LORINC: A city that doesn’t learn from transit mistakes

 

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How many times do we have to bang our heads against the wall before we finally get the message?

Apparently, based on Friday’s little news nugget about the Scarborough subway’s inflated cost, that number is not a small one.

In this city, we don’t learn from our mistakes. Rather, we learn only how to make them again, and again, and again. As the old saying goes, history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce. But Toronto needs a third phase, because we’re now out there in post-farce terrain.

There’s really only one thing to say about John Tory’s insistence on pressing ahead with a $2.9 billion, one-stop subway extension that will serve fewer people than many of the city’s bus routes and cost 45% more than initially projected?

How, Mr. Mayor, can the City be so ignorant? Or fiscally irresponsible, for that matter?

There are other secondary criticisms to make, naturally.

At the risk of saying “we told you so,” well, we told you so. Spacing’s 2014 investigation, based on extensive freedom of information requests, unearthed a Metrolinx memo warning that the cost for an earlier version of the Scarborough subway could rise by 40 to 50%. I regret to report that we nailed that prediction two years out, although I’m guessing the price of this boondoggle will continue to rise.

Here’s another: how is it that council continues to approve mega-projects before they have been properly costed out, in effect selling taxpayers on one bill of goods after another? Surely, after years of this particular form of perfidy, you’d think council would offer only conditional approvals pending more detailed budgets.

After all, no one buys a house without making the final sale conditional on a thorough inspection and a legal assessment of whether the property is unencumbered by liens and so on. That’s how you pay for expensive purchases: you do due diligence. Except, it seems, for Toronto council, and its enablers in the provincial cabinet, who collectively encourage voters to believe the fantasy figures that inevitably prove to be utterly baseless.

And a last one: after we all went through the elaborate public consultation process (charade?) earlier this year that played out in the wake of a council-Queen’s Park compromise about rapid transit in Scarborough (a scaled back subway, with the balance of the available funds going to finance a wider network of LRTs, including the Crosstown East, that would together have created a genuinely connected system in the east end), Tory now turns around and effectively flips the bird at all those expectant residents in Scarborough’s south-east neighbourhoods.

Why? Because, hey, it seems like there’s simply nothing more important than for the mayor to be able to say, two years hence, that he’s building a subway in Scarborough. Even if it’s a subway that will make the Sheppard line look like a paragon of savvy planning. Even it doesn’t make one damn bit of difference to local transit service in the long run. Nope, Tory is going to get that wretched thing built, even if he has to waste every last dollar the city has to spend on such investments. In for a penny, in for a billion, and all that.

Yet apart from all the policy slings and arrows, the truly perplexing aspect of Tory’s stance is how it reveals a certain political amnesia, or at least a troubling inability to learn from the recent past.

When I ponder this latest twist in the Scarborough subway melodrama, I find myself casting back to that very ripe moment in early 2012, when a growing contingent on council had become increasingly uneasy about then-Mayor Rob Ford’s bullying and his absurd fictions about building cost-free subways in Scarborough.

In the wake of some backroom deal-making between the centre and the left, then-TTC chair Karen Stintz led a council insurrection against Ford’s transit gambit, re-establishing (albeit temporarily) much of Transit City. (Stintz, of course, later learned that the Scarborough subway is the proverbial third rail of Toronto politics.)

Although the circumstances are not identical for all sorts of reasons, I’d say that Tory has blithely wandered to the very edge of a political precipice, and clearly has no clue about what could happen with the next step. Will a Stintz-like ring leader emerge on council and wrest the transit steering wheel from Tory’s hands?

I think it’s becoming an entirely plausible scenario. After all, Tory is increasingly tainted by a run of super costly decisions and non-decisions alike, including, in this latest instance, a $900 million+ outlay to build a project that seems to serve no purpose other than providing him with a talking point if Doug Ford runs for mayor in 2018. Beyond that, he doesn’t know how to pay for even a scaled-back Smart Track. He hasn’t done much to wrestle the out-of-control police budget to the ground. The capital budget contains a $1 billion hole, but likely more. And the mayor has mostly rejected his own top bureaucrat’s advice to find new revenue streams or face the prospect of the sorts of service cuts he came into office vowing to reverse. Poor judgment, remember, is his Achilles Heel.

