Promises, Promises: 2023 Edition

The Toronto Mayoral By-Election is just under a month away, and candidates pump out announcements daily, often with a transit spin. In this article I will look at the transit-related issues they are trying to address (or in some cases avoid).

All of this takes place in a strange world where the availability of money to pay for anything is suspect. Is a promise is even credible let alone affordable? Many of the platforms overlap, and so I will take related issues in groups rather than enumerating and critiquing each candidate’s platform.

A month ago, I wrote about what a transit platform should look like:

That sets out my philosophy of what I seek in a candidate, and the short version appears below. If you want the long version, click on the link above.

  • Service is key. Run as much as possible, everywhere, and run it well.
  • Build budgets based on what you want to see, not on what you think you can afford. Just getting by is not a recipe for recovery and growth. If the money doesn’t come, then look to “Plan B” but aim for “Plan A”.
  • Fares are a central part of our transit system, but the question is who should pay and how much. Strive for simplicity. Give discounts where they are truly needed. Make the transit system worth riding so that small, regular increases are acceptable.
  • Focus on ease of use among transit systems in the GTA, but do not equate “integration” with amalgamated governance.
  • Transit property: parking or housing?
  • Foster a culture of advocacy in management and on the TTC Board.
  • Beware of lines on maps. A “my map vs your map” debate focuses all effort on a handful of corridors while the rest of the network rots.
  • Plan for achievements in your current term and make sure they actually happen. Longer term is important, but the transit ship is sinking. You are running for office in 2023. Vague promises for the 2030s are cold comfort to voters who have heard it all before.

Full disclosure: I have always maintained an “open door” to anyone who wants to talk transit, and in this round I have been approached by both the Matlow and Chow campaigns for information and advice, as well as some media outlets. This I provided pro bono and without any “leakage” of who asked me what. No other candidates asked. How much of my input shows up in platforms is quite another matter. We shall see as the campaign unfolds.

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Au Revoir to Queen Street

With the shutdown of Queen Street for Ontario Line construction between Victoria and Bay, we will not see streetcars there for many years. The last cars will run just before midnight on April 30, 2023.

Until early 2024, the absence will be over a longer stretch from Broadview to McCaul until new diversion track via York and Adelaide is finished. In turn, that depends on relocating nine utility vaults under the new Adelaide trackage.

It is possible that the TTC will revise the diversion pattern once the Don Bridge reopens to streetcars later in 2023 (it will close for maintenance on May 7), but nothing has been decided yet.

Here are photos of various generations of streetcars on the central section of Queen as a memento while we await their return.

Note that this is a large gallery, and it will take a while to load after you first click on a photo.

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A Transit Platform For Toronto

Two months from now, on June 26, Toronto will elect a new Mayor thanks to John Tory’s unexpected departure. There will be at least fifty candidates on the ballot, although most of them will garner only a handful of votes.

I am not one of them, and have no ambitions to high office. That said, I certainly have hopes that our new Mayor will have a strong pro-transit agenda and will actually care about the City rather than brown-nosing their way to small favours from Queen’s Park.

For those who are interested, here is the campaign-sized version of my advice and platform were I running:

  • Service is key. Run as much as possible, everywhere, and run it well.
  • Build budgets based on what you want to see, not on what you think you can afford. Just getting by is not a recipe for recovery and growth. If the money doesn’t come, then look to “Plan B” but aim for “Plan A”.
  • Fares are a central part of our transit system, but the question is who should pay and how much. Strive for simplicity. Give discounts where they are truly needed. Make the transit system worth riding so that small, regular increases are acceptable.
  • Focus on ease of use among transit systems in the GTA, but do not equate “integration” with amalgamated governance.
  • Transit property: parking or housing?
  • Foster a culture of advocacy in management and on the TTC Board.
  • Beware of lines on maps. A “my map vs your map” debate focuses all effort on a handful of corridors while the rest of the network rots.
  • Plan for achievements in your current term and make sure they actually happen. Longer term is important, but the transit ship is sinking. You are running for office in 2023. Vague promises for the 2030s are cold comfort to voters who have heard it all before.

That’s more than will fit comfortably on a leaflet, but, hey, I am the blogger who writes long form articles about transit. As a commentator, my biggest worry lies with those who say “TL,DR”. In the following sections I will expand on the bullets above. Thanks for reading.

How much would all this cost? In many cases the answer depends on the scale and speed of implementation. Although I have a sense of at least order of magnitude costs, I am not going to be foolish enough to put specific dollar figures here. For too long, City policy has started with a budget rather than a philosophy, an aspiration to be great, and settled for just good enough. We almost certainly cannot afford everything today, but we need to know what tomorrow we strive for.

