Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Mayor Rob Ford stands in the way of GTA's transportation future

By: Metro Canada Published on Tue Mar 05 2013

When it comes to big city Toronto, the suburban mayor of Oakville has got it right.

Rob Burton, Oakville's chief magistrate since 2006, made a splash last week when he dug into the ongoing debate over Metrolinx's still-in-the-works transportation funding strategy. “Someone's got to pay something or this is all gumflap,” he said, pointing to concerns that Toronto isn't going to step up to the plate and support the range of taxes, tolls and fees that are inevitable if the region really wants to improve its transit infrastructure.

Burton said he was left “speechless” when Mayor Rob Ford, at a recent region-wide meeting, said flat out that he opposed the idea of new revenue tools to build transit. That kind of regressive view — coming from the mayor of Toronto, no less — can't go unchallenged.

I'm with Burton on that point, though I will quibble a bit with some of the other stuff Burton got to saying last week. His boast that the rest of the GTA has been subsidizing Toronto felt out of place. It's not a groundless argument, especially when you compare the average property tax bill in the 416 with bills in the 905 region, but that kind of parochialism seems unproductive. If we're going to talk about who's subsidizing who, I'd suggest that GTA municipal governments instead collectively point out how much they subsidize their colleagues at Queen's Park.

But subsidy talk aside, Burton deserves a lot of credit for his honestly. He is, to date, one of the few high-level officials brave enough to acknowledge that the GTA's transportation strategy could be seriously undermined by the man who sits in the mayor's office at Toronto City Hall.

As far as planning for the future is concerned, the GTA has a Rob Ford problem. And it's time everyone stop ignoring it.

At most of the consultations and presentations dealing with planning or transportation I've attended lately, the name “Rob Ford” feels almost verboten. No one wants to speak it. At a panel discussion held by the Toronto Transit Alliance last week, it took more than an hour before a panellist dared bring up the spectre of our mayor. (That panellist? Rob Burton.)

And then last night, at a Feeling Congested discussion, I watched as Coun. Michael Thompson and Coun. Peter Milczyn — both right-leaning and mayoral allies — danced around the idea of the mayor's opposition to, well, pretty much everything they were discussing. Thompson endorsed the idea of a municipal sales tax — and lamented the end of the vehicle registration tax — while Milczyn floated the idea of increased parking fees. All part of a drive toward dedicated, predictable transit funding.

The mayor stands against all of it.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has made it clear where he thinks the region's transportation priorities should be. (The Canadian Press)
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has made it clear where he thinks the region's transportation priorities should be. (The Canadian Press)

When I spoke to Toronto Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat last month, it was like both of us had made a tacit agreement to tiptoe around the subject of the mayor. When I did casually work the general idea of Ford's views into the conversation, it almost felt like a shame. There we were having a nice conversation about planning a walkable city and I had to go and almost ruin it by bringing up the fact that our democratically elected mayor routinely opposes the basic tenets of urban living.

It's depressing, I know, especially as it seems there's finally a slowly building critical mass of public support for implementing reasonable funding tools to build transit, but we have to acknowledge these things.

We have to acknowledge that Ford — as recently as last week — has expressed a desire to get rid of streetcars that carry dozens of people because they can sometimes inconvenience personal vehicles that mostly carry one passenger.

We have to acknowledge that, aside from a single newspaper op-ed he never personally acknowledged, the mayor has never voiced any kind of support for revenue tools for transit.

And we definitely have to acknowledge that, as far as anyone knows, the mayor's transit vision for Toronto is not Metrolinx's Big Move, but rather the simple notion of subways going wherever people happen to want them, all funded by the sheer power of imagination.

People will talk endlessly about how Ford doesn't really matter in these conversations. They'll say, as Metrolinx now has, that City Council is supreme and the mayor represents only one vote. And that's nice talk, but it wasn't too long ago that Metrolinx and Queen's Park were bending easily to Ford's whims.

It's easy to say that Ford's views don't matter now, but will that song remain the same if Ford Nation gears up and wins a renewed mandate in the 2014 municipal election? What if Progressive Conservative Leader — and Ford pal — Tim Hudak finds himself in control at Queen's Park? Will Ford's views on transit and revenue tools continue to be ignored then?

I'm not optimistic.

A GTA-wide transportation strategy that doesn't have the mayor of Toronto on side in a leadership capacity is, by definition, an unstable strategy. It's fragile, especially if it comes under attack from populist politicians who can claim, with a straight face, that they'll build transit purely with extra money they find through government cutbacks.

Right now, we're experiencing this weird kind of complacency, where people — even supporters — attempt to just set Ford's oddball views on transportation aside, as if he were still a raving-but-irrelevant councillor from Etobicoke instead of the duly-elected mayor of Canada's largest city.

That won't work. Not when we're dealing with something this important. On transportation, the GTA needs leadership. But its biggest city has got a leadership problem.

This post was originally published at on 2013-03-05T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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