In 2007, a couple of Toronto politicians announced a plan for seven light rail lines that that would criss-cross Toronto, bringing rapid transit service to virtually all the city’s “priority neighbourhoods.” Called Transit City, it was a pretty good plan. Council endorsed it in full or in part at least seven different times, always by wide margins.
But that was then. Today, Transit City is the Voldemort of transit plans — that which shall not be named. One of the plan’s major boosters, Mayor David Miller, left office in 2010, while former TTC chair Adam Giambrone — the other architect behind the plan — saw his political career take an, um, odd turn. He’s now the NDP candidate running in the provincial by-election for Scarborough-Guildwood, but he’s seemingly decided not to talk about Transit City or even mention LRT in his campaign.
The candidates offered up by the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives aren’t talking LRT either. Yesterday, Transportation Minister Glen Murray posted a picture of him and Liberal candidate Mitzie Hunter holding signs that read “Subway Champion.” Seriously.
So what happened between 2007 and now? How did Toronto go from a city with politicians who were positive about the potential of a light rail network to a city where ‘LRT’ is a dirty word?
Obviously the guy who succeeded Miller is part of it. Mayor Rob Ford is just about the only politician who can claim to have always opposed the light rail lines that make up Transit City. And when Ford’s ascension to the mayor’s office saw him go from Irrepressible Council Crank to Enlightened Voice of the People, some of his colleagues who had previously seemed quite content to press the green button for Transit City took notice.
But there’s more to it than just that. Part of the blame also has to fall on the provincial government, whose delays and cuts to the plan stalled progress and allowed for more political tinkering. The best way to convince Torontonians that light rail can work is to actually build a light rail line. But huge delays have left LRT critics with years to foster the (wrong) idea that the streetcar right-of-way on St. Clair is an example of what commuters should expect from Transit City.
And so there aren’t many local politicians left these days who are willing to speak up in support of Transit City or light rail. There are exceptions, of course — just look at the vote breakdown from last week to get an idea who they are. But it’s a shame that their ranks have thinned, because the rationale behind Transit City still make a whole lot of sense.
Transit City, after all, was never about politicians getting together and deciding not to build subways in favour of surface rail. Instead, it was an acknowledgement that a couple of decades of focusing mostly on subway expansion in Toronto had led to very little. Some great ambitious subway plans were drafted in the 1980s and 1990s, but all Toronto ended up with — aside from some fancy future transit maps — was a stub of a subway on Sheppard, plans for a politically-motivated subway extension to Vaughan and a pile of dirt over what was intended to be a stub of a subway on Eglinton.
Toronto never decided to stop building subways. Instead, subways just became incredibly expensive and governments opted out of realistic strategies to pay for them in any significant way. Transit City was an acknowledgement that maybe it was time to try something different.
And doing something different makes sense for a lot of reasons. There aren’t many possible subway corridors remaining in this city that would justify the operating costs of an underground subway, but there are a lot of routes, especially in the inner suburbs, that seem tailor-made for light rail. And light rail is cheap enough relative to subways — maybe a third of the cost — that real progress becomes possible. Instead of dithering about and adding maybe a handful of subway stations every couple of decades, LRT allows Toronto to talk about adding whole new lines on whole new corridors.
Transit City was about using LRT to build a network. There was a time that a lot of our politicians seemed to understand the value in that. There was a time when they even spoke up and championed it. With Toronto again facing critical decisions about the future of its transit system, it’d sure be nice to hear from them again.