If the 2003 Ridership Growth Strategy taught us anything, it was that we should first talk about aspirations, about what the transit system might be, rather than precluding debate with the classic “we can’t afford it” response. It’s amazing what monies can be found once information is out in the open. We commit tens of billions to construction, but are terrified, at least politically, by far lower costs to improve transit for everybody today.

I have deliberately omitted a discussion of security and related social services here. These are not just transit issues, but part of a city-wide, society-wide problem that will not be solved with a simple show of force. Recent trends both in public opinion and official responses at the City and TTC show an emphasis on providing support for those who need it: the homeless and the mentally unwell. This should continue and expand.

An inevitable question is who will I endorse? That will come later in the campaign as candidates flesh out their programs. Some make their beds with the provincial Tories. As enemies of the city, collaborators, they deserve only contempt. For others, we are in promising early days.

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Osgoode Hall Garden and University Park

Over past months, the Ontario Line’s effect on trees in various locations around Toronto has become something of a cause célèbre. Osgoode Hall was, in a way, the “poster child” for this because of its location and the historic buildings at Queen & University. However, this was far from the only affected location with tree felling on a massive scale elsewhere including Moss Park, Riverside, and now planned for the Don Valley at the Leaside Bridge and the crossing of Walmsley Brook north of Thorncliffe Park.

A common refrain from citizens along the Ontario Line and other corridors is that Metrolinx does not deal in good faith, but rather presents its positions as unchangeable and pressing. They look only for acquiescence so that “consultation” can be claimed for the record. There is no public record of these consultations, and no community is aware of what might be told to others except by information sharing among them.

I have written about the garden at Osgoode Hall before, most recently in a review of the report prepared for the City of Toronto by Parsons looking at various alternative configurations.

On February 23, 2023, Toronto and East York Community Council established a subcommittee composed of Councillors from Wards 10 Spadina-Fort York, 13 Toronto Centre and 14 Toronto-Danforth and “directed the Executive Director Transit Expansion Division to report to the first meeting in March 2023 regarding the current status of the Ontario Line, pedestrian and traffic management plans, and opportunities for City and resident involvement moving forward”.

That meeting will occur on March 22, 2023. The only report on the agenda is from the Executive Director, and a great deal of it is a rehash of information from earlier reports along with a claim that Metrolinx is engaging with communities along the corridor. The actual degree of consultation is a matter for some debate, and one cannot wonder whether the ED is parroting the official line from Metrolinx, hardly an appropriate tactic for a senior City official. I will address that report in more detail after the meeting, but turn here to a proposal for the new entrance to Osgoode Station.

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Richard F. Glaze Film Digitization Project Phase 2

Normally, I would not post a fundraiser on this site, but this one is very special.

James Bow of Transit Toronto has launched a fundraiser for the second phase of digitizing a trove of 16mm film from the estate of Richard F. Glaze.

James writes:

We’ve raised enough that we’re definitely going to digitize the three remaining train-related 400-foot reels in the collection. These date from the late 1950s and offer around 9 minutes of footage from the last days of streetcar operation in Montreal, 2 minutes of footage from the last days of streetcar operation in Ottawa, footage from the last days of Rochester’s streetcar subway, and CN steam locomotive 6218 (I think that’s the number; I don’t have the canister at hand at the moment). On top of this, I’ll be able to digitize another 12 100-foot reels from Toronto and Ontario in the 1970s (some interesting Ontario Northlander footage is available).

That still leaves 68 100-foot reels. The good news is, since these cost about $150 per reel to digitize, and I can probably get these scanned over time. However, every $150 we raise between now and the end of the month puts another reel on the pile, so hopefully we can make a good push of this.

Any contribution is worthwhile, big or small, via the gofundme page for this project.

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.

Osgoode Station Entrance Review

Metrolinx plans along several of its corridors have provoked community opposition and proposed alternative schemes, but Metrolinx has been quite intransigent about “just getting things built”, the mantra of the Ford government at Queen’s Park. Opposition is not merely steamrolled, but is painted as anti-transit, out of touch, and nimbyist in preventing the wider population from enjoying the benefit of new transit lines.

This does not endear Metrolinx to many groups (and they stretch well into the 905, not just central Toronto), but Metrolinx does not care. For them, it’s all about managing the message. Most communities just roll over and give in to an unstoppable force trying to make the best of a bad situation. “Consultation” amounts to picking the colour of the tiles for a bathroom reno, and hoping that the contractor actually installs the ones you selected.

Several sites along GO corridors and the Ontario Line have been subject to tree clearing either to open construction sites, or to remove trees that will conflict with electrification infrastructure. A small grove at Osgoode Hall, although far from the largest area Metrolinx has cleared, received much publicity because of its location. The northeast corner of Queen and University is a park beside one of Toronto’s oldest buildings, a green space complementing the square at City Hall just to the east and a more recent arrival, Campbell House, to the west.