Had Tory paid attention to the history of Toronto council politics between 2010 and 2014, he’d know that mayors can and do lose power between elections. If he’s not careful, that absurd six-kilometre tunnel could become his political grave.

 

photo by wyliepoon

6 comments

  1. Wishful thinking.

    Rob Ford lost the transit file because he was absolutely incompetent at politics. Not because his ideas were terrible, but because he was unable to use the power of his office to get Councillors to vote for his terrible ideas. John Tory may have similarly terrible (and terribly similar) ideas, but he at least knows how to win friends and influence people.

    Another thing: Karen Stintz was able to lead the charge to take back the transit file because she was a right-winger. She was able to lead a coalition of left-wing and centrist councillors and get some right-wingers on her side because of her own right-wing credentials. Who among Council’s right could actually pull that off today? (I don’t see left or centre councillors with a chance of leading the right on this issue.)

    I don’t see anything changing unless there is a public outcry that makes Tory and Council fear for their jobs (Forum says Tory’s approval is at 74%, so…) or until the Ontario government changes and this can be spun as another Liberal Spending Scandal.

  2. The problem is that regardless if a decision is made or not no one is ever happy, lets review it again and again, the problem is then it NEVER gets built

  3. If we go back to 2012.

    Everyone in Scarborough was happy with the connected SRT and Eglinton line, proving that it is not the case that it must be subway, just that it must be a continuous, reliable, rapid line. It was this cancellation that led to all problems.

    This connected line was killed in early 2012, when months later in the spring, Metrolinx completed a report saying it was the best solution. Liberals withheld this report from the public and from Council forcing them to vote and make decisions without the proper information. For this, the provincial Liberals take a lion’s share of the blame.

    Now that 4 years have past, I do not know what the solution is.

    Now there is one camp that demands subways (i.e. Tory, Liberals)
    The other camp wants LRT to restore the legacy of David Miller (i.e. left of Council).
    Planners seem to be siding with whoever they feel has the most power.

    Nobody is actually trying to determine why the LRT failed, and why subway is wanted. The answer is simple; to connect Scarborough with downtown (or at least the Yonge spine) with a continuous, rapid and reliable transit line. If people would look to solve this problem, the solution could be found.

  4. I know the one-stop subway is cheaper than a three-stop subway. How about a zero-stop subway?

  5. I think it is time to seriously look at the ST spur that some drew up. As outlined, we could have one branch run from Eglinton West to STC, and the other go from Bramalea to Unionville.

  6. Thanks for this, and for the leadership in the FoI digging and exposes. It is a scandal; Royson James was scathing about it all in the Sat. Star, and one can hope there are some fiscal conservatives on the Council, somewhere, maybe just in the core.

    Sadly the taint of the buy-election transit scheming has spread well beyond the SSE in my view, to most of the rest of the projects now under some ‘development’. We are confining ourselves to only what has been around for 60 or 20 years that might fit into the latitudes of political possibility, and it must include plenty of concrete pouring and jobs for men, and avoid things that take political will and thus court controversy. For instance, a clear winner for some relief, and in the near future, may well be to adjust the Don Valley Parkway to have busway priority in to the very core, but that would inconvenience some of the drivers. The RER/Smart Track/Trick is on the surface and theoretically faster/better, and could well perform some relief functions, but why have we not made far more progress integrating Main and Danforth stations?
    We’re also ignoring at least one under-used linear corridor, the Gatineau Hydro corridor, which slices all through Scarborough on the diagonal, and we could advantage transit off-road first, and that would make it easier to do vs. alienating the votorists by squeezing cars for transit.
    So it’s a mess; hope it does blow up, and we can’t pay for it all anyways, especially if the economy goes south, which might occur. Five per cent interest rates would qualify as going south I think.

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