Friday 10 February 2012

The Real Waste at City Hall

Rob Ford and Karen Stintz, as drawn by Charles Schulz Neville Park.

Throughout the mayoral campaign and his first year in office, Rob Ford reminded anyone who would listened that it was all about waste. City Hall was filled with waste, he claimed, and he would be the one to look after it.

This language characterized his KPMG budget too. It was about finding 'efficiencies,' separating the nice-to-haves from the must-haves and making tough choices to move forward.

But the conversation was limited and the politics were small. The scope of Toronto's budget reform focused on how to cut services rather than the larger question of analyzing the structural relationships that give rise to the underlying issues. So while Ford had the public willingness to do a deep-dive in to how Toronto addresses its finances and the underlying issues, it was more Sue-Ann Levy than John Lorinc.

So it is with Toronto's transit plan. Ford was legitimately elected with a platform to re-visit Toronto's transit plan and specifically the poorly communicated Transit City plan. But instead of addressing the underlying flaws of Transit City- a lot of transfers and increased stress on the at-capacity Yonge-University-Spadina line- he decided to plow ahead with his completely unrealistic Sheppard line, accompanied by no funding and no transit experts who would support the idea.

And so The Mayor's office dithered on transit for a year, and Gordon Chong's much anticipated report was delayed multiple times before an optimistic version was released that still argued Sheppard was not feasible unless tolls, new parking charges or congestion taxes were introduced.

Of course, these suggestions were non-starters and Council's opposition fought to preserve the status quo, a vast improvement over the Mayor's crayola-planned underground.

It is rightly a triumph for Council's opposition; they effectively neutralized the uncompromising delusions of the Mayor to avoid a disastrous policy commitment.

But much like the other two big Mayoral defeats of the budget or the Port Lands, there's a bitter aftertaste to this victory. After all, it's all about preservation of existing policy, not progress. In this way, waste once again rears its ugly head, as the theme of this administration has become wasted opportunity.

In the aftermath of campaigning on criticism of the city's budget, planning and transit, Ford had the chance to lead a conversation of what Toronto has to do in order to achieve its goals. Of course, the populist and intellectually disinterested former Ward 2 councillor was never the man for that job.

Now it's up to Council to lead that conversation and assert its primacy beyond playing defense against a harmfully reactionary Mayor. Until then, in the glow of a historic victory, we have City Hall in the same place as the Mayor's disposition, stuck in arrested development.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Transit: How we got here and what to expect

So you may have heard that there's a special meeting of council this morning. Called by opponents to Mayor Ford's transit plan, the meeting will focus on just transit. 

At issue is the 2009 Memorandum of Agreement for the Transit City plan. The MoA expires on March 31 after which Council would have no transit deal in place (particularly since Ford's memorandum of understanding has no chance of passing). 

That this MoA has been resurrected is surprising by itself and deserves some context. Here's the timeline of how we got here:

  • Ford ally and Deputy Speaker John Parker calls the all-underground LRT plan 'goofy'. 
  • While Ford campaigned on subways (and no Eglinton line), TTC chair Karen Stintz comments to the Globe and Mail's Adrian Morrow that if the decision is to go with an LRT, it should be done at-grade where possible. 
  • At City Hall the next day, Stintz indicates she thought she had the support of Doug Ford (and thus the Mayor's office) on the item. The Mayor strongly opposes the Stintz plan. 
  • A group of councillors, including Stintz, Parker, Josh Matlow, Maria Augimeri and Joe Mihevc have meetings throughout the day to come up with some kind of compromise plan. 
  • The compromise plan comes out and includes a BRT on Finch (which could conceivably be turned into LRT later), a subway stop added to the Sheppard line and the Eglinton east crosstown surfacing for 8km. 
  • As the transit file becomes increasingly nebulous, Metrolinx issues a letter asking for a clear direction to move forward. 
  • At the regularly scheduled TTC meeting, Ford allies on the board, knowing they can't win at Council, vote 6-3 against a Stintz motion to finalize a framework for construction on the Eglinton project. In effect it is a vote of non-confidence in Stintz (Parker and Augimeri were the other two in the minority). 
  • As the Ford team gets beat up on the transit file, it doubles down on the rhetoric. In his weekly 'Cut the Waist' scrum, Ford fields questions on transit with the same answer, resulting in poetic and autotuned homages. 
  • The rhetoric continues. A push poll comes out later in the week suggesting people want subways, but its value is panned. Gordon Chong's long-awaited Sheppard report surfaces with more optimistic numbers than he ever suggested before. It also argues that any subway financing would be contingent on an alternate revenue source, like road tolls or congestion charges. The mayor's team also co-ordinates talking points, some of which are debunked here.  
  • On Superbowl Sunday news breaks that Council's opposition will call a special meeting to essentially revert to Transit City (but don't call it that). Stintz indicates that had her TTC commission vote went through she would not have done this. 
Further Information
Torontoist has a great summary of what this special meeting means, and you should totally read that. Additionall, Matt Elliott does his usual and rounds up the votes on the issue. Key people to watch will be James Pasternak, Jaye Robinson and John Parker. Robinson and Parker did not sign the petition for the special meeting but have had reservations about the Ford plan. 

What to Expect
Aside from rancorous debate and an out-of-control Frances Nunziata? Well, it's an omnibus motion so Team Ford will try to break it up to get councillors to vote against one another on prioritizing their areas. There will also be amendments to try to delay this to past the key March 31 date, or to send it back to the TTC commission, which coincidentally has a motion to reconstitute its membership (hrmmmmm). 

There were rumours going around City Hall yesterday about some kind of compromise package, but it's been shown that this isn't Ford's preferred route. 

In the meantime, follow council the same way as for the budget meeting (see tips here) and I'll be on Twitter.