Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Lots of blame to go around on decision to kill the Scarborough LRT

By: Matt Elliott Metro, Metro Published on Wed Feb 05 2014

At their budget meeting last week, Toronto City Council put another nail in the coffin of the Scarborough LRT.

There’s still the possibility of a last-minute resurrection. At least one mayoral candidate has made ditching the council-approved subway plan in favour of the LRT route part of his platform. But the window of opportunity is closing quickly. And it’s a shame. The Scarborough LRT was a sweetheart of a deal for the city, with construction and maintenance costs covered by the provincial government, more stations and greater potential for expansion to Malvern and other points. The big point in the subway plan’s favour? People like subways, apparently — though even that is up for dispute.

Killing the LRT was a bad decision, that much is clear. Less clear is who exactly to blame for it — there's a lot to go around.

To start, here are last week’s major votes related to the Scarborough subway debate. Led by Coun. Josh Matlow, councillors tried two strategies designed to delay or cancel the subway plan. First, they attempted to allow separate votes on the general residential property tax increase and the Scarborough subway increase, which would have allowed council to reject the plan to fund the subway. When that failed, they tried to amend the 2014 capital budget to reallocate money earmarked for the subway to other sources — like reserve funds or other transportation projects. But that failed, too.

Both motions regarding the subway were ruled out-of-order by Chair Frances Nunziata. Councillors then challenged the chair in an attempt to overrule her decisions. They needed a simple majority to do so, but weren’t able to get it, though they sure came close.

The votes:

So after that, who can we blame for killing the Scarborough LRT? Let’s look at the suspects:

  • Coun. Ana Bailão served as the swing vote during the first round, the one that tried to remove the subway tax increase. Despite representing a ward far removed from Scarborough, Bailão has supported the subway more times than she’s opposed it.
  • Coun. John Parker was the swing vote on the second vote, with Bailão switching sides. Parker has been steadily pro-LRT, so his vote here likely had more to do with legal staff’s warning that voting to reallocate the subway money would open the city up to legal challenges. (It was never exactly clear who would be bringing the hypothetical legal challenges. Citizens? The mayor? The TTC? Metrolinx?)
  • Mayor Rob Ford has, of course, been a loud advocate for subways over the last three years. But it’s easy to overstate his influence on this decision. While Ford did enthusiastically support the plan to raise property taxes and city debt to build the subway, the plan would have gone nowhere if not for the support of others. It's been a long time since the mayor really had any influence on transit decisions.
  • TTC Chair Karen Stintz made a lot of fans in 2012 when she led council to a decision that confirmed the four Transit City light rail lines — including the Scarborough LRT. Then she changed her mind, an about-face that galvanized subway support among many councillors.
  • Minister of Transportation Glen Murray, Premier Kathleen Wynne and the Ontario Liberal Party definitely own a lot of the blame. It’s unclear if we’d even be talking about a Scarborough subway if Wynne hadn’t called a by-election for a Scarborough seat this past summer. But once that happened, all of the sudden Murray and other Liberals were brandishing signs calling themselves “Subway Champions” and downplaying the same LRT plan they had earlier endorsed and agreed to pay for.
  • The voters of Scarborough are often brought up in this debate, presented almost derisively as a mindless horde that simply demands a subway and won’t ever be convinced that anything else is capable of providing decent transit service. It’s a bit insulting and politically reductive, as if all elected officials are supposed to do is look at opinion polling and build the thing the majority say they want.
  • Toronto City Council as a whole is the political body that ultimately made the decision to scrap the Scarborough LRT. And then they confirmed their decision a few times over. Council had the power to not take on $900 million in new debt. They had the power to not slap $40 onto every property tax bill for three decades. They had the power to not take on added operating and maintenance subsidies. And a majority said no.

In the end, it's an interesting exercise to determine swing votes and the individual councillors that swayed this important decision on transit one way or another. And it's fun to direct all the blame at personalities like Ford or Stintz. But Toronto wouldn't be preparing to take on close to $100 million in sunk costs and cancellation fees to build a subway in Scarborough if more councillors had simply said no. If you’re looking for a reason why your local ward race matters, this long, unfortunate debate is a good one.

This post was originally published at on 2014-02-05T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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