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Tonks thwarted by uphill struggle against 905 sprawl

Commuter Corner
Joseph Hall

One of this city’s most prolonged and potent political careers is coming to an apparent end.

The demise is not accompanied by a deserved bang, but by a whimper of frustration.

And the disenchantment that led Alan Tonks to resign this month as chair of the Greater Toronto Services Board is due mostly to the refusal of officials from the GTA’s 905 regions to make one simple connection.

“It was the uphill struggle to link planning with transportation,” says Tonks.

“You have people (in the 905) arguing that land use is just irrelevant to transportation planning.”

A king of compromise when he was Metro chair, Tonks has been persistently thwarted in his efforts to budge 905 politicians and bureaucrats from this largely insupportable conviction during his year at the GTSB helm.

“They go to the extreme and say densities and developments are not the issue,” Tonks says.

“They say the issue is putting in good transportation and I say, `Wait a minute, hold it, you’re putting the cart before the horse here.’ “

According to most independent planning experts, Tonks is right.

The wide-lot, sprawl developments so coveted by 905 politicians are among the world’s worst breeders of congestion.

With too few people going in too many directions for efficient transit to exist, sprawl dwellers depend on cars for everyday trips.

And with an average of six or more daily car trips generated from each single-family suburban dwelling, roads become increasingly crowded.

Transit alternatives can be deployed only in higher-density developments with centralized planning.

Yet Tonks has encountered an almost bovine reluctance among 905 officials to even consider higher-density planning strategies.

“I’ve heard statements like `You just stick to the pavement and asphalt and we’ll look after the planning,’ ” he says. Tonks’ ability to respond to resistance was hobbled from the start by the provincial legislation that brought his board to life.

Bill 56, which would give the GTSB authority over GO Transit and a mandate to manage the area’s transportation problems, touched only tangentially on planning.

“When you read the bill, planning is just a very indirectly related power of the board, it’s more implicit than explicit,” Tonks says.

“It’s so indirect that the minute you get into planning you have some (905 officials) jumping up and crying foul.”

Yet Tonks believed until lately that he could use compromise and persuasion to slow the sprawl.

He couldn’t.

The 905 camps even tried to dismantle a GTSB committee which looks at preserving agricultural land and green space.

“The committee is looking for a land use strategy that needs to take into account the rural needs for a sustainable region,” Tonks says. “It’s hard to imagine why anyone would oppose coming up with such a land use plan.” Unfortunately, it’s not hard to imagine at all.

The powerful developers who build sprawl need that farmland and have well-known ties with planners and politicians throughout 905.

Offering municipal leaders the rewards of an increased tax base, developers hold a huge incentive for communities crying out for new infrastructure and stronger social programs.

Many GTSB observers thought Tonks was unacceptable to the 905 because of his strong ties with Toronto.

Tonks has come to realize that it was his ties to planning as a prelude to transportation reform that made his position untenable.