autopsy on accountability in transit planning

This blog always relates in some way to our consulting practice.  At its best, it shares privileged insights with a small group of curious decision makers across the country.  At its worst, it’s a drifty zeppelin of bloviation; informing nothing, concluding nothing, urging nothing.  This post will be no better than the worst, and no worse than the best, except for once I am urging you to do something.

Remember.  That's all I ask.  Remember.

Remember the spectacular downtown Toronto casino plan?  In January 2013, I called attention to a couple of City Hall heroes, holding the line against gambling promoters, including Mayor Ford, OLG, the provincial finance minister, and a bunch of badabing badaboom industry insiders.  Back then, I exhorted readers to remember the names of councillors and bureaucrats who stood with the majority of Torontonians against these self-serving opportunists.  A municipal election was coming in 22 months, and I didn’t want people to forget the evil revealed in that nasty episode.

As it turned out, Rob Ford fell gravely ill during the ensuing election, his many sins, forgotten.  So his big brother, Doug, picked up the baton and waddled the rest of the way to the finish line.  It was an electoral defeat, but a moral victory.  No one dared speak ill of the near dead.

Ford's casino fantasies were symbolic of his disastrous term as Mayor.  The retrograde economics and coercive tactics of the casino battle should have echoed loud and long into the 2014 campaign.  Unfortunately it all melted off the agenda in the heat of a transit debate, initiated in the addled mind of the then addicted and now departed Mayor Ford.  Instead of being held to account for failing at pretty much everything he'd promised in 2010, his terminal illness made it indelicate to rail against his record.  Instead, as Ford had intended, "Subways! Subways!  Subways!" became the defining issue of the 2014 campaign.

fords subway plans

Ford's Subway Expansion

There was no real debate about transit infrastructure.  All the mayoral candidates agreed that investment was overdue.  However, Rob Ford figured out that he could own the issue by killing planned surface LRT routes and demanding tunnels instead.  This made him a hero to suburban drivers and transit commuters alike.  If you commuted by car, you were against surface rail transit.  If you commuted by transit, you were all for subways because people in high-density, downtown wards had them.  For these people, east of Victoria Park and west of the Humber River, he was a hero.

This didn't escape Tory's notice.  He'd seen Karen Stintz punished for opposing (and later supporting) a Scarborough subway route and knew that he had to surpass the silliness of Ford's scheme or cede this issue entirely.  What ensued was a transit plan bidding war!

The Ford and Tory camps seemed to compete to develop the most wasteful and expensive schemes possible.  Tory eventually won, in part because his plan delivered more service to more places but required no new taxes.  No one knew quite how, but he was adamant that development charges and senior levels of government would pay the bills.

torys smart track

Tory's "Smart" Track

We know now that this was the same brand of campaign blarney that Ford had been peddling throughout his time in office.  Routes Tory proposed were later deemed unfeasible.  Sixteen of the promised 22 stations have been eliminated.  The frequency of service will be about half what he promised.   Whispered cost estimates are rising to $5 billion, and to pay for the shortfall, a 30 year "levy" has been imposed.   As he will repeat until election day, this levy will fund transit infrastructure in general, not just the parts of the system he's screwed up so far.   I guess this is meant to comfort us about paying for a campaign promise he shouldn't have made, but don't expect this levy (not a tax) to leave surplus funds for anything else.

transit planning

Transit City: the original plan

Unfortunately, all the good transit infrastructure plans were taken by the time Ford and Tory tried to hijack the process.  Qualified people had been working on system design for a decade before Ford's 2010 election, and their work had already won Council and Queen's Park approval.  All the alternatives, including elements of both the Ford and Tory plans, had already been explored and rejected.  It should have come as no surprise that the amateur maps and budgets drawn in haste for the mayoral campaign were measurably worse than the plan already in place. They had only second rate options to select from.

