One year later, still worth fighting for the Jarvis bike lanes

By: Metro Canada Published on Tue Jul 10 2012

This Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of Toronto City Council's wasteful and impulsive decision to ignore all recommendations from staff and direct $275,000 in public funds toward the removal of the Jarvis Street bike lanes.

A year later, the move to eliminate the bike lanes and return the street to its previous configuration still stands as one of the dumbest things the Ford administration has done, violating a handful of the mayor's key principles—openness, consultation, not wasting taxpayer money on dumb stuff—and going directly against his own election-era comments that he wouldn't move to scrap the lanes. It was a decision rooted in the worst kind of spiteful and divisive politics.

Because things move slowly at City Hall, the lanes are still there. Cyclists use them every day and claims of traffic chaos continue to be entirely made-up and unfounded. Beyond that, there's no indication from the people who actually live and work on Jarvis Street that they want to see the infrastructure removed and their street returned to a five-lane mini-highway.

And, oh yeah, it'll cost four times as much to remove the lanes as it did to install them in the first place.

This is not an issue that should be buried under a big pile of other issues. It deserves attention. There's still time to save Jarvis, but that time could be running short.

After this week's meeting, council won't sit again until October. That leaves a gap of about three months in which crews can head out and start preliminary work on converting the street back to its five-lane setup. While many are under the belief that the lanes on Jarvis can't be removed until new separated bike lanes are installed on Sherbourne Street, the language approved by council last year says only that work on the two streets be “co-ordinated.” It's vague enough to be dangerous.

With a little work, the votes are almost definitely there to reverse last year's decision to remove the lanes. The specific amendment that led to a vote on the future of the lanes came down 27-18, with 27 siding with the mayor. But a hell of a lot has changed since then: nowadays, Ford has virtually no hope of getting 27 votes to side with him on anything even remotely contentious.

Of the 27 who voted to eliminate the lanes, at least two councillors have expressly changed their tune, with Coun. Josh Matlow—whose vote last year was a mistake—and Coun. Michelle Berardinetti voicing support for maintaining the status quo on Jarvis. With them, the gap narrows to 25-20.

Only three votes are needed beyond that, and they shouldn't be hard to find amongst the reeds of spurned mayoral allies or the mighty middle. Councillors like Jaye Robinson, Josh Colle or Chin Lee are all potential pick-ups. A Toronto Star report from Robyn Doolittle last month even raised the possibility of getting supportive votes from Gary Crawford and Frank Di Giorgio.

Even Karen Stintz, who stood up during the Jarvis debate and gave a jaw-droppingly terrible speech in support of lane removal, has said she has concerns about the cost of the decision. As all self-professed fiscal conservatives should.

It's a winnable vote. And it's one worth winning, both to affirm support for making Jarvis Street a cultural corridor—a great place to live and work—and to let the voters know that this isn't a council that wildly tosses around taxpayer money with ill-advised decisions that help no one. This council is better than that.

This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/ford-for-toronto-matt-elliott/2012/07/10/jarvis-bike-lanes-fight.html on 2012-07-10T00:00:00.000Z

OneCity transit plan approaches zero

By: Metro Canada Published on Fri Jul 06 2012

The OneCity transit plan—the one we were so excited about last week—is now a tangled mess of politics and ego. It's a plan seemingly so lacking in strategy and direction that it's playing like something developed and released by Mayor Rob Ford's office.

It didn't need to be this way. At its core, OneCity has great intentions. It's designed to close several gaps identified during council's most recent transit debate, finally giving this city a confirmed and endorsed map for future transit expansion. More critically, it seeks to have Toronto City Council admit that you can't build a great transit system for free.

That would be OneCity's best legacy: council endorsement of a dedicated revenue strategy for transit.

But the wheels have come off quickly. When the plan was first unveiled, most City Hall watchers logically assumed that OneCity was the next great trick by council's left- and centre-factions. After working together so well through the LRT meetings in February and March, councillors seemed poised to continue to do good, coordinated work on the transit file, leaving the mayor and his remaining allies to flail alway uselessly in the corner.

But OneCity did not unfold as expected, with several politically-important boxes left unchecked at the time the plan was announced. Councillors who presumably could have been moved to support the plan instead seemed surprised and tepid in their comments. And the province, whose support is so crucial, reacted like the whole thing was a slap to the face.

It didn't help that communication around the new transit plan led to a bunch of silly narratives by some in the media. TTC chair Karen Stintz can't lift a finger these days without inspiring a breathless “Are you saying you're running for mayor?” question from a reporter. It's a needless distraction.

