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Unsung hero rockets to an award

ROYSON JAMES

Imagine Toronto without the streetcar? Difficult, isn’t it.

The streetcar is among the top three or four iconic images of the city — right up there with the CN Tower and the curved, clam-shaped towers of city hall.

When Steve Munro was a boy in Toronto, streetcars ran along Yonge, Bloor, Church, Sherbourne, Bay, Spadina and Broadview. He and his dad would try a different route every weekend. Two-car trains ran one a minute along Bloor, before the subway.

But within 20 years the streetcar was marked for extinction, headed the way it had gone in many American cities, for the historical museum.

The ensuing 1970s fight that saved the Toronto streetcar, plus 33 years of passionate advocacy for public transit, have earned Munro, 56, the seventh annual Jane Jacobs prize.

Munro will get the 2005 award, named after famed urban guru and Toronto resident Jacobs, at a reception hosted by Mayor David Miller tomorrow night.

The award and the three-year, $5,000-a-year stipend go to an unsung hero who has contributed greatly to the quality of life in the Toronto region.

The award presentation will highlight a day-long conference, dubbed Building Strong Communities, at 89 Chestnut (formerly the Colony Hotel).

With the TTC poised to axe the streetcar, a group of activists formed Streetcars for Toronto, with Munro as the initiative’s chair. They argued vociferously that the streetcar was desirable, cost-efficient and environmentally friendly. And they won.

Though the campaign succeeded, Munro says the outcome might have been different, for at least two reasons:

One, the TTC brass has grown increasingly savvy in dealing with the media; and two, streetcar (and transit) services are so denuded now that riders aren’t in love with the streetcar the way an earlier generation was.

“Service was very good then,” Munro says. “There was more public support. There wouldn’t be enough support to retain them now.”

By the mid-’60s, the TTC had a grand plan to extend streetcar service to the suburbs. Streetcars would run on their own rights-of-way and achieve substantial speeds. Munro has seen much over his decades of advocacy: great plans that went awry, missed opportunities, ideas that proved more fruitful than originally thought.

Misguided plans?

By the early 1980s, it was becoming clear that subway construction was ruinously expensive and not cost-effective. Alf Savage, then TTC chief general manager, said “we will never build another subway.”

Premier David Peterson tried to get re-elected on a platform that included several subway lines (Sheppard Ave. from Yonge St. to Scarborough Town Centre, Spadina Ave. north to York University, Bloor St. W., and Eglinton Ave. W. from the Allen Expressway to beyond Black Creek Dr.).

Peterson lost to Bob Rae, but the NDP embraced the entire scheme, despite the arguments of people like Munro who said there was a less expensive way. Rae lasted one term.

Mike Harris came to power and killed all the lines, except a truncated Sheppard.

“If we really had stayed in that `no new subways’ mode, we might have started to look at an LRT network,” says Munro.

A major mistake?

Failure to ensure that Union Station and the rail corridor have sufficient capacity to expand commuter rail service.

“This is a sleeper that will bite us in the next 10 years or so. Redevelopment and release of land for buildings was more important than keeping room for more tracks.”

What started out badly, but turned out fine?

The bus reconstruction project, started by David Gunn.

“This saved the system from total collapse. We were able to keep the fleet size up at lower cost than buying new buses, and the old ones were cheaper and more reliable. The flip side is that we eventually had a very old fleet and we have run out of second-hand vehicles to rebuild. All the same, the fleet declined by about 300 vehicles from 1990 to 2000.”

Something done well?

“Over the 33 years I have been following transit affairs, very little” has succeeded, Munro says.

The TTC has gone from “a system that people at least liked, and some loved, to one that is only tolerated by many. I saw a licence plate a few weeks ago near Bonjour Brioche on Queen, east of Broadview: it said `BYE TTC.’”

Transit desperately needs leadership from Mayor David Miller, Munro says.

“His pro-transit election policy is routinely undercut by actions of the treasurer, with which Miller appears to agree. We have to stop blaming everyone else for underfunding and start raising funding for the TTC ourselves.”

How?

“Yes, raise taxes. At least the ones we levy get to stay in Toronto rather than going to North Bay or New Brunswick.”

The fact that Munro still shows up to every transit commission meeting at city hall shows he’s not given up on the system.

“There are a lot of people at the operating level of the TTC who make it work, despite all of its faults, on a day-to-day basis. Despite all of the cutbacks, there is still a sense that they are doing a worthwhile job that they care about.

“This is very important, because if we ever demoralize the staff, we will have lost a vital part of the TTC. And so, to them, my congratulations and thanks.”

Tomorrow night, Toronto says thanks to Munro. Previous recipients include activist Mary-Lou Morgan, community activist Amanuel Melles and architect John van Nostrand.




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