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Traffic stalled by political gridlock

Congestion a top voter concern, but there’s no leadership to solve problem

By Jim Byers Toronto Star Staff Reporter

Ontario’s Conservative party has shown enormous leadership in dealing with Greater Toronto’s transportation concerns.

Unfortunately, many transportation experts say, the party called Bill Davis its leader when it was doing so.

“When (former premier) Davis stopped the Spadina Expressway in 1973, he showed terrific leadership in connecting urban planning with transportation issues,” says Alan Tonks, outgoing chair of the Greater Toronto Services Board.

“But since then we haven’t continued to invest in things like transit, and our planning procedures have allowed three- and four-car-garage type urban sprawl to grow unchecked in the 905 regions.”

Urban sprawl and the congestion plaguing Greater Toronto’s roadways are inextricably linked.

For most transportation experts, it has been an utter lack of political foresight, planning, cooperation and leadership that has created a crisis on GTA roadways.

A recent EKOS Research poll conducted for The Star shows that 73 per cent of GTA residents peg traffic congestion as a critical problem for municipal governments - second only to crime and policing issues.

Some 65 per cent of respondents also said improving public transit should be a top priority.

It’s a major concern to voters, says Toronto Councillor and TTC chair Howard Moscoe, who has encountered “widespread concern over transportation issues, especially transit,” on the campaign trail. Both issues, however, are intrinsically linked to urban planning.

Indeed, decreased congestion and increased public transit use depend almost entirely on changing land use patterns that have left the GTA’s 905 regions awash in a sea of single-family-home sprawl.

Such sprawl means there are too few people, living in too large an area and traveling in too many different directions to make efficient public transit possible.

And with no viable transit option, sprawl dwellers turn to the automobile en masse, sending two or more cars a day out from most homes onto the area’s already overcrowded roads.

‘The public’s become experts. They’re saying, ‘What about Edmonton and what about Halifax? What about compost? We’d like to put our compost out. Why isn’t the city out there helping us?’ I never would have heard that before.’

—Don River Councillor Jack Layton

“The 905 is basically a garage with a house attached to it,” says Moscoe.

“They talk a good transit game in the 905 but developers out there basically want to gobble up any green space they can find and put single family homes on it and up to this point there’s been nobody stopping them.”

This is especially true of the province, says veteran Toronto transportation consultant Ed Levy, who points out that Queen’s Park once took pride in setting municipal development ground rules.

“We’ve got no provincial leadership now, they couldn’t care less,” Levy says of the current Tory regime.

“They’re not going to force any kind of development pattern on anybody, especially in the 905 area where they get the most votes.”

In the absence of any provincial oversight, the fragmented and competing municipalities have been entirely unable to halt the spread of sprawl throughout the regions.

Indeed, most 905 politicians have little interest in doing so, says Eric Miller, a transportation specialist in the University of Toronto’s civil engineering department.

“In the first instance, all these politicians have to report back to their own electorate and that tends to lead to a very myopic view of things, in particular on things like urban sprawl because here you’re talking development and tax base,” Miller says.

“And by definition, each municipality has its own mandate to, in essence, maximize their tax base.”

Thus, Miller says, under the current municipal conditions local politicians actually compete with each other to welcome new development into their towns and cities.

And under current building preferences, that development almost invariably means sprawl.

“It’s about lifestyle, they don’t want to be high density Toronto and they don’t necessarily see what’s wrong with the low density sprawl,” Miller says.

This competition for tax base development constantly mitigates against the “big picture” cooperation needed to tackle congestion, Miller says.

“The people of, say, Mississauga have to see that we’re all in this together and that we’ll sink or swim together.”

In this instance, Miller says, swimming means putting the breaks on sprawl in favour of “nodal” developments that create high-density centres - or nodes - to provide employment, shopping, entertainment and housing facilities for the majority of people living in the area.

Outside the nodes, development would radiate along high-density corridors that provide natural transit pathways to and from the bustling community centres.

But the creation of such nodal centres would require inter-regional co-operation that runs completely counter to the parochialism now permeating 905 politics.

“What you need is another level of control that’s not local and takes a broader view but that sounds like more government and big government rather than small government and that tends to run counter to orthodoxy these days,” Miller says.

Nevertheless, Tonks’ Greater Toronto Services Board was set up by the province two years ago, allegedly to be just such an cross-boundary vehicle.

But by forming the board from a pool of local mayors and politicians, the province set it up expressly to fail, Levy says.

“It’s been a total failure,” he says. “It’s just not constituted to allow a consensus to be formed because all the people who are there are competing with each other in some way or another.”


By Karen Palmer

A technicality may have killed the Adams Mine deal, but voters are prepared to use their ballots to prevent a resurrection.

“We have never seen anything like the kind of interest on the environment as we’re seeing this time,” said the Toronto Environmental Alliance’s Gord Perks.

“Complete strangers are phoning and asking, who do we vote for? Candidates are calling to say, ‘I want to take this position on the environment, will you support me?’ ” he said.