Even worse was the simplistic Scarborough-deserves-a-subway line of thinking, resurrected by a OneCity priority proposal to replace the rickety Scarborough RT with an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway. TTC vice-chair Glenn De Baeremaeker—co-author of OneCity—made ill-advised comments that pushed the idea that Scarborough, just by virtue of being Scarborough, should have a subway.

“You’ve got this very large corner of the city that has no good access to a subway system,” he said. “The last kids on the block are in Scarborough.”

Did we learn nothing from the LRT-versus-subway debate? It's dangerous territory to start saying that all areas of the city deserve access to the same type of transit, with no regard for density, projected ridership or employment. That's the kind of thinking that leads to subway proposals on Finch Avenue.

There are other problems. The plan's only revenue source is something called CVA uplift, a kind of supplementary property tax that allows the city to retain new revenue through increases in assessed property values. As money-making tools go, it's significantly less desirable than something like a sales or payroll tax and it stands against longstanding city policy to look for diversified revenue sources beyond property taxes. And the plan's approach to operating costs—both now and into the future—exists only as a series of question marks.

But still, I can't shake that jazzed-up feeling that OneCity brought when it was first announced. Toronto needs a big ambitious transit plan with big ambitious funding sources. This city can't afford to wait around for provincial support that may never come. The greatest risk going forward is that council remains reluctant to embrace new municipal revenue tools to build transit. We need to get moving.

What's next? Reports are sketchy. It's clear now that most of the major players on the left—led by Shelley Carroll, Adam Vaughan and Gord Perks—have major reservations about OneCity as a strategy. On the other end of the spectrum, Ford and his allies have expressed total objection to any kind of tax to pay for transit, though Stintz did express optimism after meeting with the mayor's office on Thursday.

It's incredibly unlikely that you'll see both sides of council come together to vote against the plan. The stage is set for a different kind of outcome when OneCity comes to council next week. Take your bets: will council approve study of the OneCity map but drop the notion of new revenue tools, or will this whole thing get deferred until the fall?

This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/ford-for-toronto-matt-elliott/2012/07/06/onecity-approaches-zero.html on 2012-07-06T00:00:00.000Z

The unpopular Rob Ford: Three perspectives on the mayor's approval rating

By: Metro Canada Published on Thu Jul 05 2012

For a politician who built his career on populist rhetoric and pandering, Mayor Rob Ford is desperately unpopular.

Don't fight me on that point. It's not really disputable. Sure, you could point out that Ford's approval rating—which has been at about 42% since last fall, with a couple of minor peaks and valleys—isn't too far off the 47% of the popular vote he scored in the 2010 election, but that's not a great argument. By default, sitting municipal politicians always poll pretty well. David Miller polled above 80% a year into his first term, nearly doubling the popular vote percentage he secured versus John Tory and Barbara Hall in 2003.

It wasn't until garbage literally started stinking up city parks that Miller fell well below 50% approval. Ford, on the other hand, hit that mark less than eleven months into his term. Last October, he was named the second most unpopular big city mayor in Canada.

Since then, Ford's numbers haven't moved much, but ongoing polling on municipal issues by Forum Research still provides good insight into Ford's waning influence over the city and his chances of reelection come 2014. Plus, the data lends itself to cool charts.

Here are three interesting and illustrated takes on Ford's popularity numbers.

1. Ford Nation is tiny but real

When the mayor first took office, he held up the existence of “Ford Nation” as a potential weapon against those who opposed him. The Nation was said to be made up of a significant percentage of voters who were so enamoured with the Ford brand of politics that they would rise up and stand against anyone who refused to work with Ford.

We haven't heard much about Ford Nation since, but polling data points to a lingering truth about this so-called silent majority: they actually exist. But not as a majority.

In fact, Ford hasn't enjoyed majority support in this city since June 2011. A series of blunders last summer, starting with the Core Service Review and extending through the waterfront debacle, saw him shed about 20 points of popular support. And there's no sign that support will ever return.

Still, the mayor seems to have settled at about 60% disapproval, allowing for some margin-of-error dips and bumps. Which means that about four-in-ten Torontonians are predisposed toward approving of Ford's policies. Taking into account that some of that is soft support won't translate to actual votes, I'd peg the actual hardcore Ford vote at about 25%-30% of the city population.

In other words: it's probably safe to say that about one-in-four Torontonians are diehard supporters of Rob Ford. That's Ford Nation.

2. Barring a major shift, Ford will lose in any one-on-one mayoral race in 2014

Forum seized on rumours that NDP MP Olivia Chow might be considering a run for the mayor's chair, polling their sample to get a sense of how she would do against the mayor.

