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marcus gee

One of the things that grates about Mayor Rob Ford is his disregard for facts. He is a man of strong views, but often won't produce the evidence to support them, much less consider conflicting information.

The fight over the new St. Clair streetcar line is a case in point. The city built a dedicated right of way for the 512 car to separate it from traffic and make a better ride for commuters. The project was completed in 2010.

Mr. Ford despises it. Whenever he talks about transit, St. Clair is sure to come up. He calls it a "disaster" and a "nightmare," bad for car traffic and worse for neighbourhood businesses. "People hate the St. Clair. They hate these streetcars," he told city council last month.

The line is Exhibit A in his campaign against city council's plan to restart the Transit City project. His brother Doug says that putting light-rail lines on Eglinton, Sheppard and Finch would "St. Clair-ize" those streets, and he doesn't mean it in a nice way.

When city councillor Joe Mihevc suggested an independent study to clear the air, the mayor said: "You don't need a third opinion. You go up there, you look at it, you drive along it. You know, a two-year-old can see that this is a disaster."

Really? I toddled up there again on Monday morning to see for myself. I rode the 512 from Dufferin to the St. Clair West subway station, twice. It was rush hour and streetcars were coming along every two or three minutes. Traffic alongside the right-of-way was moving smoothly; no bumper-to-bumper snarl-ups in sight. I experienced a similar non-nightmare when riding west in the afternoon rush hour a few weeks ago.

Statistics gathered by Globe and Mail contributor John Lorinc show that ridership on the streetcar has jumped 13 per cent since 2005 and collisions and personal injuries on St. Clair are down. As for car commuting, a much-watched time-lapse video posted recently on YouTube shows traffic moving steadily on St. Clair from 7 to 9 one morning.

But all this is not enough to counter the mayor's stubbornly negative view of St. Clair. That is why Mr. Mihevc's study is such a good idea. He says the project has been a dazzling success; Mr. Ford says it's a disaster. So does local councillor and Ford ally Cesar Palacio, who put out a press release on Wednesday saying the line faces "ongoing issues such as dead trees, cracked sidewalks, delayed EMS response times" and "horrendous traffic jams." Let's find out for certain who is right.

Under Mr. Mihevc's proposal, approved by the Toronto Transit Commission last week, an impartial third party would study all aspects of the line. How has it affected car traffic? Is business along the strip depressed, as the mayor and some local merchants suggest? Or are new restaurants, outdoor patios and condos popping up along with the better transit, as Mr. Mihevc claims? How about parking along the St. Clair strip? Better or worse?

If Mr. Ford is right about St. Clair, then he has nothing to fear from a study. If he is proved wrong, then he won't be able to use St. Clair to attack plans for light-rail elsewhere.

Besides, we might actually learn something. St. Clair, for all its merits, is not perfect. Weekend traffic can be tough, partly because the city actually put in more street parking as a sop to merchants irritated by the long delays in completing the line. Motorists complain they have to line up for too long to turn left at intersections that cross the streetcar tracks. They also complain about a serious bottleneck near Old Weston Road. The streetcar line itself sometimes suffers from "bunching," when two or three streetcars come all at once, then none for minutes. Many of these problems, once confirmed by a study, could be fixed.

Mr. Mihevc says that if the study concludes St. Clair "did not work according to expectations," he is willing to accept it. "However, conversely, if all the data show that it is successful from a whole bunch of different metrics that are chosen, then the mayor has to wear that."

Sounds fair, doesn't it? Not to the mayor. He says the study is sure to be "a biased opinion," just like the report that recommended light-rail on Sheppard.

Bias, by one definition, is holding to a fixed opinion in spite of the evidence. Imagine doing that.