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What can North American cities learn from the fight over public transit in Toronto?

My latest article on the fight for better public transit options in Toronto was just published in the Common Sense Canadian. The ongoing squabble in Canada’s largest city over light rail vs. subways provides other North American cities with a textbook example of how NOT to address urban transportation challenges at the municipal level. It would appear we can all thank Toronto’s mayor Rob Ford for the kind lesson.

Bracing For a Transit Fight in Toronto

Written by Mark Brooks Thursday, 19 January 2012

This week’s humiliating budget defeat for Toronto mayor Rob Ford, which reversed $20 million in proposed spending cuts, has put new wind in the sails of those fighting to see improved transit services in Canada’s largest city.

On his first day in office, Mayor Ford fulfilled a campaign promise by announcing his intention to cancel the Transit City project, a plan proposed by former Mayor David Miller and the Toronto Transit Commission in 2007 that focused on improving service to the city’s woefully underserved suburbs. Among other initiatives, Transit City called for the construction of new rapid light rail lines connecting seven areas of the city, as well as new rapid bus transit lines. Upon cancelling the project in December 2010, Mayor Ford announced that the “war on the car” was over. Claiming that light rail transit (LRT) on roadways is a bad idea, he instead proposed an expansion of the existing Toronto subway system, a plan that would serve fewer residents at a much higher cost.

So just what is this transit dust-up all about and why should anyone outside of Toronto even care?

Well, for starters Toronto’s squabbles are emblematic of the transit challenges facing other Canadian cities, such as Vancouver and Calgary, whose populations are growing at rapid rates. The Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is expected to grow by more than one million residents during the next 10 years. These people will need to get to get around somehow. Yet a recent study found that Torontonians suffer the second worst traffic-related stress of 20 international cities. Toronto’s roads and highways are the most congested in North America and, at 80 minutes, their drivers endure the longest average commute times. As anyone who drives Vancouver’s roads will attest, drivers there do not fare much better. The average commute is now 67 minutes and the situation is getting worse as more and more residents seek cheaper housing prices farther from the city centre.

What is particularly interesting about the Toronto transit squabble is how Mayor Ford has managed, inadvertently, to galvanize the many groups lobbying for better transit in the GTA. By opting for a “my way or the highway” approach to transit, he brazenly picked a fight that he might well lose. Although Transit City certainly had its shortcomings, Ford’s subway plan just doesn’t make sense on so many levels.

For starters, subway lines cost, on average, 3 to 6 times more than LRT lines. Ford’s plan to build an eight-kilometer stretch of subway is estimated to cost around $400-million per kilometer (including new stations). In contrast, building LRT along the same stretch would cost about $90-million per kilometer. And instead of at least 3 new LRT lines, Toronto residents would see one, shorter subway line that would still leave much of the city’s suburban areas underserved. So for these unlucky folks, Ford planned to provide more buses (at a higher cost and lower reliability that LRT). $1.3 billion was committed to Transit City and $137 million of that amount has already been spent. Construction is already underway on one LRT line and there are expected to be millions of dollars in cancellation fees for the various contracts already tendered. All this from a mayor who ostensibly purports to be a deficit slayer.

Ford’s plan just seemed like “an obviously wrong decision to many people,” Joe Drew of Save Transit City and CodeRedTO.com told me. “When you see a plan that was going to expand rapid transit to a significant part of the community be killed for capricious reasons, it becomes important to many people to fix this.” And fix it they are, much to Mayor Ford’s chagrin. Many groups including TTC Riders, the Toronto Environmental Alliance and others have rallied around the campaign to save Transit City or, at the very least, to oppose Ford’s plan to kill it and replace it with a nonsensical new subway line.

“Even for those city councilors who don’t care about transit, they do care about taxpayers money,” says Drew.  That’s why Toronto’s previous city council chose LRT as the foundation of its plan — because hands down it provides the best value for money.

As for the legitimate concerns about Transit City’s impacts on traffic, Drew says his organization is not calling for a full reinstatement of the original plan as it was. “What we are saying is that Ford’s plan is even worse so maybe we can build a plan that is better than both current options. There is room for compromise and consensus on this. It is not a matter of one plan or the other.”

Now that Mayor Ford has been humbled by his recent budget defeat, perhaps he will be more willing to listen to his detractors. After all, Ford can’t spend the city’s money without the approval of city council. Drew says this is all likely to come to a head over the next month or so when a request for further funding for Ford’s subway proposal comes to council. Buoyed by their budget victory, many councilors are likely to be even more skeptical of the mayor’s proposal.

As for other cities watching this debacle from the sidelines, we can all thank Toronto for providing us with a textbook lesson in how not to deal with transit planning in Canada’s growing urban centres.

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