In summary: she'd destroy him.

Not only does the poll show a whopping 24-point gap between Ford and Chow, it also indicates that a significant chunk of those who currently approve of the mayor's performance would actually vote against him in a one-on-one race. (This result actually lends credence to the idea that some Ford voters saw him as a Jack Layton-like figure in 2010.)

I still don't believe Chow is all that likely to run, but these kinds of results should hold generally true for any left-of-centre candidate who mounts a competent campaign and doesn't run into issues with vote-splitting. The song remains the same: having chased off a lot of the centrist support that once enthusiastically backed him, Ford is left with a very tiny base that can't withstand a serious challenge.

3. Downtown Toronto is an important battleground

In the 2010 election, Ford beat Smitherman by about 100,000 votes, securing 47% of the popular total. Notably—and despite routinely hinting that downtown Toronto is made up of a bunch of socialist whiners—Ford wound up receiving support from more than 70,000 people in Toronto & East York.

If about 50,000 of the downtown votes that went to Ford had instead gone to George Smitherman, Ford would have lost the entire election in a squeaker.

As much as they may want to focus their energies on suburban issues, the Ford campaign can't ignore the city core and expect to easily secure reelection. The votes downtown matter.

The effect would have been even more pronounced had Ford not benefited from a split vote scenario in 2010. Had his two major opponents merged to become a single, medium-sized, even-keeled candidate—call him Jorge Pantherman—Ford would have been trounced by a two-to-one margin in the old city and East York.

And Ford's downtown approval numbers are, not surprisingly, terrible. He's been mired around 30% since nearly the beginning, which sets him up to get totally steamrolled by a competent opponent. The divide-and-conquer approach, pitting Toronto's suburbs against the downtown core, was really a once-in-a-lifetime political gambit.

The mayor's office should be worried. Yes, they have a lot of time before the election in 2014, but they can't afford to wait much longer. Ford needs to take steps to implement some sensible, effective policies that can win back some of the voters he alienated last summer and help him hold on to the lonely members of Ford Nation who call downtown home. Given the challenges associated with the Rob Ford brand and the mayor's dwindling number of council allies, this is not going to be an easy thing to do.

Still, it beats the alternative. Waiting around and hoping your would-be opponents screw up badly enough to hand you the election isn't a strategy that's likely to work. Not again, anyway.

This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/ford-for-toronto-matt-elliott/2012/07/05/unpopular-rob-ford.html on 2012-07-05T00:00:00.000Z

Rob Ford's disastrous transit policies: a look back

By: Metro Canada Published on Tue Jul 03 2012

Last week's unveiling of the OneCity transit plan by TTC chair Karen Stintz and vice-chair Glenn De Baeremaeker stands as proof that Mayor Rob Ford no longer has any say over Toronto's transit future.

This is a very good thing.

Since even before he became mayor, Ford's transit policies have been the worst combination of short-sighted, expensive and impossible. When speaking about transit, Ford routinely made little sense and often suggested wasting millions of dollars on ideas few people thought would work. Instead of gearing his policies toward actually moving people around the city more effectively, Ford spent more than a year tearing down existing planning and working toward unreachable solutions that would ensure he wouldn't get stuck behind transit vehicles in his car. (He has a history.)

On transit, Ford failed. He wasted a lot of time and accomplished nothing. Now that era is over. Let's look back.

SPRING & SUMMER 2010: As Toronto's mayoral campaign heats up, Rob Ford emerges as the unlikely front-runner. This surprises a lot of people, as Ford is most distinguished as a fiery Etobicoke councillor who votes against everything and stars in a lot of funny online videos. At this point in the campaign, Ford has no transit plan beyond his suggestion that we end the “war on cars” and maybe get rid of some streetcars. (His policy advisor, on the other hand, once suggested selling off the city's subway system and letting transit riders carpool. This might have been satire.)

SEPTEMBER 2010: With just a couple of months left before voting day, the Ford campaign finally releases a transit plan via an awkward and poorly-produced YouTube video posted late at night. The plan calls for an immediate halt to all existing transit strategies, promising instead a single Sheppard subway extension from Don Mills to Scarborough Town Centre and a conversion of the Scarborough RT route to subway. Ford says he can complete the extension by 2015—in time for the Pan-Am Games.

Ford's campaign team also releases a companion document to the YouTube video. It includes a map of the Toronto subway system that mysteriously omits Coxwell Station on the Bloor-Danforth line. (The speculation at the time: that must be where the city keeps the gravy train.)