Even more unfortunately, they were bidding for ownership of the transit infrastructure plan with other people's money: yours and mine.  This represents billions of dollars in avoidable spending for a service that could have been delivered in time for the 2015 Pan Am games if the politicians had kept their hands off of it.

Today, four years later, and seven months before the next municipal election, the transit planning clusterf*ck has become the moment that this Mayor would like us to forget.  He's already hinted how he'll divert us from this botched file.  In his first campaign style speech last week, he promised to focus his next term on new priorities like affordable housing.  He made it clear that he wasn't committing any new resources to the homeless and the underhoused, but still felt that this was more important to talk about than the multi-billion dollar subway fiasco.

Just for giggles, imagine that the Mayor had the intelligence and integrity to keep the Provincially funded LRT plan and divert the Smart Track billions to housing.  Transit to Scarborough would be done a decade earlier and a brilliant homelessness strategy could be tabled in Council.  Wouldn't that be a better record to campaign on than this discombobulated wreck of a plan he's defending?

Instead, all he can do is change the subject when transit comes up.  He wants to pretend that it's yesterday's news because incremental steps toward this disaster have already been approved 11 times in Council.  It would be more honest to admit that he has used all the credibility and influence of his office to engineer a succession of 11 wrong decisions that have incrementally added to the blame he now bears for misdirecting Council on this issue.

Just as I wanted to ensure the terrible casino proposition tied to Ford's re-election bid in 2014 did not go unnoticed, I want to make sure that Tory's signature transit plan is not eclipsed, erased, or dissolved by the distraction of a new crisis.

Of course, there's nothing new about the housing crisis.  But neither was there anything new about the crisis of transit infrastructure back when Ford started bellowing, "Subways!  Subways!  Subways!"  It had been a preoccupation of the two previous Councils.  But by 2014, with sledgehammer Council politicking enabled by compliant bureaucrats and lazy City Hall reporters, the dream of building rail links to Scarborough communities, fully funded and finished in time for Pan Am, was blown to shreds.

No one is opposed in general to better housing or transit, and of course the voting public want to believe that aspiring leaders have some clue what they're talking about.  That's why this bait and switch tactic works.

The link between these two episodes is that they are both manufactured distractions, meant to obscure the last fiasco and lay the groundwork for the next one.  Maybe voters have short memories, but the perpetual state of crisis at City Hall can make anyone forget what seemed important four years ago.

What followed the Ford transit plan appeared to be sheer lunacy, though it was something much worse.  Suddenly all remaining mayoral candidates became transit experts, actually waving colourful maps at each other and debating he placement of imaginary routes and stations.  Voters glazed over.  The details blurred.  Comparisons became impossible.

In victory, John Tory claimed an endorsement for his plan to impose a 30-year tax to pay off billions for Smart Track.  The people had spoken, he said of a decision concocted between self-interested parties in the murky corridors of City Hall, Queen’s Park, and the House of Commons.  In effect, billions of hard earned, taxpayer dollars, were committed to improving the electoral chances of a few municipal, provincial, and federal politicians, in a depressing charade of false populism.

The objective was to make Scarborough’s downtrodden voters feel like these politicians truly cared about them, when in fact, the resulting plan is less accessible (six fewer stops than the LRT), is delaying service by a full decade (2025 vs. 2015), and will cost the City billions of dollars more than the provincially funded – fully funded – LRT plan.  I keep emphasizing that as the Tory plan shrinks and the budget swells.

Just to help you follow the thread here, Rob Ford started chanting about subways to improve his  2014 re-election prospects, just as Tory started chanting, ‘smart track, smart track, smart track,’ to overcome Doug Ford and Olivia Chow once the dirty work of stalling the LRT was done and transit planning was back atop the election agenda.  What started as a distraction for the former Mayor is now a mess of trouble for the current Mayor.  All his transit promises are broken.  Much of it was simply unfeasible and what remains is billions over budget and years behind schedule.

Before he and his enablers can manufacture a new agenda for the 2018 election, we should stop again to recall how this catastrophe occurred, who was complicit, and who stood against them.  This seems to be the right moment, when a real hero, Josh Matlow is tabling a motion seeking an inquiry into the wretched process and outcome of transit planning.

