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Gee: Public transit becomes the safest cut of all

Transit City lacks a constituency because it has yet to be built

By Marcus Gee

There was passion aplenty at city hall Wednesday night when community activists and transit boosters gathered in the council chambers to take up Mayor David Miller’s call to fight the provincial government’s cuts to Toronto transit funding. They chanted “Save our Transit.” They listened to speeches from hard-pressed residents of the inner suburbs who said they were counting on the delayed new transit lines to make their lives bearable. They passed around sarcastic buttons saying: “Thanks, Mr. Premier, for making me wait.”

It is all part of an orchestrated campaign by Mr. Miller and those who back him on the transit fight to make a big noise over what he has called a “disgraceful” provincial decision to pull $4-billion off the table for the Transit City project, which would have built a network of light rapid transit lines to link up with bus, subway and streetcar service. As subway riders know, Mr. Miller has even commandeered the public address system of the Toronto Transit Commission to rail against the cut. As the same time, he is seeking meetings with provincial officials to see exactly what funding is being cut and whether some of it couldn’t be kept in the pipeline, please.

Mr. Miller cares about transit and his sense of betrayal over the province’s funding rollback is real. But the political forces are not in his favour. When Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty pulled the rug out from Transit City, he must have calculated that this was a cut he could get away with. He is almost certainly right.

Apart from Mr. Miller, who leaves office this fall, Toronto transit has no champion. None of the candidates vying to replace him in October is very keen on the Transit City plan. Rocco Rossi, the former Liberal organizer, said weeks before Mr. McGuinty’s funding pullback that most of the Transit City lines should be put on ice until he could figure out if they made sense. Former Deputy Premier George Smitherman greeted Mr. McGuinty’s pullback with the equivalent of a shrug, saying that while he supported Transit City, delaying it would help the city avoid another fiasco like the St. Clair light-transit project. Councillor Rob Ford never much liked Transit City in the first place. Only Joe Pantalone is a hard-core supporter and he is trailing badly in the polls.

Mr. McGuinty must have heard the griping about St. Clair and picked up on the flavour of the debate. He must have known, too, that he would face little opposition at the provincial level. Conservative Leader Tim Hudak is far more interested in bashing the government over the HST tax hike or the yawning budget deficit than pushing for better transit in Toronto.

When you have to make big budget cuts, as Mr. McGuinty certainly did in this budget to show he was at least half serious about clawing his way out of deficit some day, you naturally ask yourself: Which cuts are going to get me in the worst trouble? Closing hospitals, cutting school budgets, laying off civil servants - all these things are bound to be opposed vociferously by organized groups like unions or school parents. Who is going to make a stink about transit? The weedy coalition that gathered at city hall last night has no political heft whatever. Nor does the lame duck Mr. Miller. Mr. McGuinty need not fear that their plaintive chants will stir up real, widespread public opposition to the transit cuts.

There is a difference between cutting something people already have and cutting something they might have in the future. Transit City lacks a constituency because it has yet to be built. This is the whole trouble with transit funding. It takes many years to plan and build and when it is finished the politicians who pushed it are often long gone.

It takes an extraordinary to leader to say, simply, “We are going to do this, come hell or high water, because people 20 years from now will thank us for it.” With Mr. Miller on the way out, transit has no such visionary advocate. In the absence of one, the complaints about Mr. McGuinty’s treachery are just so much wasted breath.