“They’re telling us that they hear about the environment at almost every door.”

Garbage is to this election what homelessness was to the 1997 municipal election. There’s a frenzy over reducing, reusing and recycing and Northern Ontario residents can take most of the credit.

The furor they generated during four days of raucous debate over where to put the city’s trash created a buzz that has got Toronto residents thinking about what it’s going to take to reduce mountains of garbage to mere molehills.

“The public’s become experts,” said Don River councillor Jack Layton. “They’re saying, ‘What about Edmonton and what about Halifax? What about compost? We’d like to put our compost out. Why isn’t the city out there helping us?’ I never would have heard that before.”

“It’s the one issue I hear the most about at the front door.”

Voters seem keenly aware that trucking garbage to Michigan is merely a Band-Aid fix, and a recent Toronto Star-Ekos poll shows 55 per cent of people are willing to pay for a long term, environmentally sound solution.

Another eight in 10 people want the city to spend more on recycling.

“Certainly people are pleased that the Adams Mine was not ultimately accepted and they’re concerned that they had councillors who were ready to vote for it and did vote for it,” Layton said.

“(Voters) should be sending a strong message to the new council that (they) don’t want that kind of consideration because, hey, the lobbyists for the Adams Mine haven’t gone away.”

The Toronto Environmental Alliance are keeping their eyes on nine key election races that could produce a green council, including Parkdale-High Park, St. Paul’s West, Broadview-Greenwood, Beaches-East York, Eglinton Lawrence, Scarborough Agincourt, Etobicoke Lakeshore, York West and Trinity-Spadina.

“It looks like we’re going to have a council who’s committed to taking the next big step in waste reduction, which is on the composting side,” Perks said.


By John Spears

If you live in Toronto, your property taxes are almost sure to rise next year. But on the election trail, city politicians aren’t talking about it.

Here are a few issues likely to bite Toronto taxpayers in the wallet during the next council’s term - and a few questions to put to the politicians asking for your vote.

Question: How high are property taxes likely to rise?

Mayor Mel Lastman managed to keep his tax freeze promise of three years ago with a bit of luck, some careful cost-cutting and a lot of blustering at the province.

He’s not making the promise for the next term, because he knows some huge bills are coming due, some still relating to amalgamation.

Among them: Drawing up a common salary grid for the city’s employees is not completed. Departing budget chief Tom Jakobek says putting everyone on the same pay scale could cost the city an extra $64 million a year.

Provincial funding for transit has now run out. From now on, city taxpayers are on the hook for all Toronto Transit Commission bills.

Another looming cost: The province loaned the city $200 million to cover special amalgamation costs. The city is due to repay $135 million of that over the next three years. Where will the money come from?

Question: What will happen to my taxes as a result of the province’s property re-assessment, which updates 1996 values to 1999 values?

Assessment notices start going in the mail Nov. 14 - coincidentally, the day after the election.

The province’s assessment commission has already warned that older, central neighbourhoods have seen value rise fastest - which will shift more tax burden onto them. There are important shifts among commercial properties, too.

The city got an information package last month from the assessment corporation outlining the broad effects. Why haven’t the politicians asked for a public report?

Question: Why does the city overtax rental apartments?

The city hits apartment tenants five times harder than house or condo owners. Homeowners paid 0.8 per cent of their assessed property value to the city this year in tax; apartment dwellers, through their rents, paid 4.2 per cent. (With the education tax included, the rates were 1.21 per cent for homeowners, 4.6 per cent for apartaments.)

Half of Toronto households are renters: Will the new city council close that gap?

Question: How much debt can the city stand?

A year ago, city treasurer Wanda Liczyk warned that the city’s debt will double by 2004, to about $2.3 billion. Should the city just keep borrowing to pay the bills?


By Kristin Rushowy

The playgrounds may be gone - but the controversy over demolishing them isn’t.

Neither are parent worries about funding cuts and how they are affecting schools, trustee candidates in Toronto say.

“I’m hearing the same things - playgrounds, permits, extracurricular activities in secondary schools and when are they going to come back, when is there going to be a settlement (with teachers’ unions), and the inadequacy of the funding model,” said trustee Irene Atkinson, who is also vice-chair of the Toronto District School Board.

“It’s the same things we’ve been dealing with at the board,” said Atkinson, who’s running for re-election in Parkdale-High Park.

Ela Sawistowska, chair of the school council at Runnymede Public School in Atkinson’s ward, said parents want to know when playgrounds are going to be rebuilt and who’s going to shoulder the cost.

The board ripped out equipment at more than 170 schools this summer after it was deemed unsafe under voluntary safety standards. Parents weren’t consulted and many are still angry, she said.

“The other thing is a real concern about the cuts that still have to come down because of the funding formula,” added Sawistowska, who has two children, in Grades 2 and 4.

The next group of trustees will face critical decisions at a time when $127 million has to be axed to fit the province’s funding formula.

