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Posted Toronto Political Panel:
The slow death of Transit City

Five days into Rob Ford’s mayoralty, Chris Selley, Jonathan Goldsbie and Anthony Furey discuss the death — apparently, anyway — of Transit City.

SELLEY: So this is the way David Miller’s world ends: Not with a bang, but with several bangs. On Day One of his mayoralty, Rob Ford froze property taxes — adding at least $50-million to the budget shortfall — and declared all-out war on Miller’s vision of public transit in Toronto. More accurately, he declared victory in that war. Just when it seemed like there might be some wiggle room in his “Transit City is over” declaration, he clarified further: No more railway tracks above ground. Ever. So, that’s another 15 years, at least, of riding the bus along Eglinton — and probably along Sheppard too, since nobody can figure out how Ford has enough money even to build his Sheppard subway, let alone convert the Scarborough RT into one. I assume Jonathan will want to issue a cri de coeur, and I’m not too happy about these developments myself. But what what the heck is Ford doing, anyway? It’s tough enough living up to promises you make during the election campaign. In his first hours in office, he reissued those promises, armed with little more information than he had before. If he can’t get his plans past council, he’s broken a promise. If there isn’t enough money to do anything, he’s broken a promise. If he relents on Transit City, he’s broken a promise. Is there any method to this?

GOLDSBIE: For him, no. For the people around him, yes. Rob Ford himself is not a smart individual; this would be forgivable (and perhaps even endearing) if he acknowledged his issues with intelligence as candidly as he does his issues with weight. There are some things he does well and some things about which he is clever, but he has difficulty with abstract thinking. (For example, he lacks the capacity to empathize with people with whom he has not made direct contact.) So I don’t think, in his mind, there is anything inconsistent about his approach. Nor does he grasp that many of the promises he made on the campaign trail were fanciful ones that, for any number of reasons, cannot be implemented in the context of reality. But the people on his team know what they’re doing and are embarking on a deliberate strategy to advance as much of their agenda as possible as quickly as possible, because they know it will only become more difficult as the months wear on and Ford’s momentum wears off. They’re never going to have as many allies on Council as they do now, and every day they put something off, the more likely it is to be subjected to credible scrutiny. Their method is smash first, ask questions later: As a tactic, it’s suitable crafty, but as a philosophy of governance, it is (by definition) about as short-sighted as you can get.

FUREY: I am going to continue giving Ford more credit than he deserves, if only because I refuse to be one of those “activists” who salve their personal failings by calling anyone right of them “stupid.” That said, the tremendous leap I am about to undertake is worthy of Kierkegaard. Let’s say Ford acknowledges that his mandate is to correct Miller’s wrong and not to go so ridiculously to the right that the electorate will snap back to the left in the next election. But he understands that to hit moderation he has to aim far past the point — because he knows that council will then want to rein him back in and make him scale back, but yet the scaled back version will actually be the plan he wanted all along: My guess is a hodgepodge of Transit City mixed with some subway, via creative financing. But if he does just want to completely scrap all these years of work then he’s orchestrating one of the largest “dig a hole, fill it back up” ventures in recent history. And he’s the one who’s supposed to be opposed to that. That said, the idea he’s trying to rule by fiat is bull. He’s been on council for a decade and is fully aware that to pass thing on council you need to … pass things on council.

SELLEY: But there is no hole, Anthony — that’s the problem! Anyway, if Mike Harris can do it, I don’t see why Ford can’t. As for what Ford’s team is up to, I can see what both of you are saying with regards to getting support on Council. He doesn’t want to let up, lose momentum. But none of it makes any of his plans any more or less feasible. If a subway plan costs $7-billion and you’ve got $2.8-billion to spend … well, you don’t have a subway plan regardless of how many friends on Council you have. I really don’t get the impression he’s willing to back off the “no surface rail” pledge. At this point, a big fat nothing strikes me as a more likely outcome. So it’d sure be interesting to see a poll asking the same people who prefer subways over streetcars if they’d prefer buses over streetcars. Because increasingly, that looks to be the real choice.

GOLDSBIE: Exactly. For Rob, subways are the only legitimate mode of public transportation; anything else, he honestly believes, would be substantially worse than the status quo. His mission is not one of improving transit but of building subways. And he’s making an effort to will such things into existence, being of the belief that his own convictions are sufficient to counteract the laws of economics and physics. “Once you get Rob going on something,” his chief of staff Nick Kouvalis said last month, “he doesn’t change very easily.” His brother Doug is similarly evangelical but is smart enough to understand that some give and take may become necessary, even though he doesn’t presently admit as much. This is a test to see how hard they can push. Mark Towhey, on the other hand, may have different intentions; Ford’s director of policy (both on the campaign and in his administration) does not believe in the very concept of public transit. Last February, he wrote on his personal blog that the City should consider getting out of the transportation business, sell off the handful of profitable routes to private companies, and let everyone else rely on taxis and carpools. Whether there is any connection between Towhey’s personal beliefs and the Fords’ current direction is worth examining.

FUREY: There are worse things than two supposedly polar opposites arguing not for and against public transit but between two different options. However I’d like to stress, as this will be my last column, how harmful picking sides and then putting your head in the sand can be. There is no rhyme or reason as to why the left has chosen one option and the right the other. It is conceivable that Ford, in 2000, could have selected LRTs to champion for fiscal savings. The left would have then rallied against him, citing that subways are the long-term option, a gift to future generations. While Ford has not crossed his Ts and dotted his Is with his subway plan, it is foolish to deny that it is the best long term option for a burgeoning metropolis. LRTs are too intrusive for our dense city streets and their capacity too limited to transport our ever-increasing population. Why we should overpay for certain contracts to feather the nest of the few and not overpay so everyone can benefit from transit will be the biggest question when we look back on this era.