Toronto is a paradox. Private-sector Toronto is booming. The city is a magnet for people from across the country and around the world. The skyline is marked by flocks of cranes, and much of the central city is a construction zone, with new condos and office towers filling in empty lots and creating new neighbourhoods. For several years, Toronto has had more high-rises under construction than any other North American city; the most recent count had 130 new tall buildings going up. And a growing Toronto of 2.8 million sits at the centre of the even faster-growing urban region known as the Greater Toronto Area, population six million-plus and rising. Over the next 20 years, the GTA is expected to add another 2.5 million – more than two Calgarys. Private-sector Toronto is alive and doing extremely well.
But public-sector Toronto? The city's politics is dysfunctional, with the mayor's office at the heart of the dysfunction. Big things need doing; what's on offer is drift. And on the biggest municipal issue of all – transit – the city largely relies on infrastructure built in the 1960s. Plans are made, argued over, ripped up, redrafted, shelved, and then the cycle repeats. The transit file moves forward at a snail's pace in contrast to the breakneck speed at which private business and new residents are transforming and improving the city. Private Toronto booms; public Toronto busts.
Until public Toronto catches up and starts doing a much better job at things only the public sector can do, life in private Toronto will be a lot less livable.
On Oct. 27, Torontonians will elect a mayor and 44 city councillors. The mayoral candidate who can return sanity to city politics, who can best negotiate with the provincial and federal governments, who is most likely to be able to make progress on transit and other major issues, and who can bring an end to the Ford brothers' reign of error, is John Tory.
Mayor Rob Ford can't be blamed for all of the city's problems. Ending his term in office (due to his illness, his brother Doug has replaced him on the mayoral ballot) will not magically fix all that ails the government of Canada's largest city. But the Fords coarsened politics, replaced public discourse with taunts, and told voters that city government didn't deserve their tax dollars because it didn't work – and then in office, prevented it from working. It's time to send the Fords and their circus tent packing.
Mr. Tory can do better. Much better. He has demonstrated that he can work with both senior levels of government – the provincial Liberals at Queen's Park and the federal Tories on Parliament Hill. The former Progressive Conservative provincial leader is endorsed by a growing number of Liberal MPPs, and his campaign team is stacked with people from across the aisle. He is the best candidate to make Toronto's case to higher levels of government. And his business experience can bring to the ailing public sector the health of the city's private sector.
Mr. Tory's signature electoral plank has been his SmartTrack transit plan, a proposal to use existing above-ground rail lines to create a better commuter network for those living outside Toronto, and a kind of surface subway for those in the city. He says it can be done much more cheaply and quickly than the alternatives. He also claims it can be built entirely without raising property taxes, using what is known as tax-increment financing (TIF), or additional taxes drawn from the private development of nearby land.
The Tory plan has its good points. It builds on a provincial plan to electrify the GO transit lines and turn them into all-day, two-way services. It is mostly about intensifying and accelerating what the province is already planning. It also has the advantage of creating a U-shaped line passing through the heart of the city, but whose tips will lie outside Toronto. Those ridings are contested Conservative-Liberal turf at the provincial and federal levels. Mr. Tory's plan recognizes the benefits of that political reality.
Opponents and critics have attacked the plan on a number of grounds. New revenues from TIF may not be enough to cover the city's one-third share of the $8-billion tab. Taxpayers may end up paying at least part of the freight. That wouldn't be such a bad thing. Toronto has been living in a political fantasy world where voters want government to do more – but as taxpayers, they don't want to pay for it. The result is gridlock and half-measures, further eroding confidence in government's ability to do anything – phenomena found in other major Canadian cities now facing elections, including Vancouver, Ottawa and Mississauga.
All three main candidates for mayor are to some extent right on transit. Does Toronto need more buses, as Olivia Chow wants? Yes. Does it need a downtown relief subway line, to take traffic from the already overcrowded Yonge line? Yes. Does surface rail on existing tracks, like Mr. Tory's plan, make sense? Yes. Toronto's transit deficit is enormous. It is strangling the city's quality of life.
The election of Mr. Tory as mayor will not in itself fix what's broken. Remember, Toronto has what is known as a weak mayor system. The mayor is not a prime minister. Not even close. A Toronto mayor is but one vote among 45 on council. He may have allies, but he doesn't lead a party. He isn't backed by a slate of councillors who ran on a common platform. Mayor Rob Ford was often outvoted, frequently by wide margins. The mayor has to negotiate his way to better policies, better choices and better government. He has to be a networker-in-chief – a role for which neither Ford was suited.
The best candidate for that job, by a wide margin, is John Tory.