An epitaph: OneCity was a super-ambitious, well-meaning thing that was bungled and mishandled. It fell victim to messy politics, councillor egos and a provincial partner that opted not to play along. We’ll probably never see the “OneCity” branding again.
The end. Despite the hoopla, there’s not much of a story to tell.
Toronto City Council’s debate on transit this week went down mostly as expected. Most of TTC chair Karen Stintz’s plan never made it to the floor for debate or vote. Of the two pieces that did, only one passed: council prioritized the East Bayfront LRT but refused to reopen debate on the potential for replacing the Scarborough RT with a subway extension. Council also approved a face-saving motion that basically reconfirmed their support for a report that’s already in the works.
It’s tempting to ascribe more sweeping narratives to the OneCity debate, to make this all seem more important than it was. But a lot of the conclusions being drawn don’t hold up.
Here are five big myths about this week’s transit brouhaha.
1. The OneCity map is dead, like lots of other Toronto transit maps in the past
The name and branding might be tombstone-worthy, but the details behind OneCity still have a lot of life in them.
The transit map that will inevitably be adopted by council early next year will look a lot like the map that’s been bandied about over the last couple of weeks. Because that map looks a lot like maps contained in the Big Move strategy being refined by Metrolinx. Which in turn look a lot like various maps that have been kicked around planning offices for decades.
The OneCity map was a red herring. That colourful collection of subway, LRT and bus routes was always intended to act like the booming voice and billowing smoke in Emerald City — there only to distract from the revenue plan behind the curtain. Pursuing new money through increased property assessments meant working on an accelerated timetable, which explains why Stintz and De Baeremaeker worked so fast to push this plan into the light.
But when Stintz ultimately backed away from the CVA uplift discussion, OneCity became a useless bauble. Yes, it makes sense for council to approve a comprehensive, long-term transit strategy, but there’s certainly no reason for them to rush to do so now. Waiting for Metrolinx to release its reports in the fall is a far more sensible notion.
As far as that fancy map goes, it’s not dead. It’s just resting.
2. Council just can’t get anything done on transit
I get that it seems like a lot of talking and not a lot of doing, but don’t sell our local politicians short. In the last five years, Toronto has started construction on a major subway extension to York University—and, yeah, beyond—and secured an $8-billion funding commitment for four light rail lines in the city’s suburbs. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
In addition, the previous council launched a ridership growth strategy that vastly expanded service city-wide and brought record ridership to the TTC.
Is it enough? No. But don’t ignore the progress that’s been made. We’re worlds away from the doldrums of the 90s, when little transit was even proposed and saying “road tolls” or “transit sales tax” would have seen you laughed out of the room.
3. This was a subway-versus-LRT flip-flop
Quick quiz: How many councillors oppose construction of new underground rapid transit lines?
Follow-up: How many councillors would oppose the construction of a new subway line linking Don Mills & Eglinton with downtown?
Very likely zero. (Mayor Rob Ford might oppose it depending on the proposed revenue strategy.)
There is no political ideology that says LRTs rule and subways drool.
4. This was a victory for Mayor Rob Ford
Please. During the entirety of the debate on Wednesday, when he wasn’t out of the chamber for long stretches, Ford sat stone-faced, staring off into the distance, looking bored. The mayor’s office didn’t even bother to prepare a strategy for this debate. They just let it play out.
Ford did rise to speak on the other major item considered that day. But that was about office expense accounts. He knows what his priorities are.
The mayor has made his choice. His hatred for taxes is stronger than his love for subway construction. Without a major shift, his opinions are never going to be relevant to transit debate in this city.
Wednesday’s voting results are a good illustration. Only nine per cent of councillors with Ford-supporting voting records (including Stintz) voted to hear debate on De Baeremaeker’s Scarborough subway, but that wasn’t surprising. Stintz—now branded a traitor—knew she couldn’t really count on the Ford contingent for support. What killed the idea was the lack of support on the left, where only about half came out in favour.
5. This was a victory for anyone
It’s mostly just depressing.
The thing that made OneCity so exciting in those halcyon days of late June was that it was transit with a bona fide revenue strategy attached to it. As much as the CVA uplift gambit may have been a flawed idea, the notion that this council—the Rob Ford council—would actually debate (and maybe approve!) a dedicated funding source for rapid transit expansion was, um… bananas. It was bananas.
But it didn’t go anywhere.
And so the actual OneCity debate, if you can call it that, was once again a not-very-fun version of SimCity, all empty discussion about lines on maps and technology choice. Nothing about revenue.
It’s possible that we’ll return to the question of revenues in a more serious way this fall, but cynicism is justified. Whether council actually has the courage to back dedicated revenue tools for transit—tolls, taxes, fees—is still very much an open question.
OneCity, once presented as a game-changer for Toronto transit, ended up meaning little. For now, council continues to play the same game.