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Transit City's not dead yet: David Miller Add to ...

From his Bay Street corner office, David Miller has a sweeping view of the city he used to govern. Construction cranes, a new college campus, the energy-saving fix-up of a nearby bank tower, the former mayor points them out like a proud dad.

“I don’t miss city hall at all, not at all,” he insists. “I was ready to move on. I have moved on.”

It’s been a year since the election that ushered in Rob Ford as the city’s new leader and began a new era. And it’s more than two years since Mr. Miller told Toronto he planned to make his second term his last. Still, the Miller legacy – or mess, depending on your perspective – continues to linger. Mr. Miller, now a green-jobs guru and university fellow who is back at his former law firm advising clients on clean technology and renewable energy practices, says he’s done with politics. But that doesn’t mean Toronto is done with him. The former mayor is still shaping the debate – giving hope with comments in the media to those who want to save his plan for transit, or being trotted out by the current administration as a symbol of everything that is wrong at city hall.

Since he left office, Mr. Miller says he’s tried to stay out of the political fray, not even reading the local news pages. “I’m not paying attention for obvious reasons,” he says. “I disagree with most of what is going on at city hall.”

But when it comes to Transit City, his cherished plan to build a system of light-rail lines stretching to underserviced neighbourhoods on the city’s outskirts, Mr. Miller isn’t holding his tongue.

Can light rail transit be revived?

Transit City was declared dead by Mayor Ford long ago and Dalton McGuinty has since agreed to transfer the money earmarked for Transit City’s surface lines on Sheppard, Finch and Eglinton to pay for an underground route on Eglinton alone.

In a widely quoted radio interview in September, Mr. Miller said his plan for light-rail lines on Sheppard and Finch could be turned back on “like a switch” since all the preliminary work was complete. While viewed by many as a real long shot, such statements and the results of the provincial election have fuelled hopes for a rebirth of Transit City. A new online petition is circulating, asking for the transit issue to be put before city council.

“We are not reopening the debate,” says a spokeswoman for the Premier in an e-mail – a statement that appears to leave the matter in the hands of the city. After Mayor Ford’s election, the Premier was careful to steer clear of the divisions on council over transit planning, saying it was up to local government to decide what changes should be made. Reviving Transit City at this point would require the province to go against the wishes of the mayor, an unlikely scenario unless it had the support of council.

Mr. Miller doesn’t see it that way. Building a rapid transit system is one of the biggest issues facing Toronto, he argues, and Transit City a once-in-a-generation opportunity. He has begun to speak out publicly on the issue, saying it is too important for him – as a citizen who is well versed on the issue – to remain silent. That stance has been embraced by some opponents of the mayor, emboldened by the recent success in defeating the mayor and his brother’s bid to take control of planning for Toronto’s Port Lands.

“The question really now is the premier,” Mr. Miller insists. “It’s almost entirely provincial money, so they’ve got the biggest say.”

Councillor Karen Stintz, chair of the Toronto Transit Commission and a long-time critic of Mr. Miller, calls all the talk of Transit City a distraction. “At some point, you just need to make decisions and move. I’m at the point where we are about to dig Eglinton. Let’s just get started, before we go changing more plans.”

But Ms. Stintz does not quibble with the former mayor’s claim that the province could make changes. “I think that’s a fair and accurate statement,” she says.

Ms. Stintz says there are “unresolved technical issues,” with the plan to bury the entire Eglinton line. For one, the change of plans championed by Mayor Ford could trigger a new environmental assessment – a costly and time-consuming proposition. The Don Valley also is a problem. “You can’t tunnel there,” Ms. Stintz says. “It’s just not possible. So what are the other options? That work is still under way.”

An international environmental message, a local rediscovery

Aside from transit, Mr. Miller says he doesn’t feel it’s right for him to comment on other local political matters. Instead, he has spoken about green initiatives and the importance of cities to international audiences. As well, he is making regular trips to New York where he is the Future of Cities Global Fellow at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, a post he landed after chairing the C40 group of mayors. Starting in January, he will teach a course to senior engineers and graduate planning students that will use an existing derelict site as a case study in rebuilding cities. He addressed the school’s incoming class this fall about using research to improve other people’s lives and the role that cities can play in that process. He also is working on an NYU-sponsored conference for the spring. As well, Mr. Miller is helping president Jerry Hultin develop a new applied-science campus called the Centre for Urban Science and Progress, a project that could see the Brooklyn site expand by 50 per cent.

Mr. Hultin says he met Mr. Miller at a meeting of the C40, an international network of cities committed to fighting climate change. He was impressed, he says, by what Mr. Miller was able to achieve as mayor. “A lot of people have dreams; the question is whether people turn those dreams into real things and make them happen,” says Mr. Hultin, a former undersecretary of the U.S. Navy. “I seek out those kinds of people and David is one of them.”

Here in Toronto, Mr. Miller has returned to law firm Aird & Berlis. Earlier this year, he hosted a CBC hour-long radio documentary called Green Streets, about the changes taking place in New York City. He is also working with the Canadian branch of Cape Farewell, a London-based organization that links artists and writers with scientists with the aim of inspiring creative work that considers the challenges of climate change. The group has made Toronto the base for its North American operations partly, its leader says, because of Mr. Miller and the work he has done on climate change as mayor.

This may seem like a long list of activities, but compared to being mayor, Mr. Miller says it’s a dramatic change of pace. His alarm goes off a little later than before, and he is home most nights for dinner, with time to walk the family’s new puppy – a cockapoo named Jimmy. He’s seeing more of his two teenaged children – the wish to do so was the main reason, he says, he left political office.

“I loved being there,” he says of the mayor’s job. “It required me to be the absolute best every day. But I also love being a father. As the mayor, you really aren’t the kind of father that I want to be.”

A look at his Twitter postings shows Mr. Miller doesn’t always manage to stay out of politics – especially with regards to Mayor Rob Ford’s constant claim that his cost-cutting crusade is cleaning up the mess he inherited.

“Hey Dude, repeating a lie doesn’t make it true,” Mr. Miller tweeted recently. “We left a massive operating surplus. A surplus. You can look it up.”

Asked if it stings to have the work he did dismantled, Mr. Miller goes one further. “They are undoing a lot more than David Miller,” he says. “Some things they have tried to undo have been built since World War Two. I didn’t build the Toronto public library system.”

Life after politics is a strange experience, Mr. Miller admits. One day you have a packed schedule, the next the tap is turned off. Mr. Miller says he is constantly approached by people who want to talk about civic affairs. “I’d love to tell you what they say, but it won’t come out right when I say it,” he demurs when asked. “The fascinating thing is that they almost all say the same three words.”

A Twitter posting addressed to the former mayor could provide the answer. “You are missed,” it says.

Follow on Twitter: @lizchurchto

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