In the Toronto Mayoral race for 2022, there is only one person I could vote for: Gil Penalosa.
His many policy planks cover a wide variety of topics, some more thoroughly than others, but they share a common goal of making Toronto a better city.
After nearly three years of pandemic, and many more of fiscal austerity before them, Toronto needs to think beyond this to ask what should the city be? What could it be?
Too often we begin with the premise that we cannot afford anything, and plan on that basis.
In John Tory’s Toronto, we see the cumulative effect of spending, when it happens, focused on pet projects like SmartTrack (itself a shadow of the original promise), misplaced priorities (the Gardiner rebuild), and credit taken for programs by others (Ontario’s transit plan). On other areas talk demonstrably exceeds action. The big ticket items are capital works, projects that will not show results for years, while day-to-day services crumble.
I have no illusions that in a Gil Penalosa Toronto all would be perfection. I have already written about shortcomings in the FastLane proposal for a Bus Rapid Transit network. To his credit, Penalosa has released a second policy regarding transit priority, the FastLane Quick Fixes that proposes extensive priority changes for streetcars, especially those already on reserved lanes.
More is needed, including a commitment to much improved service, but my sense is that Penalosa is not stuck on one map as the master solution to transit problems. Too many elections are fought on grand plans, on maps with great promise for the 2030s, but with nothing for today’s transit riders. Steak tomorrow, but gruel today.
Penalosa also proposes reducing fares to $1 for low income riders. This would be a substantial cut below the “Fair Pass” that now gives approximately the same discount as Seniors’ and Students’ fares and therefore offers no benefit to low-income riders in these groups.
The challenge for any new Mayor will be how to pay for everything, and what programs will take priority.
From John Tory, we know that a tax increase below inflation is his target, although the current economic figures give him far more leeway than in past years. However property taxes are only about one third of Toronto’s total revenues, and money from other sources is not a sure thing, notably from the Land Transfer Tax. After a covid-era fare freeze, there is no word on what might happen to TTC fares which accounted for over $1 billion in City revenue in pre-pandemic times.
What we do know is that there will not be new money for anything without offsets elsewhere. The TTC’s 2023 Draft Service Plan includes restructured routes and new services, but they are all on a no-net-cost basis. If you want something new, you have to sacrifice something that’s already there. The TTC will be lucky to achieve even that unless it receives funding to replace covid supports from Ontario and Canada. (Details of the 2023 plan have been shared via consultations with various groups, and they will appear on the TTC’s website soon.)
The same problem applies across the city. We face the combined effect of revenues that do not rise to cover even inflationary costs, let alone new services, and the cutback of pandemic-related subsidies that will dwindle or vanish in 2023 and beyond.
Penalosa would face the same fiscal problems. The next few years will not be easy for Toronto no matter who is in the Mayor’s office. The difference would be the direction, the aim, the choice of top priorities for real change and improvement.
I voted for Gil Penalosa even though the polls show an almost certain Tory win because Toronto’s body politic must see that there is support for an alternative, for a better city. The debate about our future must continue even after the election as Toronto looks ahead to better economic times and to new regimes at both City Hall and Queen’s Park.
For the record: I was not asked for advice on nor did I contribute to any of Penalosa’s policy development.
Election day is Monday October 24, but I have already voted by mail. If you’re thinking of getting my vote, it’s too late.