The board recently hiked permit fees for groups such as Girl Guides and basketball teams wishing to use school facilities, saying it does not receive any money from the province to cover operating costs after-hours. Some saw fee increases of tens of thousands of dollars.

Parents are wondering what or who will face the axe next: Swimming programs? Department heads? Itinerant music teachers?

“We’re now feeling the effects of all the hurts, the cuts,” said trustee Elizabeth Hill, who is running for re-election in Ward 6, in York South-Weston.

She said people are concerned about losing teacher’s aides” in kindergarten classes, which the former York board made a priority, said Hill.

Under the province’s funding formula, the Toronto board has already chopped $200 million. It was given some funds to help cushion the blow but still must find about $127 million in savings by 2003.

“I think this election is very important. This is a term in which the funding formula is supposed to be finally implemented,” said well-known parent activist Kathleen Wynne, who is running in Ward 8, which stretches from Yonge St. to Caledonia Rd., north of Eglinton Ave. W.

“If we don’t have strong voices on the board, we’re going to lose this system; the program changes will be irreparable … it feels like we have another shot at making sure the province understands what’s going on in the city.”


By Christopher Hume

It is a measure of how far removed Torontonians are from the waterfront that plans for its regeneration have sparked indifference more than excitement.

And those who do care are likely to be so for reasons more negative than positive.

“They’re nervous,” says Councillor Sandra Bussin (Beaches-East York), whose ward includes much of the portlands. “People are doubtful and concerned about the costs. They’re also nervous about the Gardiner. I haven’t met one person who supports tearing down the Gardiner.”

That’s a top priority of the Fung Task Force Report, which proposes a series of sweeping changes to rehabiliate and reinvigorate 2,000 acres of Toronto waterfront that now lie neglected or abandoned.

Bussin’s words are echoed by Councillor Pam McConnell (Don River), whose ward borders hers.

“People in the south end of my ward are nervous,” McConnell admits. “Our communities have heard wonderful visions before but they wake up to a nightmare. They’ve heard so many promises. They want to make sure they’re included right at the beginning.”

Councillor Jack Layton (Don River), has also experienced waterfront backlash.

“It’s certainly a big issue in the south end of my ward,” he confirms. “More than 3,000 people work in the portlands and some businesses are a little worried about what will happen to them.”

‘It would be wrong to think of waterfront regeneration as a frill. It’s a fundamental economic necessity. It represents a giant act of catch-up on Toronto’s part. We are losing tourists and we need to bring new industries to Toronto.’

—Waterfront task force member Michael Kirkland

While the issue hasn’t captured the city’s attention, the fact remains, that very soon the city will be faced with the question of how to spend the $1 billion pledged by federal and provincial governments for waterfront renewal.

So far, not even the agency that will oversee the massive $12-billion development has been created. Its mandate and powers will be crucial to the success of the scheme, though neither has been much discussed.

“It would be wrong to think of waterfront regeneration as a frill,” warns Toronto architect and Fung task force member, Michael Kirkland. “It’s a fundamental economic necessity. It represents a giant act of catch-up on Toronto’s part. We are losing tourists and we need to bring new industries to Toronto.”


By Jim Byers

It could affect the city more than any event in Toronto’s history. But candidates for city council say voters are asking more about cracked sidewalks and garbage pickup than the city’s bid for the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.

City workers and other officials working on the bid are feverishly preparing documents for the International Olympic Committee, which will vote next July on where to stage the 2008 Olympics. If they pick Toronto, the city will embark on a massive, seven-year effort that will see billions of dollars spent on everything from new stadiums and roads to Olympic village housing by 2008.

The money is supposed to come from the private sector, but there will be hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars spent by governments on causes related to the Olympic Games.

“The Olympics are about a few people making money and the rest of us paying for it,” said North Toronto councillor Michael Walker, the most outspoken critic of the bid and one of the few politicians who voted “no” when the bid went before council earlier this year. “I have concerns about a swamp of financial obligations being placed upon municipal taxpayers.”

But even Walker said he’s not hearing much of the same concern walking door to door. “It’s brought up occasionally. But most people don’t have an opinion on these things until the issue comes home to roost. Supporting the Olympics is kind of a motherhood thing.”

West end councillor Betty Disero said almost everyone in her working class ward is pro-bid.

“There are a lot of people here who depend on the construction trade and they support it,” she said. “A lot of people are happy about the international recognition Toronto is getting for the bid and they feel that alone is good for business.

A recent Toronto Star/Ekos poll found that 61 per cent of Greater Toronto Area residents support Toronto’s bid, with 22 per cent opposed and 17 per cent undecided. Other polls have suggested 70 per cent of city residents favour the bid.

“I think a lot depends on where your bread is buttered,” said Disero. “In North Toronto you might find more affluent people who don’t depend on the construction trade, but here people are very happy that Mel is behind the bid.”

Both Disero and Scarborough councillor Brian Ashton said voters prefer to talk about garbage collection, rather than the Olympics.