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James: City needs a transit lesson

by Royson James
City Columnist

First in a two-part series on subways vs. LRT.

City bureaucrats are leading Mayor-elect Rob Ford and his team through intense education sessions — a massive high-stakes effort that could save or doom critical city services and plans.

And in the crucial area of transportation, Ford isn’t the only one who should enroll in the TTC’s offering of Transit 101.

Based on the wild suggestions and unworkable transit platforms of more than one mayoral candidate in the 2010 election, very little is known for certain about the TTC’s vision for moving people in our city. Council may have approved the Transit City plan in 2007, but too many councillors don’t know what they actually approved or immediately forgot the moment the votes were counted.

The TTC and many transit advocates who support light rail as the preferred transit option for Toronto, circa 2020, must assume the majority of us are clueless about the virtues of the streetcar, ah, light rail, and begin the education in earnest.

Councillor Gord Perks is a longtime convert to light rail. In the 1990s, when his friends in the Bob Rae government were pushing four subways on Toronto, he was advocating for light rail. “I can’t tell you how many hours of my life has been frittered away responding” to those who favour subways over light rail, he says.

Perks must “fritter away” some more hours. For many see light rail as a lesser means of commuting, second fiddle, based on their experience with the lumbering streetcar in mixed traffic and the controversial introduction of the St. Clair line with its own right-of-way.

That’s not light rail as envisioned for Transit City, says Mitch Stambler, the TTC’s chief planning officer. The plan involves light rail routes along Eglinton, Sheppard East and Finch West, and later along Don Mills and Jane.

“There is no light rail in Toronto, yet. We’re not getting streetcar lines,” says Stambler. “This is better, faster, more reliable and comfortable and, in every way, a more pleasing experience.”

Teach us, Mitch. For we are ignorant wretches, stuck on our first love, the subway. There are several reasons for the ignorance:

  • From introduction to approval, Transit City was implemented at subway speed, not the traditional creeping snail bus pace of numerous transit plans before it — Network 2011, Let’s Move, RTEP, and others. Before most people started paying attention to the details, it was already written in stone and funded.

  • Queen’s Park, with a tiny bit of help from Ottawa, is funding the entire proposal. That freed city councillors from worrying about raising taxes to cover the cost. It also allowed them to almost ignore the details and the alternatives. So citizens slept on the issue.

  • With little noise or protest or controversy surrounding Transit City, the average citizen was not alerted to its pros and cons.

Now, if the city had proposed a $20 tax surcharge to fund Transit City, there would have been volumes written and hours of debate on talk radio and television. Out of this maelstrom, the citizenry would have been educated.

Instead, we arrived at an election, and some Torontonians seemed, for the first time, aware that city hall had turned its back on subways in favour of the streetcar. And for many good reasons lost on those who consider subways their first love.

Even as the Ford team is having to rethink some of his core platform positions, this issue needs a thorough airing.

It’s essentially funded, though $2.6 billion short. It has wide support, though many know little about it. City council approved it, the province backed it and funded it, though not all of it. Now, Metrolinx, the transportation boss for the region, supports it. And a new mayor wants it revisited — leaving many citizens in a quandary.




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