The OneCity transit plan—the one we were so excited about last week—is now a tangled mess of politics and ego. It’s a plan seemingly so lacking in strategy and direction that it’s playing like something developed and released by Mayor Rob Ford’s office.
It didn’t need to be this way. At its core, OneCity has great intentions. It’s designed to close several gaps identified during council’s most recent transit debate, finally giving this city a confirmed and endorsed map for future transit expansion. More critically, it seeks to have Toronto City Council admit that you can’t build a great transit system for free.
That would be OneCity’s best legacy: council endorsement of a dedicated revenue strategy for transit.
But the wheels have come off quickly. When the plan was first unveiled, most City Hall watchers logically assumed that OneCity was the next great trick by council’s left- and centre-factions. After working together so well through the LRT meetings in February and March, councillors seemed poised to continue to do good, coordinated work on the transit file, leaving the mayor and his remaining allies to flail alway uselessly in the corner.
But OneCity did not unfold as expected, with several politically-important boxes left unchecked at the time the plan was announced. Councillors who presumably could have been moved to support the plan instead seemed surprised and tepid in their comments. And the province, whose support is so crucial, reacted like the whole thing was a slap to the face.
It didn’t help that communication around the new transit plan led to a bunch of silly narratives by some in the media. TTC chair Karen Stintz can’t lift a finger these days without inspiring a breathless “Are you saying you’re running for mayor?” question from a reporter. It’s a needless distraction.
Even worse was the simplistic Scarborough-deserves-a-subway line of thinking, resurrected by a OneCity priority proposal to replace the rickety Scarborough RT with an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway. TTC vice-chair Glenn De Baeremaeker—co-author of OneCity—made ill-advised comments that pushed the idea that Scarborough, just by virtue of being Scarborough, should have a subway.
“You’ve got this very large corner of the city that has no good access to a subway system,” he said. “The last kids on the block are in Scarborough.”
Did we learn nothing from the LRT-versus-subway debate? It’s dangerous territory to start saying that all areas of the city deserve access to the same type of transit, with no regard for density, projected ridership or employment. That’s the kind of thinking that leads to subway proposals on Finch Avenue.
There are other problems. The plan’s only revenue source is something called CVA uplift, a kind of supplementary property tax that allows the city to retain new revenue through increases in assessed property values. As money-making tools go, it’s significantly less desirable than something like a sales or payroll tax and it stands against longstanding city policy to look for diversified revenue sources beyond property taxes. And the plan’s approach to operating costs—both now and into the future—exists only as a series of question marks.
But still, I can’t shake that jazzed-up feeling that OneCity brought when it was first announced. Toronto needs a big ambitious transit plan with big ambitious funding sources. This city can’t afford to wait around for provincial support that may never come. The greatest risk going forward is that council remains reluctant to embrace new municipal revenue tools to build transit. We need to get moving.
What’s next? Reports are sketchy. It’s clear now that most of the major players on the left—led by Shelley Carroll, Adam Vaughan and Gord Perks—have major reservations about OneCity as a strategy. On the other end of the spectrum, Ford and his allies have expressed total objection to any kind of tax to pay for transit, though Stintz did express optimism after meeting with the mayor’s office on Thursday.
It’s incredibly unlikely that you’ll see both sides of council come together to vote against the plan. The stage is set for a different kind of outcome when OneCity comes to council next week. Take your bets: will council approve study of the OneCity map but drop the notion of new revenue tools, or will this whole thing get deferred until the fall?