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TTC loses its way on own land

Valuable sites cry out to be used

January 11, 2007
Christopher Hume

One can already hear the huffing and puffing, but the time is right to develop TTC lands.

Indeed, only in Toronto would such valuable property have been left underused, even unused, for so long. Though not every site has equal potential, many are ideal locations for growth.

Of course, we would be right to worry about the TTC’s ability to handle development, to ensure it happens in ways that benefit the city, but surely that can be dealt with. The transit commission’s record has been less than impressive; TTC management has failed consistently to grasp the fact that it’s part of a larger entity, namely the city. Its tunnel vision – no pun intended – doesn’t inspire confidence, especially when it comes to building on major sites such as Eglinton, York Mills, Lansdowne, Warden and Sheppard.

To be fair, responsibility for the sorry condition of the system doesn’t rest solely with the TTC. We are the only major city in the world where the costs of public transit are not covered by government. This sorry state of affairs explains why the TTC has failed to keep up with demand in almost every respect. Even ticket sales and collection are years behind the rest of the world. Service is now inadequate, and the commission doesn’t have the money to follow demand, let alone lead.

Even when we do manage to expand the system, we have done so poorly. The badly misguided Sheppard line, for example, was clearly the result of crass political interference. Extending the subway to York University could well be another such move. Is this the best place to build? Would it make more sense to run the subway north up Yonge St.?

The unfortunate truth is that the wrong people will make these decisions – that is, provincial and municipal politicians who for the most part are more interested in what’s best for them rather than what’s best for Toronto.

Take the example of Eglinton station, which has sat largely unused for several years; it is an indictment of the TTC’s impoverishment and a civic embarrassment. Surrounded on every side by signs of a healthy city, the 2.1-acre parcel looks like a war zone.

But with councillors such as Michael Walker and Karen Stintz representing the area, both avowed opponents of development, what chance is there that something decent will happen on the site?

Though the possibilities are enormous, and the need just as great, these political dinosaurs can be counted on to fight every proposal along with the local NIMBY hordes.

The TTC brain trust, twitchy after years of cutbacks and accustomed to decline, is in no position to deal with the nasty realities of Toronto’s out-of-control planning process. When the commission floated the idea of building on its property at the Rosedale station more than a decade ago, the neighbours made short work of its ill-considered scheme. And compared with what lies ahead, that was a Sunday-school picnic.

Though the TTC’s failures are not all of its own making, the result is a demoralized organization motivated by desperation. It also happens to be an agency that, like so many in Toronto, operates more or less in isolation.

This is a recipe for disaster. And yet the need for development – smart infill development – grows with the influx of new residents, up to 150,000 annually. Where better to put this development than on land serviced by public transit?

However, the TTC will approach the matter simply as a means of raising much-needed cash. Fair enough, but what’s at stake goes well beyond that. We are talking about what kind of a city we want in the decades ahead. Selling land will not stop the TTC’s downward spiral. This is something for Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to deal with. He must restore the province’s 50/50 funding partnership.

There is a better way, but it no longer includes the TTC. At a time when getting people out of cars has become an issue of global urgency, this isn’t acceptable. Is it any wonder the rest of the world now views Canada as a fossil?