separate fact from fiction in its plans for transit and other services. What can the city do, what can it not do, and what choices does it simply avoid? Can we even have a debate about priorities when the cupboard is bare, and too many expensive promises have been made? This will require the “Civic Action” version of John Tory (presuming that was ever anything beyond a convenient shell) – the ability to speak honestly, to avoid the us-against-them rhetoric and to put hard choices about the city’s future before the public.
In the short term, the best we can hope for at Queen’s Park is that there will be no further retrenchment in transit commitments. How this will fare, especially if the Liberals are defeated in 2018, is difficult to say. The Tory caucus is not exactly an urban one dedicated to support of municipal services. The NDP talks a good line, but is often captive to its own fascination with “the middle class” and tax relief. Their platform’s importance lies more in what they might demand or support in a minority government, not as policy for a government-in-waiting.
Does Toronto really want a good transit system? Do we even know what a “good system” would look like? With so many other issues swirling around us, including basic questions of democracy and the future of society, transit advocacy can easily be drowned out among many voices.
From time to time, I am asked “why do you do this”, and my response, especially lately, is prefaced with a sigh and much rolling of the eyes. But a good city is worth fighting for, worth calling for better services from which all citizens will benefit, and worth calling out the charlatans who thwart that goal for their own political benefit. The debates, both here and in other venues, can be bracing, but the result is that everyone gets to hear a variety of opinions even if we don’t all agree.
Thank you all for reading and writing, even those of you who lurk out of sight, and may 2017 see more progress than posturing.