For a driving buff, life in Canada’s largest city is a brutal test of faith. This is the home of the $50 parking spot, the king-size pothole and the $5,000 insurance premium. And now it is Rob Ford country – a land of lost promise and endless fiasco.
I thought of this last week as the city administration was rocked by the latest developments in the surreal affair that has engulfed it: as you’ve no doubt heard (even if you live in Australia), our mayor is caught up in the mother of all municipal scandals, a swirling, non-stop series of allegations and revelations that has included everything from money directed to his football team to a video shot by a drug dealer (which no one in the public has seen, and may not actually involve Mr. Ford).
As this played out on the news, I headed down to College Street to deal with a car-related matter – the plate on our old Honda was about to expire. The provincial form showed that it would cost nearly $350 to renew – the fee was $82, but according to the notice, we also owed $264.75 for three outstanding parking tickets. I had no idea what these tickets might be, and the paperwork gave no details, so I couldn’t check my files to see if this might be a mistake (we keep records of all parking tickets and payments).
As the clerk informed me, the only way to get the numbers of the allegedly unpaid tickets was to pay the full amount – the ticket’s offence numbers would be listed on the receipt. I left the office feeling like a man who has been put through the financial version of waterboarding, and began the four-block walk back to my car – all the metered parking spots on College Street had been taken, but I had finally found a spot on a side street where you were allowed to park for two hours.
Although I had been gone for less than 45 minutes, my windshield was now adorned with a bright-yellow parking ticket for $30 (plus surcharges). I soon found out why. Among the dozens of parking-related signs on the street was one hidden by a low-hanging branch – the sign announced that this section of the street was permit-only during certain hours. I’d missed it.
In less than an hour, the city (along with the province) had extracted more than $400 from me. Welcome to Toronto, as they say.
When Rob Ford was elected to office in 2010, I thought he was part of a necessary corrective process. Ford’s campaign had been based on a single plank: cost-cutting. After watching our taxes escalate year after year, I was ready for a little restraint at city hall. Our property taxes had nearly tripled since we bought our house, and the city now charged us separately for water and garbage pickup, which had once been part of our tax bill (at the moment, these two items are running approximately $1,800 a year).
About five years ago, I started to realize that driving a car in Toronto was an expensive habit. Our insurance rates topped the nation. Parking fees seemed to be based on the same business model that the Somali pirates employ on their coastal raids. And the city drained us with an endless series of taxes, fees and surcharges. Previous mayor David Miller had tacked a $60 city tax on top of the provincial licence plate renewal fee, and parking and traffic enforcement had been converted into a municipal ATM machine. In 1989, the city issued 803,723 parking tickets. By 2010, the number had risen to nearly 2.8 million.
As I had learned through experience, Toronto’s departments had tilted sharply toward revenue collection to pay for their rapidly growing municipal empires. A few years ago, an inspector showed up at our door to inform us that we needed to buy licences for our cats (and renew them each year). In the meantime, city services seemed to have declined – when my wife and I were defrauded in a credit-card scam, we waited four days for a police officer to come to take a report. But there seemed to be no end of resources when it came to ticketing – when I recently arrived at my car four minutes after my three-hour meter slip expired, a parking ticket had already been issued.
You get my drift.
So you will understand why I did not greet Rob Ford’s 2010 arrival with dismay. He struck me as a heavyset, sharply limited version of Margaret Thatcher – a politician who was willing to take on entrenched interests and get the city’s fiscal house in order. And as everyone told me, he was a car guy. He drove a minivan. (I didn’t really see eye to eye with Ford on transportation issues, but I figured he couldn’t be worse than his predecessor.) And if Ford could keep our taxes from rising, perhaps we’d be able to fix our leaking garage roof and buy new tires for our Honda.
And so, as the Ford years began, I had some hope. Maybe Ford would be The Driver’s Mayor, ushering in a new age of transportation enlightenment. Roads would get fixed. Costs would be contained. Tax increases would end. Then came the scandal. As far as I can tell, all stated Ford agendas are now out the window, replaced by a single, desperate imperative – survival.
The bottom line: I dropped $400 renewing my plate last week. As they say: the more things change, the more they stay the same. So here we are, riding through Ford country. What a short, strange trip it’s been.
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Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/