A year and a half after Mayor John Tory took office, his biggest election promise is melting away. The SmartTrack transit plan was the centrepiece of his run for mayor in 2014. It was to be a 53-kilometre, $8-billion "surface subway" that would run mostly along existing GO train tracks. Mr. Tory sold it hard, calling it far superior to his rivals' plans. His people even put out a web tool, "John Tory's SmartTracker," to show commuters how much time it was going to save them when travelling from point to point.
Bit by bit, that grandiose plan has come apart. Experts said that a major part of the network, a western spur along Eglinton Avenue West, was not feasible without costs running into the billions. Bowing to reality, Mr. Tory dropped the spur from the plan. A light-rail line is to take its place.
Now he has been forced to scale back the number of new stations to less than half the 13 he advertised during the election campaign. In back-to-back announcements on Tuesday and Wednesday, Mr. Tory stood with Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca to identify new stations in the west and east sides of the GO rail corridor.
These stations, which are being added to existing provincial plans to roll out regional express rail on its GO train tracks, are welcome, but are a far cry from Mr. Tory's brand-new surface subway. "This is a very real project," Mr. Tory insisted on Tuesday. "Regional express rail is very real."
But is SmartTrack? Will commuters ever see a train or a station with that label attached?
How Toronto will pay its share of the cost is up in the air, too. During the campaign, Mr. Tory said he would build SmartTrack without charging ratepayers another dime on their property tax. The cost would be covered by collecting more money from rising land values, a method called tax-increment financing. That dubious idea is still under study and now impatient provincial authorities want cash on the nail.
The mayor makes two points in his defence. First, when he was running for office he didn't have the resources to work through all the details of the plan, which was bound to evolve once the professionals weighed in. In scaling back SmartTrack, he is only doing what any good elected official should do and listening to expert opinion.
That explanation doesn't hold up. Mr. Tory was surrounded by high-powered advisers during the campaign. He had plenty of time to adapt his plans once critics started pointing out the obvious holes in the project, such as the little fact that developers were already putting up buildings in the corridor where he planned to put that western spur. Instead, he heaped scorn on anyone who dared to raise doubts, painting them as ditherers who lacked the boldness to get transit built.
Second, Mr. Tory argues that even if the plan is being tweaked a bit, commuters are still getting lots more transit. When you count in the new light-rail lines, he says, they will get even more transit stations than he promised. This line of argument doesn't hold up either. Light rail and the heavy-rail SmartTrack plan are apples and oranges. Light rail wasn't what he was talking about when he pitched his plan.
No matter how the mayor tries to spin it, the plan that he waved around as a miracle cure for urban congestion is now a much-diminished thing. Does that matter, if Toronto gets a heap of new transit anyway? If it looks as though commuters will get some kind – any kind – of new service, many will be tempted to let Mr. Tory off the hook.
They shouldn't. Truth in advertising matters. So does truth in campaigning. Torontonians have seen so many transit plans cancelled, rewritten and scaled back that they have become champion cynics. That means they may be less willing to support the higher taxes they will be asked for to build all these costly new rail lines.
Mr. Tory says that the city needs to have an "adult conversation" about how to pay for better transit. It would help if politicians treated them like adults in the first place instead of trying to dazzle them with transit fairy tales.