Toronto city council faces a problem. The source of the problem is Doug Ford’s provincial government. It’s hard to know, exactly, how they should react.
That’s a refrain that already sounds familiar. It’s quickly becoming the “Wonderful Christmastime” of city hall news paragraphs — a bad tune that nonetheless gets played again and again and again and seems likely to continue playing for years into the future.
In this particular case, the specific problem is the provincial government’s stated plan to take over the TTC’s subway system.
One of the specific elements of the problem is an alarming lack of specificity. “What is uploading?” TTC CEO Rick Leary wondered while answering questions from city councillors about the process on Dec. 13. “That’s really the question we have at this time.”
Newly appointed TTC Chair Jaye Robinson asked him to clarify. “You have no idea what’s being proposed?” she asked.
Whatever it turns to be, it’s a safe bet that it will probably be bad news for the TTC and its riders.
I calculate those odds partly based on an observed pattern in which everything this provincial government does turns into a blazing garbage fire. The Ford administration’s slick handling of the Hydro file has led to the cancelling of a $6.7 billion takeover the agency was involved in, which will cost us over $100 million in fees. Their announced fiscal policies so far have led to a downgrade of the provincial credit rating. The attempt to appoint Ford family friend Ron Taverner to head up the OPP led to a rare public plea for investigation by the acting OPP commissioner and a delay pending the integrity commissioner looking into it.
Even if forcibly separating the subway system from the rest of the TTC were a good concept, you have to assume at this point the crew in power at Queen’s Park would foul it up. But it’s not even a good concept.
The TTC’s massive success is in integrating the bus and streetcar networks with the subway. Pulling those things apart and having them run by different levels of government is a recipe for disaster.
“If you have ownership of a part of that system in somebody else’s hand, are they going to start screwing it up?” former TTC general manager David Gunn asked earlier this year. “Are they going to screw up the easy transfer, the relationship and the scheduling that goes between bus, rail and the streetcar?”
They tried it in New York City, where the state took over the subway system decades ago, and the result has been not just a surface transit network that isn’t integrated at all with the subway system, but a much-publicized crisis of underfunding and poor maintenance that continues to generate headlines.
And frankly, the province doesn’t have the know-how or experience to run something like Toronto’s subway or transit system. Toronto carries more passengers on the TTC in a day than the provincially-operated transit service carries in a week.
So it’s a vague idea, proposed by incompetents, which would probably be doomed even in ideal circumstances. But that’s not even the worst part.
The worst part is that there isn’t really anything Toronto city council can do to stop it. As we all know too well after the slashing of the size of council this year — and as a confidential legal opinion delivered to city council confirmed — the provincial government can do whatever it wants to the City of Toronto or anything the city government owns or controls. If Doug Ford takes a great notion to demolish Union Station and replace it with a four-storey mountain made out of cottage cheese, the city is powerless to prevent it from doing so.
“We’re about to get into the biggest fight of our term,” Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said during the council discussion. “This is the hill to die on.”
She is right, I think. The problem is that dying on the hill seems vastly more likely than successfully defending it.
So there are no good options. But sitting down with the province to emphasize city council’s wishes, and provide information that will demonstrate why a takeover by the province is ill-conceived might work somewhat better than challenging Premier Boss Hogtown to a whose-stick-is-bigger contest he can only win. And in the meantime, raising enough of a fuss that Conservative voters in Toronto get the message and maybe send it to their MPPs couldn’t hurt. Maybe there’s hope that the provincial government gets distracted enough by its various other controversies and loses interest.
That’s pretty much how the city has voted to proceed. It doesn’t look like much of a solution to the problem. But part of the problem is there isn’t any solution that city council has the power to choose.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire