Thursday, February 09, 2012

The Better Way

This is Toronto-centric. Also, it's long. Leave now if you don't care.

Yesterday, an astounding example of community activism and municipal democracy happened in my fair city.  But first, some background.

Our previous city government, under mayor David Miller, approved the most ambitious transit plan that Toronto has seen in decades. Ours is a city of the car - gridlock during the day, poor bike infrastructure, 3 subway lines, and a bunch of streetcars and buses. The Transit City plan would use LRT lines to expand this infrastructre - replacing a line at the end of its life (Scarborough RT), replacing a dozen bus lines with one contiguous rapid transit line (Eglinton), providing those with the worst commute in the city with a sleek new system (Finch), and extending other lines to the people who needed them.  Environmental assessments were done, provincial funding was guaranteed to the tune of $8.4 billion, and while some compromises had to be found, it was full steam ahead to finally expand a system that had only seen a stub of a subway line added in the previous 30 years of explosive growth.

If it all worked out, even more ambitious plans were in the works - a downtown relief line, extensions to University and College campuses that are currently a pain to get to, connections to major attractions and the airport. In short, what would eventually be better access through one of North America's largest cities.

Then came Rob Ford. Our current buffoon of a mayor. He campaigned on "ending the gravy train" at City Hall. He promised those wonderful "efficiencies" that are all the rage but never really found.  He also promised a subway to our eastern wing, Scarborough.  A subway that would run along a stretch where the density is far too low to support such a system. Hell, they build a Sheppard subway in the 90's that they considered closing in the 2000's because ridership was so low.  He wanted to extend that mistake.

So day 1 in office, he "cancelled" Transit City. A plan, that while not perfect, was our best hope for comprehensive transit in our lifetimes. A project that was fully funded, fully supported, and where DIGGING HAD ALREADY STARTED.  Why? He wanted a subway to Scarborough. Fuck the rest of the city.

So he marched to our Provincial leader and demanded they let him have his way. They acquiesced - an election was coming after all, the world was jerking to the right, and Ford had some sort of inexplicable momentum behind him.

So work stopped. The organization in charge looked at alternatives. Ford demanded that the $8.4 billion, instead of building 2 new lines, replacing a 3rd, and extending a 4th, all be dumped into burying the Eglinton line and replacing the Scarborough RT. Because that's how much it would cost to take a reasonable plan for that street (buried for a bunch, surface route in lower-density areas) into a "subway".  I guess it beat his alternative - the whole kitty into the subway to the east that would be underutilized for 50 years.

But all was not lost! No! He also was going to find magic beans he called "private sector money" to pay for his glorious Sheppard subway to Scarborough. Of course, nobody in the private sector had been consulted. Nobody had done a study to see if it was even feasible. But dammit, Rob Ford felt it in his gut, so it would be!

Except it wasn't. Instead of a proper feasibility study, he asked one lackey to put together a report. This guy came up with "yah, it could happen. If we have road tolls to pay for 60% of it." Road tolls being anathema to politicians in this city. I dunno, New York seems to get by with them. I hear  London has adapted too.

Anyway, along with this report came a legal decision that another councillor had asked for. A prominent legal firm here determined that no, Rob Ford was not, in fact, a king. He couldn't unilaterally cancel a plan that had been approved by the council. The council had to vote on it.

Drats! Democracy again?

And that was the release on the giant boulder at the top of the ramp. Within days of this opinion being released, Ford's plans were being squashed. Karen Stintz, former Ford lackey who he had hand-picked to head up our Transit Commission turned on him. She presented a compromise! A COMPROMISE! THE HEATHEN! She suggested that maybe Eglinton could be unburied a little bit. Not as much as originally, but also not all underground. It could save $2 billion that could restore some of the other plans a bit, and give Ford a boost for his white elephant subway.

The response? NO! NO! NO! Ford gets tantrumy (as is his wont) and his lapdogs on the TTC board turn on their leader and vote her down.

So she says, fine... I tried to be nice.

She gathered up more than half the councillors and had them sign a petition to call a special meeting of council. This is an exceedingly rare occurrence. I'm not entirely sure it's EVER happened before. This meeting was to put forth the original plan in all its glory for final approval. Mayor be damned.


Or something to that effect.

The councillors approached him right up the last minute, offering compromises that would still make him look good. There could still be a subway! Just make an allowance here so the poor (literally) people on Finch can get to work faster.  He refused.

So yesterday, the full council met, made speeches, pleas, and motions. Even then, a compromise was made - Sheppard was left off the table. It would be further explored to see if a subway made sense. Rob still bitched. He tried to get the whole thing delayed - that was defeated quickly, and he disappeared for hours afterwards.

His yes-people spewed blatant lies and the same old misinformation to try and swing the vote and instill fear. They read letters from citizens that sounded hand-written by the mayor himself so effusive of his plan were they.  Those who supported the original plan spoke clearly, used facts, and even a bit of sarcasm and humour to shoot down their opponents. They swayed a couple more votes in the process, and in the end, 58% of the council voted to approve the original plan, and tell the mayor to go fuck himself.  In far more political language of course.

So naturally, the mayor called the meeting "irrelevant", his #1 fluffer said the meeting was an exercise in ramming things down their throats.  Some of his supporters looked a bit ashamed that they were following such a moron who had no respect for democracy.  Some claimed the mayor and the province should just ignore the wishes of council. After all, the mayor was elected, so people want what he wants. The rest of council, also elected and representing citizens, be damned.

Then, our esteemed mayor went out the broke-down, soon-to-be-replaced Scarborough RT and rode it. He asked people if they'd rather a subway than that piece of crap. Unsurprisingly, they said yes. Of course, he didn't ask if they'd rather have ANYTHING other than that piece of crap.  It was a publicity stunt that screamed of desperation.

But, to the chagrin of him, and joy of more than him - the province came out almost immediately and essentially said "We will do what council wants, not one man."

So, now the next step comes. Metrolinx (the overseeing organization) now has to figure out the logistics. The TTC has to move forward with them. The mayor will likely try a few more things to stop it, but for now, the will of the people and their representatives seem strong.  People are fed up with a 3rd-rate transit system in a gridlocked city.

This mayor has been a disgrace, and embarrassment, and a fool. We have him for almost 3 more years. But his defeats are starting to pile up as the level of political activism in my fair city continues to rise. People are involved in the process in a way never before seen. They've realized that their voice counts, and that they can bring change where they want it.  Either Ford has to learn to accept compromises, or he has to get used to losing. His "Ford Nation" is now a small island, and it's shrinking.


Kat said...

I find myself thinking with nostalgia of the days of Mel. And that's saying something as I always thought Mel was a bit of a clown.

So happy that Ford and his coterie are getting substantial push back.

Astin said...

Mel was a clown. But he was mostly harmless and entertaining. Other than choosing Sheppard over Eglinton for which subway got saved, and that whole Kenyan debacle.

And at least he was a huge booster for civic pride.

I guess we haven't lived down the call-in-the-army thing either, but fiscally, that was a very savvy move on his part.