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It's time for merchants and ex-mayors to accept that TTC engineers are right

Tuesday, October 25, 2005
Page A15 Key

Once upon a time, the square-headed engineers who run our local transit system looked at some numbers and decided to abolish streetcars. The numbers told them it was inefficient to operate a railway in mixed traffic, and that buses were far better suited to the job.

Mercifully, a band of grassroots activists was able to stave off the change by demonstrating that Toronto’s streetcars had value beyond that captured by the engineer’s inconvenient numbers — they were then and remain iconic — and thus they were saved.

Such is one, popular version of the comfortable fable that helps to assure every gadfly who has ever hung from a subway strap that they know how to run a railway better than the square-headed engineers — including the biblical swarm of gadflies that has descended on the TTC project to upgrade the St. Clair streetcar.

Every merchant on St. Clair, every former mayor and ex-councillor — now even a panel of senior judges — thinks they know how to do the job better than the bumbling engineers. The fact that none of them can agree on a workable alternative to the TTC’s plan — there appear to be as many different, contradictory visions as there are gadflies — does not dent their fundamental conviction that the TTC is screwing up, once again.

But the fact is that the engineers were right 30 years ago: Running streetcars in mixed traffic is stupid (“suboptimal,” in the jargon of the trade). While acceding politically to the overpowering force of streetcar-love, despite the apparently tolerable inefficiencies thus entailed, the engineers clung to the principle that their numbers — not to mention long practice and considerable expertise — had decreed.

We’ll keep the streetcars in mixed traffic, they said, but we will never recommend that you build new lines like that. If you want streetcars to move large numbers of people quickly and conveniently, as well as to pose for postcards on sunny days in Chinatown, they need their own rights of way.

They’re still right. They have successfully demonstrated their principle with two new lines and embedded it in basic city policy, with none other than Mayor David Miller as its most stubborn and articulate defender. Beyond hurling casual insults at the engineers, none of the gadflies has been able to propose a credible alternative — one that would improve transit service nearly as much while also accommodating every other local interest.

The engineers say: If you want what you say you want — better transit — this is how you do it. If you don’t do it this way because you don’t want to upset some people, you won’t improve transit. Choose one: The circle can’t be squared.

Unwilling to accept the legitimacy of that choice, gadflies and concerned citizens alike elaborate ever more inventive ways to have their cake and eat it, inevitably falling back on allegations that the decision-making process is flawed (if not corrupt).

In fact, the engineers and their allies have become equally expert at public consultation and environmental assessments, procedures they followed impeccably in pursuit of a decision on St. Clair. Complaints that the project was “rammed through” are in fact evidence that the process worked as intended.

Like the engineers, environmental assessments do not tolerate magic thinking. They are the best tool available for dealing with the inescapable reality of so-called city building: that every demonstrated improvement has undeniably negative consequences. Every gain registers a corresponding loss. When the balance tips, you do nothing — and live with it.

The gadflies who swarmed the difficult birth of the Spadina line — an unbelievable 10 years of unremitting process — advanced all manner of alleged improvements in the hope that Spadina could simultaneously have and not have a streetcar right of way. Some were helpful, but most had to be ripped out a few months after the line opened because freely penetrating motorists kept driving into streetcars. Since then, the line has been a tremendous success.

The engineers were right, after all. Maybe — radical thought here — they actually know what they’re doing.