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Ashton, Miller battling for TTC chair's job

Joseph Hall

You’ve got to be dreaming.

If your name is Brian Ashton and you think you’re going to be the next chair of the Toronto Transit Commission, dreaming is a crucial requirement for the position.

Ashton, one of two powerhouse city councillors vying for the TTC’s top job, says the new chair has to be a visionary and “dare to dream” if the system is to take its proper place in Toronto’s future.

City Councillor David Miller, the other contender for the job, takes a more grounded view.

While Ashton says he’ll push for his dream of system expansion if he’s named chair, the pragmatic Miller would concentrate on upkeep and incremental improvements of the existing system.

Although it’s not known who else might want a crack at the city’s largest agency, it’s fair to say these two men will be odds-on favourites for the top TTC position.

Both Miller and Ashton served under chair Howard Moscoe on the previous commission, which was disbanded late last month.

And both brought strengths to the job that will be hard to ignore when it comes time to choose a new head.

Miller, a rising council star, brought a broad transit knowledge and an obvious concern for the welfare of the TTC to commission meetings, which he attended religiously.

He did his homework. With dozens of issues and hundreds of pages of agenda weighing down each meeting, it was Miller who could most often cut through the transit arcanum of “coupling procurements” and “traction needs” to ask the cogent questions.

Ashton, while less involved in agenda details, showed his own strengths, most importantly an easy eloquence in articulating the broader goals of the system and its importance to the city.

Ashton’s pitch may or may not be enhanced by his being beleaguered Mayor Mel Lastman’s personal choice for chair.

Regardless, he wants to inject an element of “vision” into a system that has struggled mightily just to see straight during the past decade’s budgetary poundings.

Since 1992, the city has slashed almost $100 million from the system’s operating budget. More recently, the province abandoned its traditional transit role, which had seen Queen’s Park pick up 75 per cent of the TTC’s capital costs.

These cuts, coupled with a fatal 1995 subway accident, forced the system to retrench and concentrate almost exclusively on fixing and maintaining existing equipment.

While agreeing the commission needs to keep a close eye on its current stock, however, Ashton says he’ll try to push the system forward.

“Yes, we should concentrate on the upkeep, and yes, we should make sure it runs in a good business sense, but that doesn’t mean you can’t dream,” Ashton says.

He says his dream would see the TTC elevated in council’s eyes to a linchpin position in the city. The system, Ashton says, should form the basis of a progressive social, environmental and economic plan for Toronto and the GTA.

Ashton says a healthy, expanding TTC, coupled with a network of invigorating regional carriers, would promote environmental, social and economic benefits worth far more than the cost of any added transit investments.

“Council has to understand that with something like the TTC, you don’t save money by cutting money,” Ashton says.

“Council has this fixation with cutting money, but when you have something like the TTC, you have to understand that investing money is how you create savings on larger issues like the environment and congestion.”

Miller, who attended 83.6 per cent of meetings - Ashton went to 76.7 per cent - says he’s not averse to strategic TTC expansion or to partnerships with 905 carriers.

But he would concentrate more on maintaining and improving what the city already has.

“I think the point that vision needs to lead the budget is true, but most of our budget is set,” says Miller.

“I mean, it costs a lot of money to run an excellent system and we have to make sure we have that money, that’s the first priority.”

Miller, who foresees no immediate relief for the TTC’s funding woes, says the commission should concentrate on improving customer relations, system cleanliness and on finding small savings in the details he scours.

Commission members - likely to rise in number from seven to nine this term - will be chosen by a striking committee of city councillors later this month. This committee’s recommendations will then be passed on to full council for approval.

The resulting commission then chooses its own chair.