Every fiscal conservative in this city should thank TTC chair Karen Stintz for daring last week to speak truth to power about the Eglinton Crosstown fiasco.
Yes, fiscal conservatives. Not just Transit City lovers.
By asking whether Metrolinx will be using the appropriate vehicles in that 19-km tunnel, Stintz nailed the key technical question hanging over Mayor Rob Ford’s plan to bury the entire LRT at a premium of $2.1 billion. But by proposing ways to stretch those dollars (a Sheppard subway extension to Victoria Park and a BRT corridor on Finch), she has, in effect, posed a hard-headed question that no one, to my knowledge, has adequately answered:
Can Metrolinx prove to Ontario taxpayers that it will maximize its massive investment in Eglinton by proceeding with Ford’s faith-based burial scheme?
In fact, the curious reality is that neither the province, nor the city, has a clue. While Metrolinx has conducted so-called “benefits case analyses” on several other of its undertakings, Spacing has learned that the agency didn’t apply this kind of rigour to the Crosstown, even though it officially ranks as Canada’s most expensive infrastructure project.
In other words, we haven’t seen any kind of thorough-going side-by-side analysis comparing the original Eglinton to the mayor’s version. No one’s tried to project development activity or estimate incremental tax assessment growth along the corridor where the line will be buried. No one’s attempted to calculate whether the additional capital outlay will generate a commensurate increase in revenue, or how the marginal operating expenditures of the two configurations will compare ten, twenty or thirty years hence.
No one’s sought to determine what happens to long-term operating costs if rider demand on the buried LRT exceeds capacity sooner than predicted. And no independent entity has tested the mayor’s allegations about chronic traffic congestion on post right-of-way St. Clair West, which he is the cudgel he uses to justify burying the Crosstown along its entire breadth.
All we know is that the all-buried version will move slightly faster than the semi-buried original. But even that differential is anything but assured because the service levels are determined not just by speed, but also by head times.
Real fiscal conservatives would demand crisp answers to these questions before proceeding, simply because they’d want solid assurances that scarce taxpayer dollars are being deployed efficiently and effectively.
Now consider this: if Greater Toronto accounts for half of Ontario’s economic activity, and the City of Toronto half of that again, as is conventionally estimated, then 416 taxpayers are putting up about $500 million of the funds required to bury the line completely – i.e., roughly $200 for every man, woman and child.
By the same logic, however, taxpayers in the rest of the province are anteing up 75% of that extra $2.1 billion in burial fees. If the brothers Ford were genuine, as opposed to phony, fiscal conservatives, they’d be especially attentive to the externally-generated portion of the Crosstown budget, because the bulk of that money – i.e., other people’s money – will not benefit those who foot the bill.
But of course, there’s absolutely no evidence of any such concern. They simply grabbed the cash on the barrelhead and made a run for the door (possibly in contravention of various municipal procedures, according to a legal opinion sought by Joe Mihevc).
Lacking any kind of independently confirmed justification for his scheme, Ford last week took to Facebook to mulishly defend his position in the face of mounting council and public opposition. (His post, as was widely noted on twitter, contained several glaring errors, as well as a strong dose of revisionism: By claiming that subways formed the backbone of Toronto’s transit planning between 1910 and 2007, he conveniently neglected to mention that the city abruptly stopped building rapid transit in the 1990s because of the downloading imposed by the Harris government, of which his late father, Doug, was a charter member.)
How this plays out politically remains to be seen, although it’s clear that the controversy, brewing for months, has landed like a bomb. Stintz and others on the right, including members of Ford’s cabinet, are looking for a compromise solution. But absent another kumbaya moment, it is not difficult to imagine that a resolution on Eglinton could yield a result similar to the budget compromise – a razor-thin margin of victory that turned on the absence of a stalwart supporter (Ron Moeser).
While I agree that council is supreme, there’s no way that a very tight vote on a decision as far-reaching as the Crosstown configuration could be considered a victory, regardless of which side prevailed. And a split council certainly could not be construed as evidence that the city has got its “act together,” as one of Dalton McGuinty’s cabinet ministers pithily put it last week.
Rather, a very close council vote on Eglinton should be seen as a bone fide governance crisis, especially if the mayor (I’m talking about the office, not the man) is on the losing side. By petulantly refusing to compromise or listen to reason, the mayor (the man, now, not the office) is also revealing that he’s failed to learn the central lesson of leadership: that politics, at its core, is about the art of the possible.
In the event, it falls to the province/Metrolinx to act like the grown-up (for a change). In fact, I’d argue that the McGuinty government has only one defensible option available to it in the event of a split decision: press the pause button and order up the benefits case analysis it should have commissioned in the first place.
Given the Liberals’ woefully undisciplined approach to Metrolinx, I’m not holding my breath. But true fiscal conservatives would demand nothing less.