DECEMBER 2010: As the duly elected Mayor of Toronto, Ford immediately announces an end to both the Transit City light rail plan and the “war on cars.” No one seems entirely sure if he has the power to make this kind of decision unilaterally.

Nevertheless, with this declaration Ford puts the brakes on projects that have already spent millions of dollars on design and construction. He also opens the door to significant contract cancellation fees. Had the decision not been reversed later on, Ford's first official speech as mayor would have wasted more than $100 million in taxpayer funds.

MARCH 2011: After months of negotiations, the provincial government agrees to a memorandum of understanding with Ford that sees both sides compromise on their transit visions. The province announces they'll put their funding—about $8 billion—toward an all-underground LRT line on Eglinton Avenue, a project not included in Ford's transit plan.

The province also agrees to support in principle an extension of the Sheppard subway, but they refuse to provide any funding for construction. Undeterred, Ford says the private sector will step in to provide the $4 billion needed to build the subway extension. Spoiler alert: they won't.

The memorandum, as signed by both provincial officials and Ford, also includes language indicating that the memo must be approved by Toronto City Council.

APRIL 2011 – DECEMBER 2011: The memo is never brought before Toronto City Council for approval.

Instead, the mayor revives a dormant agency of the TTC and tasks the group, led by former councillor and dentist Gordon Chong, with putting together a study on the feasibility of private sector funding for his Sheppard subway project. Chong gives interviews throughout this period, at various times indicating that he feels both positive and negative about the prospect of finding private sector funding. No timeline for the release of the report is given.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, questions are asked about the wisdom of an all-underground LRT on Eglinton Avenue, which is set to provide a level of service totally above projected ridership using vehicles underground that are designed to run in the open air. Notably, right-leaning Councillor John Parker calls the whole project “the goofiest LRT line known to man.”

JANUARY 2012: Chaos. Karen Stintz, reportedly after getting the go-ahead from Doug Ford, starts floating the idea of a tweaked transit plan that would bring the eastern section of the Eglinton LRT above ground, freeing up cash to build a small Sheppard subway extension and look at improving transit on Finch Avenue.

Surprising the TTC chair, the mayor immediately rejects the face-saving compromise. Stintz, a long-time ally of the Ford administration, is cast into the wilderness where she begins working with more reasonable councillors to develop yet another revised transit scheme—one that looks a lot like Transit City.

At the same time, the province sends a letter to the TTC asking for a firm direction on the city's transit plans. It's pointed out both that Ford had no legal authority to cancel Transit City and also that he neglected to put the March 2011 Memorandum of Understanding in front of council for approval.

In addition, Gordon Chong's Sheppard subway report is finally released. It suggests that the private sector would only contribute to transit construction alongside strong public investment—investment that probably would need to come through new taxes and tolls. Things quickly unravel.

FEBRUARY & MARCH 2012: After TTC General Manager Gary Webster responds to councillor questions on the LRT-versus-subway debate with comments favouring an above-ground LRT alignment on Eglinton, Rob Ford gets his allies on the TTC to fire the longtime civil servant. It's all done “without just cause.”

Council responds by restructuring the TTC board, removing all of Ford's key loyalists and reaffirming Stintz as chair.

His back against the wall, Ford briefly proposes an actual transit revenue source, floating the idea of a tax levy on parking lots in a Globe & Mail editorial. However, the mayor never verbally confirms his support for this kind of revenue source. Doug Ford, when asked about it, rejects the idea and points to his and his brother's shared belief that “all taxes are evil.”

And so council approves a return of the Eglinton LRT to its original above-ground alignment and also revives the Finch West line. Later on, after hearing from an expert panel, they approve the Sheppard East LRT in place of the mayor's favoured subway extension.

In a twist, public expense reports reveal that the mayor was forced to cover a big part of Gordon Chong's salary with his office expense account. Rumours persist that Chong was never fully paid for his work on the Sheppard report.

JUNE 2012: Stintz and De Baeremaeker announce a renewed transit vision and funding strategy called OneCity. Some commentators immediately wonder if this plan—which includes both light rail and subway projects—exists as a personal slight against Rob Ford. It's a ridiculous suggestion.

Instead, after more than a year of disastrous transit policy that delayed projects and wasted millions of dollars, OneCity stands as proof that the Rob Ford era of transit planning is over. The mayor's opinions on transit are now finally and totally irrelevant. And Toronto rolls on.

This post was originally published at http://www.metronews.ca/views/toronto/ford-for-toronto-matt-elliott/2012/07/03/rob-ford-disastrous-transit-policies.html on 2012-07-03T00:00:00.000Z