You can expect Tory to persist in blaming voters for the current transit mess, as if the rejection of a fully funded LRT actually occurred in the voting booth on election day in 2014.  Obviously, it happened during Ford’s reign of error, and if Tory was being honest, he’d admit that the transit he’s delivering scarcely resembles what he subsequently promised.  It’s not the same routes, it’s not the same level of service, it’s not the same cost, and it's not being built on the same pace.  It was an expedient bit of unaccounted campaign financing: a cheque written by Tory and Ford with taxpayer funds for second rate results.

There's no other way to look at it, based on the evidence, which is why the stalwart Matlow, seconded by Councillor Wong Tam, is defying the Mayor with their demand for an inquiry into this, the booniest of boondoggles.  Matlow has been fighting the mayor on this for quite some time, it should be said.  That’s why I want them commemorated as heroes for at least as long as it takes to stop the half-baked Scarborough subway 'plan', revert to the still funded and still viable LRT plan, and root out those who treat public money like personal campaign budgets at City Hall.

It's not just money and time that we've lost this way.  We should not forget how Ford and Tory’s disruption and delay of transit planning has damaged integrity and trust at City Hall.  In order to kill the LRT, Ford had to flip his TTC Chair, fire the heads of transit and planning, co-opt the now departed chief planner, extract spurious estimates from TTC policy data wonks, and quell the criticism of the now retired City manager.  Tory has had to pressure Councillors and staff, fiddle numbers with consultants, and delay cost comparisons to keep the scheme simmering.  Everyone had to squint and hold their noses as critical information was massaged and misstated, all to ease the LRT through Council into a shallow grave, and to spark a pulse in the Frankenstein transit systems Ford and Tory then stitched together.

Let me retrace my steps out of consideration for anyone still trying to follow my line of thought.  Just as there were heroes standing against the downtown casino plans of Mayor Ford, there are heroes today standing bravely on the tracks of Tory’s runaway train, and just as Ford imposed transit planning on the agenda to divert discussion from his disastrous first term, Tory appears ready to do the same thing with affordable housing.

But if we can all remember this day, when minor players at City Hall hold the powerful to account, we’ll enter our polling stations remembering that we’re all poorer when politicians make reckless promises with our own money.  When it takes a public inquiry to find evidence in support of a $5 billion, 10-year, tax funded decision, it’s time to question whether or not this Mayor has any more respect for the public than the last one did.

Maybe that’s the way to tie off this loopy post.  The essential question we should ask ourselves when we vote in 2018 is whether this Mayor and his allies are any different than the previous one in their disregard for accountable, evidence-based decision making.  As I’ve speculated since the beginning of his term, Tory appears to have picked up where the Fords left off, and though he is more mannerly about it, he’s fundamentally the same guy in a different sized suit, championing the past, on the wrong side of everything, deaf to needs of those he purports to serve.

Finally, for anyone who cares, this relates to our consulting practice in two ways:  First, we work hard to help our clients make good decisions by offering them clear options and well evidenced recommendations.  In contrast, Toronto’s transit planning process appears to have rejected the idea of clarity and evidence entirely.  It’s a textbook case of how not to serve stakeholders, which in this case is Council and everyone they represent.  Second, many of our non-profit clients and the many, many people they serve, could do a lot with a tiny fraction of the billions wasted on politically self-serving transit plans.

The charitable sector now delivers all kinds of services that were once government funded.  When misguided government planning squanders vast amounts of precious funding, as in this case, it creates holes in the social fabric that non-profit organizations have to cover.  Citizens, who’ve paid tax once for political chicanery, like a $5 billion subway, will have to pay again through charity for the things Toronto can’t afford to do as a consequence.  So, there is a reason why NetGain is alert to these public melodramas.  We're all diminished by them, but our clients and their charitable supporters pay doubly.

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