They were early salvoes in what promises to be a year of electioneering on transportation.
With his pledge this week to abandon plans for a Scarborough subway extension, Toronto mayoral candidate David Soknacki sparked a furor among opponents and reminded everyone that congestion is the hottest of issues in the city. Then Sandra Yeung Racco, the Liberal candidate for a provincial by-election in suburban Thornhill, promised to fight for a subway to the riding.
With that by-election next month, municipal voters going to the polls in the fall and a provincial race possible this spring, what to do about Toronto-area traffic problems will be front of mind this year. And as the city struggles with congestion that costs an estimated $6-billion annually, the result of these races could add a few more projects to the city’s long list of abandoned transit solutions.
Behind the megaprojects and sweeping plans are a series of issues that could sway local races. Although in some of these cases politicians have limited ability to affect what happens, exploiting or defusing voter discontent could be key to victory.
LRT versus subways
Depending on whom you ask, light-rail transport is either the transit bogeyman or the misunderstood answer to many of Toronto’s congestion problems. Though there is currently no LRT in operation anywhere in the city, the future of this type of transit is under threat. Mayoral candidates are already jousting about the LRT lines planned for Sheppard and Finch and the provincial Progressive Conservatives want to focus on subways above all. With light rail’s worth under attack at both levels, the LRT line being dug under Eglinton is the only one that seems certain to survive, whatever the political winds bring in 2014.
But elections this year could determine whether a completed Eglinton line is the city’s first of several LRTs – or stands as an orphaned relic of Transit City, the expansive plan Mayor Rob Ford killed when he took office.
Operating streetcars amid other traffic runs the risk of delays that infuriate everyone, the pro-transit and pro-car lobbies alike. But while detractors would prefer to replace streetcars with buses, a $1.2-billion order of new vehicles expected to start rolling out this year makes that unlikely. Instead, the city is looking at King – whose streetcar is a workhorse of the TTC’s surface fleet, carrying more people than the Sheppard subway – as a place to give more space to transit vehicles. Under active consideration is a proposal to restrict private vehicles on King during rush hour. The work has been slower than the TTC would like, but Transportation Services is keen to look at other factors, including parking and turning, before agreeing to the proposal. Residents and business owners will be watching their local councillor closely on this one.
On Eglinton West, where work is under way for the Crosstown LRT, it’s faster in some places to walk than to drive. And construction is just getting going. Although the resulting transit service will be an improvement, the short-term pain has businesses apprehensive about their bottom line and some local residents angry about the traffic tangles. Regional transit agency Metrolinx says it is doing what it can to reduce the disruptions – including having construction bidders spell out how long they will close lanes on the road, with penalties for delays – but the work below ground can’t be done without impacts up above. And tunnelling and station construction will take years. The line isn’t expected to open until 2020. Although changing this situation is beyond the power of the area’s politicians, look for candidates to try to tap local discontent on the hustings.
Modern politicians are notoriously worried about raising taxes and Toronto councillors took that risk-aversion to great lengths last spring. When asked to approve ways to generate money for regional transit, they voted against almost every option. The only two they did not reject were a sales-tax increase and development charges, though they didn’t endorse them either. The anti-tax rhetoric has softened since, with even Mr. Ford acknowledging the need to raise property taxes for a Scarborough subway extension. But that shift may leave Toronto voters feeling they’re doing their part, in turn making it harder to raise more money for regional transit. And with the opposition at Queen’s Park arguing that transit can be funded through corporate taxes or by selling government resources, raising money to reduce congestion could prove a minefield in Toronto.
UP Express electrification
A rail link to the airport is scheduled to be ready in time for next year’s Pan Am Games. But as this train whisks athletes and spectators downtown, it will leave a lot of gritted teeth in its wake. A lobbying and legal campaign by residents along the rail corridor to prioritize electrification of the route failed, and the train will start service being pulled by diesel locomotives. Metrolinx, which is building the line, says they had to go with diesel to meet the deadline of having it operational for the Games. Although that won’t change no matter who is elected in this neighbourhood, the issue could still resonate electorally. Expect voters to reward candidates perceived to be listening to their concerns on this and punish those who aren’t.
When Mr. Ford was inaugurated, Don Cherry set a combative tone with a speech deriding “the pinkos … that ride bicycles.” The stance fit in well with the mayor’s anti-cyclist and pro-car rhetoric and he followed up by killing the bike lanes on Jarvis. But his view is increasingly out of step with current trends. Right-wing mayors in other cities have embraced cycling as an important part of the transportation mix, the Ontario government recently rolled out a multiyear cycling strategy and Toronto decided to take over the local bike-share program. Increasing data show that, on top of reducing congestion, cyclists are good for neighbourhood businesses. But with bike lanes proposed on Adelaide and Richmond, key downtown arteries, the hot button will probably be pushed again this year.