A looming battle at Toronto's City Hall over the future of the municipality's public transportation is going to settle less about that issue than it is a stage for the mayor's opponents to flex some muscle where they see an opportunity. City Council is a continual conflict between the committed socialist and conservative factions, with the outcome decided by a few non-aligned politicians who vote, depending on who were talking about, either on the basis of their assessment of a proposal or on what they see as the most personally advantageous position to take.
The Transit City battle pits the mayor and his allies who want a subway against the Millerite socialists who are pushing for an above-ground light rail system that was the legacy of the so-called Transit City proposal.
The mayor argues that the above ground system's requirement to have exclusive use of two traffic lanes would increase congestion on an already gridlocked road, while providing only slightly better travel time than a streetcar.
The light rail supporters claim the subway's expense is unfeasible despite a recently commissioned study which reported a contrary conclusion.
If recent history is a guide,it appears the real motive of the light rail advocates seems to be more a disdain for Toronto Mayor Rob Ford than the best transit proposal for the city.
A few years ago, a similar proposal to the light rail was put into place on St. Clair Avenue West. A pair of dedicated streetcar lanes was supposed to streamline transit, speed up travel times and revitalize the area at a relatively minor cost. The project was shepherded by the Toronto Transit Commission Vice Chair and Ward 21 Councillor Joe Mihevc, one of the main backers of the current light rail proposal.
The St. Clair line was handled devastatingly badly. It ran three times the cost estimate, it did irreparable damage to a number of local businesses as traffic was disrupted over the years of construction that went far beyond the time it was supposed to have been completed.
As someone remarked to me at the time, "Why couldn't the city just paint two yellow lines around the inside lanes, put up 'streetcar only' signs, and save 5 years and $100 million?" At the time, the answer seemed to be because politicians love spending other people's money and the power and influence that comes along with it.
Now, years later, traffic on St Clair, which has two more lanes than the relatively narrow Eglinton Avenue, is bottle-necked for cars at major intersections and the streetcars continue their old practice of moving in packs, meaning sometimes three will show up within two minutes leaving riders an up to 20 minute wait at times. Once you're on the streetcar, the ravel time between Christie and Yonge Streets, which is about half the length of the St. Clair line, has only improved by about three to four minutes from the days before dedicated lanes dominated the street.
The above ground dedicated lanes have also created a new barrier between the north and south sides of St.Clair which makes it more difficult for pedestrians to cross the street, leading to an unusual north/south divide that hadn't existed.
None of this has happened on Bloor/Danforth of University where the city's current subway lines speed people to their destination efficiently and at faster speeds than cars could take them through the city's crowded roads.
Bruce McCuaig, the head of Metrolinx, the Ontario government agency responsible for transportation coordination, has just chimed into the debate on the mayor's side, saying Mr. Ford’s preferred plan for underground light rail on Eglinton Avenue “delivers greater benefit” than the Transit City version a coalition of councillors want to revive.
For those of us who have seen what that coalition of councilors achieved in the past, Mr. McCuaig's assessment sounds like a 'no-brainer'. Unfortunately, when talking about City Council and a few of its members who are oppositional because of ideology and grudges, sometimes a no-brainer requires more brains than they seem to have.