Watching the politics of transit in Toronto is like sitting courtside at Wimbledon as the ball flies back and forth across the net. The latest volley came from Mayor Rob Ford, who said on Wednesday that he supports an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway to Scarborough.
To understand why that is important, go back to the winter of 2012, when city council defeated his bid to build an extension of the Sheppard subway to Scarborough. He made it clear then and there that he would use the decision against his rivals when he ran for re-election in 2014, blaming them for denying Scarborough a subway line and sticking it with a second-rate light-rail network instead.
Enter Karen Stintz, the chair of the Toronto Transit Commission. She was the one who led the charge against Mr. Ford's poorly thought out Sheppard plan. Now, she is exploring a run for mayor against Mr. Ford and stands to lose votes if he can blame her for thwarting Scarborough's subway dreams.
Last June, accordingly, she made the Bloor-Danforth subway extension into Scarborough a centrepiece of her ambitious One City transit-expansion plan. The plan went nowhere, but this spring she renewed her push for the Bloor-Danforth extension anyway, arguing that it made more sense to build a subway than simply rebuild the Scarborough rapid-transit line, or SRT, as currently planned.
The political upside for Ms. Stintz is that Mr. Ford can't call her an enemy of Scarborough any more. To the contrary, if the plan got going, she could claim it was her, not Mr. Ford, who is trying to get subways rolling to the heart of Scarborough.
Not to be outfoxed, Mr. Ford has now come out in favour of the Bloor-Danforth extension. He held a news conference on Wednesday to say that he is asking city officials to study the cost of an extension. "What do we want? Subways or SRTs?" he said. "We want subways folks." Suddenly, Mr. Ford and Ms. Stintz, often bitter adversaries, find themselves on the same side.
It is tempting to dismiss all of this as mere gamesmanship, yet another sideshow that stands in the way of building the transit that commuters need. Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, is certainly showing its frustration. It is demanding a firm decision – SRT or subway? – by Aug. 2.
But, like it or not, transit decisions are political in this town, and the subway plan has some political merits. If it went ahead, politicians like Mr. Ford could no longer make the claim, silly in the first place, that downtowners get all the good transit while suburbanites ride the bus. A Bloor-Danforth extension to Scarborough would draw some of the poison from suburban resentment.
Instead of running on the complaint that Scarborough is getting a raw deal, Mr. Ford could claim to be actually achieving something for commuters there. Ms. Stintz could run on a similar, positive message. As for Premier Kathleen Wynne, the leader of a minority government in the midst of contesting a by-election in Scarborough could do worse than support a Scarborough subway, especially given that her main rival, Conservative Tim Hudak, has a pro-subways platform.
In practical terms, the Scarborough subway would offer a one-seat ride to and from downtown, avoiding the time-consuming transfer to an SRT. Construction could proceed while the existing SRT was still in service, so commuters would not be stuck on the bus while the SRT was rebuilt.
Yes, it would cost more – the TTC and Metrolinx disagree over how much more – so asking for the report from city staff was wise. And, yes, this last-minute twist in the transit saga adds uncertainty and threatens more delay, but in the grand scheme of the region-wide transit rollout, this is a relatively small and worthwhile adjustment.
For both political and practical reasons, it deserves a serious look.