Skip to main content

In the early years of Sesame Street, the creators of the kids show introduced a character named Mr. Snuffleupagus. He was a huge, hairy, shambling creature with a trunk like an elephant’s. At first, only Big Bird could see him. Mr. Snuffleupagus comes to mind whenever John Tory talks about SmartTrack, the transit system that only he can see.

Mr. Tory invented SmartTrack when he was running for mayor in 2014. His main rival, Olivia Chow, was saying that her big transit project would be the downtown relief line, a new subway that would take the pressure off the Toronto Transit Commission’s two main existing subway lines. Mr. Tory insisted he had a better idea. He proposed using GO Train tracks to create a new 22-stop “London-style surface subway.” It would be built faster than Ms. Chow’s relief line and it would come at no extra cost to the overburdened Toronto taxpayer.

Ms. Chow and other skeptics called that nonsense. Four years later, it is clear that she was right. One by one, Mr. Tory’s claims about his whiz-bang transit project have fallen apart. The extensive 22-stop new transit system has become six extra Toronto stops on the GO network. The idea that SmartTrack would be up and running by 2021 has been exposed as the wishful thinking it always was. The even more fantastical notion that taxpayers would get it essentially for free has proved to be mere air. What remains is a shadow of what he promised voters.

Mr. Tory is left in the embarrassing position of arguing over and over that SmartTrack is actually a thing. He may be the only mayor in North America who has to fight to persuade people that his most important project even exists.

To his evident annoyance, critics keep pointing out how far SmartTrack has wandered from its original form. Consider the crucial question of who is paying. Back in 2014, Mr. Tory said the city’s share of its cost would come entirely from something called Tax Increment Financing (TIF). The city would scoop up the extra tax revenue it got from development around SmartTrack stations and use it to pay off the cost of the transit project.

But a report presented at city hall this week confirmed that TIF will cover only part of the bill. Some of the money will have to come from dipping into a city-building fund that Mr. Tory set up. That fund is being filled by a special levy on property-tax payers. So much for Mr. Tory’s claim that the cost would be covered “without raising property taxes, using tax increment financing.” He made that pledge in his 2014 campaign literature.

Confronted over this reversal on Tuesday, Mr. Tory tried his best to wriggle off the hook. “I never said taxpayer money wouldn’t be used,” he told reporters. “What I did say was that property taxes would not specifically be raised to pay for SmartTrack.”

It won’t wash. City staff told council’s executive committee on Tuesday that to pay for the new SmartTrack stations, they will need to draw on the city-building fund for about $18-million a year, roughly a quarter of the fund’s annual yield. That money comes directly from Toronto taxpayers through the 0.5-per-cent, five-year annual property-tax increase that created the fund in the first place.

In other words, a project Mr. Tory said would not raise taxes to build is being built with money from a fund he raised taxes to create. However the mayor tries to slice it, SmartTrack is being paid for, in part, by property-tax payers − something he insisted would not happen when he was courting the city’s voters. The least he could do is admit it.

Mr. Tory concedes that today’s SmartTrack is “something that is different than was originally conceived of” back in 2014, but that every project of its kind goes through some changes between drawing board and execution. That’s a nose-stretcher, too.

The SmartTrack we see now is a whole different animal, more Elmo than Snuffleupagus. Instead of a comprehensive transit project, we have a handful of new stations on the GO system. Instead of a project that comes gratis to the taxpayer, we have one that relies substantially on tax money from you and me.

The mayor can try to sell SmartTrack on its merits if he likes − he says it will do a world of good for commuters despite all the changes − but pretending his friend is real won’t persuade anyone. Mr. Snuffleupagus’s first name, by the way, is Aloysius.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe