the politics of the Scarborough Subway – a view from above

Welcome to our planet and our City.  Before I take you to our leaders, let me prepare you for what you are about to see.

For anyone arriving in Toronto by spaceship this week, or for anyone looking into the city’s affairs for the first time ever, this will astonish you.  A cash strapped City, with a prospering economy and great personal wealth, refuses to raise taxes, despite an urgent housing crisis and a backlog of capital projects that total tens of billions of dollars.

Wait – there’s more.  Despite this general parsimony, City Council has prioritized expansion of the overwhelmed transit system, starting with what will likely be a $5 billion commitment to the one-stop Scarborough subway extension for which no value-for-money cost comparison has ever been performed.

More astonishing still, this Mayor and Council rejected a provincially financed seven stop surface rail scheme that would have been built by now, and worked hard to sell the public on this vastly more expensive and inadequate one-stop alternative.  While the weather worsens, and homeless folk compete to bed down on steamy sidewalk grates, this Mayor and Council reject lower cost, higher value alternatives for a subway extension, publicly refusing calls for an objective value analysis.

Before you run for the saucer and fly from this nasty brutishness, you should understand that most of the electorate and even some of Toronto’s political and media insiders are amazed by this turn of events.  Maybe there’s a disconnect between the public will and these political spasms, and maybe we’re not the mean and stupid people we appear to be.

Walk among us a while and see what you think.

Meet Josh Matlow, the mild-mannered Councillor who has challenged the secret irrationality of the $5 billion subway silliness since the beginning.  Although his concerns have been dismissed by the majority of Council, at the Mayor’s urging, journalists are finally waking up to the destructive wastefulness of the Scarborough subway extension, and the validity of Matlow’s demand for an honest debate about the alternatives.

Isn’t that something in our favor?  At least one member of Council is mystified by this decision and is demanding a clear public rationale for spending billions of dollars on the Scarborough subway extension without due diligence.  So, weary space traveller, you are not alone.

Shouldn’t we also take some comfort from the startled skepticism of our journalists?  If, from your planet, you’d been following the government affairs columns about the Scarborough subway over the past decade, you’d have noted the complacent, indifferent, disengaged tone of our reportersThat all changed last week when laser-like attention focused on a private message between the outgoing head of the transit system, Andy Byford, and Josh Matlow.

To make a very long story very short, at a critical moment in the protracted destruction of the fully funded, seven-stop LRT scheme on the Council floor (see my posts here and here for an in-depth account), Andy’s people slipped a vague but persuasive briefing note to the Mayor’s people, which appears to have had decisive influence over enough Councillors to sway the vote and kill a wise expenditure in favour of the Scarborough subway, a foolish one.  When Josh insisted that this memo was sought by the Mayor’s people for political reasons, and that Andy’s bureaucrats shouldn’t have been drawn into the politics, Andy filed a formal complaint against Josh for impugning his reputation.

I see you nodding off... can I offer you a refreshment?  Would you like to munch on a string of Christmas lights, or suck on these triple A batteries?

Stay with me, here.  When Andy publicly charged Josh with misstating the political motive of his briefing note to the Mayor, favouring the one stop, $5 billion Scarborough subway extension, Josh revealed a private message from Andy effectively confessing to the charge.

This moment of personal and political drama between Andy and Josh seems to have been what some columnists needed to wake them from their torpor, though it may be having the reverse effect on you.  (Though, others have portrayed this moment as a lapse in Byford's largely apolitical stance.)  But isn’t that astonishing in its own right?

The media wasn’t so concerned when our former mayor, Rob Ford, tore his predecessor’s TransitCity plan to shreds soon after the 2010 election.  Nor was it perturbed by how political pressure from Ford and his successor, John Tory, mounted since, due in part to deals at election time with the provincial and federal governments.

They were similarly unmoved by the termination of Andy Byford’s former boss, Gary Webster, for refusing to bend over for the Mayor the way Andy did.  The strange conversion of Karen Stintz, the Chair of the transit commission, from opposition to a Scarborough subway advocate, was absorbed without much interest from City Hall reporters.

Then there were the vacillating positions and crumbly numbers squeezed out of the former Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmat, who at times appeared to save her job by being partially impartial to the Mayor’s demands.  Although she privately objected to the scheme, as her internal City Hall correspondence reflects, she had no answer for the sudden increases in subway ridership estimates that appeared in the staff report the City Manager provided to Council for a critical vote in July 2016.

It’s all a mystery if, like a newcomer to Planet Toronto, or like it’s political journalists, you’re oblivious to the increments of shame and dereliction leading up the ridiculous outcome you’ve observed upon landing by the lake.  (Not all political journalists!! Matt Elliott provides an overview of how incorrect information has guided the Council's transit choices.)  It’s a rogue’s gallery of former something or others behind this decision.  Rather than a process of governance, smoothly eliding from objective to plans or policies, this has been a spastic sequence of highly personalized and politicized moments, adding waste and cost every step of the way.

TTC boss, Gary Webster, was ousted for resisting Ford’s tomfoolery in early 2012.  Karen Stintz ended her time at the helm of the transit commission in late 2013.  The mysterious ridership surge in the reports from City staff, and the shenanigans between the former Chief Planner and the former City Manager, occurred in the summer of 2016.  But it took until the end of 2017, in a public spat between Andy and Josh, to intensify media demands for accountability for this rolling cluster-F.

So, my friend from a distant planet, take comfort that this hijacked process is not reflective of the average Torontonian’s values and priorities.  Trained observers of the process seem to be as troubled by it as are strangers like you.

In fact, dozens of sitting Councillors appear to be as clueless as the rest of us.  Weren’t most of them sitting in their seats when the fully funded, seven stop LRT plan was negotiated with the province and integrated in Metrolinx planning?  That was long before Ford was elected Mayor in 2010 and Tory in 2014.  What were they thinking when they allowed that plan to be unravelled, day by day during those dark years, or when they ultimately voted against that plan under John Tory in July of 2016?  Were they as oblivious to the ugly machinations at work in the building they inhabit as the press now seems to be?

As easily as they seem to have reversed positions once, relying on scant and contradictory evidence, might they do so again, seeking cover from revelations about Josh and Andy’s private correspondence?  Did anything before this moment matter, and does the century of consequence for Torontonians figure into this decision, or is this just another political moment in which everyone secures their own position, and the media slips back into slumber?

My intention was to make you feel better about the callous disregard for the public interest apparent in the transit issues preoccupying government and media for the moment.  I did my best.  But on refection, I wouldn’t blame you for cutting your visit short and taking off for home.  I hope your intergalactic TripAdvisor review isn’t too negative.

Now, I have one question for you:  Can I come with you?


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