Toronto’s Board of Trade Contemplates Transportation

Prologue: When I started to write this story, John Tory was still Mayor of Toronto and the dynamics of City-Province relations assumed he was in charge. The context for these discussions was soon to change.

The Toronto Region Board of Trade holds a yearly “transportation summit”, and on February 8, 2023, this focused on the Greater Toronto Area’s transit, plans for the future, and the aftermath of the covid pandemic.

The TRBoT is no wild-eyed radical institution. The regional economy and businesses are at the heart of causes it advocates.

Both in the introductory remarks and in comments by speakers sprinkled through the day, the economic effect of traffic congestion was a mantra. This sets the framework for the importance of both transit and road projects, depending on who is speaking. The latest factoid describing Toronto’s problems is that we have the third worst congestion in North America and the seventh worst in the world.

CBC: Toronto ranks 3rd most congested city in North America. Here are the city’s worst traffic spots

A problem with this hand-wringing is that there is little acknowledgement that some particularly bad locations are related to major infrastructure projects such as the Gardiner Expressway rebuild and various rapid transit lines. Moreover, goods movement has severe problems in areas that historically have poor transit and show little chance of seeing any in the near future. No single project will solve the problem of many-to-many trips patterns that now depend almost totally on roads and private vehicles.

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Goodbye, Mr. Tory

John Tory is no longer Mayor of Toronto. That astounding news landed on Friday evening, February 10, to the complete surprise of Toronto’s political scene. You can read the details in the Star, who broke the story, and other online sources.

The great irony here is that Tory was felled by that most garden variety political pecadillo, an affair with a staffer half his age. Meanwhile, up the road at Queen’s Park, Premier Doug Ford barrels through blatant conflicts of interest and corruption charges untouched, so far.

My topic is not to comment on either of these, but to look at Tory’s departure in the context of Toronto’s transit service and the TTC’s future.

Although Deputy Mayor Jennifer McKelvie will take over the office pro tem, we will not have a real Mayor until, at least, an election likely in May (based on legal requirements of the City of Toronto Act). This means a caretaker government at a time when a clear vision (whatever it might be) is needed for the City’s future. No individual Councillor has the Mayor’s influence to advance programs and lobby other governments for support. Each Councillor has their own shopping list, their own political links and favours, that do not necessarily align with Council as a whole, or at least those who have been the power brokers in Tory’s immediate circle.

Any project hoping for the Mayor’s support – the Eglinton East LRT extension, Waterfront transit, green buses, Osgoode Plaza, and many more – have lost the heft the Mayor’s office might have brought.

One “legacy” of the Tory years, SmartTrack, should face a quick death if only to release the substantial capital from the “City Building Fund” it represents. However, that is not easily done because there are commitments by the City to fund new GO Transit stations under the SmartTrack banner, and some of these are already nodes for major new developments. Which of them should survive deserves a thorough review. As for Metrolinx, they no longer have to maintain the fiction that there is a distinct service brand.

On the bright side, Tory’s deal-with-the-devil – Metrolinx propped up his pipedream in exchange for uncritical support – should be dead and buried.

SmartTrack was a distraction that warped planning and funding allocations for far too long. The website extolling its benefits in travel time savings for a 22-station line is still active long after that campaign scheme turned to dust.

Over at the TTC, the crisis lies in a lack of advocacy for significantly better transit. This touches many issues including a high-handed CEO rumoured to be a Tory favourite, and a lacklustre Board where much institutional memory was lost with the post-election turnover. Their job has been to keep the lights on, and to preside over budget cuts that could hogtie transit’s ability to regain lost ridership. Red paint on a few lanes in the city, assuming they could even get Council’s approval, will not attract more riders if the service is undependable and crowded, even if slightly faster. Buses have to show up to carry riders.

I often use the metaphor of a store window in talking about transit’s attractiveness. The grandest marketing campaign – “BIG SALE” signs plastered over the building – cannot make up for a lackluster collection of mouldy products and empty shelves. Too much of our transit planning and political capital goes to the razzle-dazzle.

This brings me to the question of who will replace John Tory as Mayor. I can easily name people who might have been good candidates three years out running to replace a finally-retired Tory, but everyone’s political plans rested on those three years to develop a city-wide presence and articulate a plan for what a new Mayor would bring. That luxury is gone, and quite bluntly “more of the same” is not an inspiring thought.

The interregnum will strengthen the Province vis-a-vis Toronto because Council is unlikely to speak with one voice, nor is there anyone to go hammer-and-tongs to Queen’s Park demanding a better deal for the City. Some other big city Mayor will have to take up the banner of increased federal funding and revenue tools.

The relationship between Toronto and other governments should be an important part of any Mayoral platform. Sadly, I expect that some candidates would be more than happy to fall even deeper into the “embrace” of the thugs at Queen’s Park and its agencies like Metrolinx. Toronto needs its own clear voice.

A new Mayor will have to deal with the long-standing suburb-downtown split in answering the question: what should our city be? There is no single answer to that, and anyone who tries a one-size-fits-all response will just make the problem worse. Transit is only one of many portfolios, and its political support varies across the city and beyond into the Toronto region. Even the basic question of “what should transit do” has no simple answer, especially as its role in serving downtown commuters shrank with the shift to work-from-home.

Toronto has grave financial challenges, but the larger problem will be to keep the City together rather than splitting into rival groups with unyielding demands for “their” City vision.