Well, so much for the National Transit Strategy.
When city council approved the additional $417 million for the streetcar purchase on Friday, it was tacitly delivering the last rites to the campaign — advanced energetically in recent years by Mayor David Miller and other big city mayors — calling on all three levels of government to equally share the cost of major transit projects.
With the death of â€œthe ask,â€ the Conservative world-view emerged triumphant: municipal transit expenditure is appropriately funded by local taxpayers under the patriarchal guidance of the province. If Ottawa wants to get involved, it can and will, but those are strictly political calls. As for the City of Toronto’s special relationship with the federal government (a fantasy encouraged by Paul Martin), well, don’t even go there.
There was also an element of three-card monte in council’s hasty attempt to make the best of John Baird’s proffered olive branch. The TTC shuffled back some of its capital spending projects to make room for the streetcar buy, while city officials scoured the 2009 capital budget for quick-turnover projects that might pass muster with guardians of the Harper government’s fiscal stimulus package. The fairly explicit message from the mayor and city bureaucrats on Friday was that it’s all going to be a wash.
The question now is whether Miller’s friend Baird will dole out infrastructure grants that are even in the vicinity of $417 million. The right-wingers on council have publicly expressed their doubts, and I’m inclined to agree.
Think about this story from Baird’s perspective: the City of Toronto, invoking its own exceptionalism, decides to flout federal funding guidelines, is then forced to back down, but gets a second chance. Outside Toronto, the Tories will receive no love for that magnanimous gesture. And inside Toronto, well, they still look and act like a party that has no traction with 416 voters.
Does anyone in the Harper inner sanctum think that giving Miller $400 million in infrastructure funding will buy them a riding or two in the next election? Of course not.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the city ended up with scarcely more than half the value of the additional streetcar commitment. After all, as Baird will inevitably say, there were thousands of applications, all worthy. So many municipal tummies to fill, so little time.
And how will Miller respond? â€œGimme back my streetcar print!â€ The right will crow that they predicted all this. But let’s hope the mayor keeps his petulance in check.
After all, the looming re-alignment of Ontario politics could soon affect the tenor of that Miller-Baird connection, such as it is. With Saturday’s ascension of Tim Hudak to the provincial Tory leadership, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals may find themselves meaningfully challenged in 2011 and certainly under attack until then. It’s not hard to imagine that two years from now, a third-term Miller could find himself confronting a newly elected rurally-based provincial government as well as the Harper Conservatives, still clinging to that permanent minority. At which point, urban self-sufficiency, of the sort we witnessed last week, will almost certainly be the only game in town.
photo by Aubrey Arenas