Although the park was owned by the Law Society of Ontario, the portion Metrolinx requires was expropriated for the Ontario Line. The community around Osgoode Hall (a mix of the legal profession, the local BIA, residents and heritage advocates) convinced Toronto Council to undertake a review of Metrolinx plans in comparison with alternative designs that would preserve the treed parkland.

This report was produced by a consulting firm, Parsons, and was posted on the City’s website on February 4. It exists in two formats:

An interim injunction, in force until February 10, paused the felling of trees at Osgoode Hall for a time. Other locations have not been as lucky, nor have they had groups like the Law Society capable of taking on Metrolinx.

An important distinction for this site is that it also contains a heritage building, and there are concerns for potential damage Osgoode Hall might suffer from the overall construction plans. However, the injunction itself only applies to the trees, and it is not clear whether the wider issue of construction effects will form part of the broader argument when the application is heard.

Among the legal issues will be whether a heritage site with mixed ownership (the Law Society, Metrolinx and Ontario) can be treated as “indivisible” for the purpose of heritage preservation so that one owner, the LSO, can prevent changes on property of another owner, Metrolinx. There is also the question of whether Metrolinx can even be bound by an injunction as it is one of many agencies that are exempt from many provincial regulations.

In Brief

  • An interim injunction pauses work until February 10, with possible extension, pending further review.
  • The Parsons report commissioned by the City was published at the last moment, and was seized upon by Metrolinx to justify commencement of work on the same day as the injunction hearing.
  • Parsons concurs that the Metrolinx proposal is the best of those analyzed, but suggests that an alternative using the Campbell House site should be studied in more detail.
  • The Campbell House option would effectively displace the house from its location, and it is doubtful that it could return in as harmonious a setting as it has today.
  • Parsons does not afford the same treatment to the Osgoode Plaza proposal even though this is the major contender among the alternatives.
  • The City’s inaction on the proposed Osgoode Plaza is an (almost) missed opportunity to make the new station and the intersection into a major site downtown. If this is to be pursued, prompt action by the City is needed so that Metrolinx could adjust their construction plans accordingly.

If City Council, and most importantly Mayor Tory, are serious about an alternative to the Metrolinx plans for Osgoode Station, they should proceed as quickly as possible to endorse the Osgoode Plaza scheme and work with Metrolinx to adjust construction plans for Osgoode Station on the basis of road space on University Avenue that the plaza will free up.

In the presentation accompanying the report, the Osgoode Plaza option is shown first, and it is dismissed for various reasons notably the absence of detailed studies because the City has not yet embraced the proposed reconfiguration of University Avenue. Rather than recommending that the potential of this scheme be examined in greater detail, Parsons rejects it. This effectively prejudices the report to endorse the Metrolinx scheme as the only viable option, with a faint hope alternative that is worse than the original.

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Here we are again at this blog’s anniversary. Looking back over the past year, let alone ahead to the next one, I regret that I am not in an up-beat, optimistic mood.

A year ago, I wrote:

In Ontario, there is hope that opposition will coalesce to drive the Premier and his band of incompetent fools from office. Whether we will get a new band of fools remains to be seen, but a Toronto, an Ontario in which nobody named “Ford” has any power is long overdue. Simplistic, populist slogans and dogma are no replacement for competent, dare I say, inspiring government.

This year I really do want to look forward, even with some misgivings on the social and political landscape.

The NDP and Liberal opposition did not manage to seize power, and won’t even have a shot at this until 2026. Meanwhile, we are stuck with Doug Ford and his gang of rogues who will sell off the province to their pals. Between rhetoric for the cameras, and legislation working against any interest that does not contribute to his party, Ford’s reign brings fresh disasters at every turn.

If there were a credible alternate view at the municipal level, I might hope at least for some balance, an alternate voice, but Mayor Tory continues to focus on doing whatever he can to cheapen Toronto. Some effects are not immediately visible, but they are cumulative. The City’s ability to be great, to inspire citizens to hope for more, drifts further and further out of reach.

Both “leaders” share a common problem: their egos and their dislike of criticism or opposition. They are right and everyone else is wrong, part of a rabble opposition who can be dismissed, if need be by legislative fiat.

On the transit front, their respective agencies echo this stance. Metrolinx and the TTC are run by CEOs who want things their way, and who answer, if that is the word, to boards utterly unwilling to challenge their rule (or under marching orders to shut up and vote the right way).

Without question, three years of the pandemic have stretched every agency thin. The lights stay on, flickering, only by infusion of special subsidies that already wane and could disappear within one fiscal year. That environment gave management a chance to take more power from their boards who, especially at the TTC, had many other problems as Councillors. That power will not likely be clawed back and delegated authority will be the “new normal”.

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