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1
Mar 12

Rob Ford’s Toronto has a revenue problem

Days after his landslide victory in the October 2010 election, mayor-elect Rob Ford returned to the AM radio station that had launched his political career into the stratosphere. With his electoral triumph still fresh, he told John Oakley — Ford calls him Johnny — about his ambitious plans for the city, starting with the immediate cancellation of the $60-a-year vehicle registration tax.

When Oakley asked how Ford planned to make up the revenue that would be lost after killing the tax, the new mayor was nonchalant. “It’s only $40 million,” he said. “There’s more than enough money. We have a major spending problem at City Hall, not a revenue problem.”

A lot has changed since then. Less than eighteen months removed from those comments, Ford faces a new reality: one where he wants things he can’t pay for. To deliver the subways he’s been promising, Rob Ford has got to deal with a revenue problem all his own.

And, funnily enough, he’s actually looking at things like a revived vehicle registration tax as a way to solve it.

The Globe & Mail’s Kelly Grant & Elizabeth Church:

It remains unclear how Mr. Ford intends to finance his subway plan without relying on road tolls and other new sources of revenue that he has adamantly opposed in the past. Several councillors confirmed that in private meetings the mayor has even floated the option of bringing back the vehicle-registration tax – and jacking up the annual fee to between $80 and $100 from the $60 charge that was killed last year.

Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon said Mr. Ford mentioned a VRT of between $80 and $100 as he ticked off a list of possible revenue tools, including road tolls and parking levies, during a meeting last week with her and fellow centrist councillor Ana Bailao.

via After meeting developers, Ford claims unanimous support for subways | Globe & Mail.

This news follows a Globe editorial last week wherein the mayor — writing under his own byline — expressed initial support for a new tax on parking across the city. “According to KPMG, a modest parking levy could generate more than $90-million annually,” he wrote. “That would fund a public-private partnership model to build the Sheppard subway and generate ongoing revenue for future subway expansion.”

Looking closely, the mayor’s numbers are totally out of whack. A report released by the Toronto Parking Authority in 2007 pegged revenues for a city-wide annual levy of $25 applied to all off-street commercial parking spaces at about $23 million. A $100 levy applied only to parking spaces downtown would bring in even less: just $7.5 million. To generate the kind of dollars KPMG and the mayor are talking about — and, yes, you need those kinds of dollars to pay for expensive capital projects like subways — you’d be looking at a per-space levy of closer to $100 per year charged at all commercial properties across the city. (And that’s not even taking into account the displacement factor — commercial businesses would immediately slash the size of their parking lots in response to a new tax.)

In addition, the existence of new revenues doesn’t magically make the idea of subways on Sheppard and Finch any more sensible from a planning perspective. If Ford really wants to justify these projects, he needs to go beyond just raising the capital money and also provide a strategy for financing long-term operational and maintenance costs. Cutting bus routes to subsidize empty subways is not a strategy.

He also needs to tell the people in North York & Scarborough that their neighbourhoods will need to change to accommodate dozens of 40-story condo towers.

But I don’t want to sound like I’m down on the idea. That Rob Ford is actually having these kinds of conversations about revenue tools is monumentally good news. This is a major turning point for the mayor and for Toronto. Under a conservative regime, the city as a whole may finally be coming to terms with the fact that the budget process has been seriously constrained by limited revenue sources since amalgamation.

Former budget chief Shelley Carroll has been pointing out the need for new revenue drivers — including a sales tax — for years. It’s a relief that Ford-allies like Councillor Norm Kelly and the mayor himself are starting to come around to the idea.

Here comes the sun

But wait. The Toronto Sun editorial board:

The problem with new taxes is that they have a way of growing like topsy.

Within days of Ford floating his $90 million-a-year parking tax, key Ford council ally Norm Kelly was pitching a 0.5% Toronto sales tax to raise $250 million annually for new subways.

We can’t think of anything more off brand for Ford and his allies to be running up the flagpole than a new tax.

What about all that private sector enthusiasm for the Sheppard subway Ford’s been talking about?

What about the city living within its means?

via Ford should bury subway tax idea | Toronto Sun.

Oh, right. We can’t ignore this truth: Ford Nation hates taxes and fees. Sure, they’re also the ones being most vociferous about their demands for subways instead of cheaper alternatives, but can their collective desire for underground transit trump the anti-tax sentiment that was at the core of the mayor’s election campaign?

Early indicators say no.

So far, Ford hasn’t publicly endorsed any new revenues aside from the single mention of a parking levy in his Globe editorial. And even that was kind of hand-waved away in the next paragraph: “Some partnership models don’t require any taxpayer funding in the first few years,” he wrote.

Ford is at a tough political crossroads with the transit file, and I’m worried he’s likely to retreat. Without the bedrock support provided to him by outlets like the Toronto Sun and AM radio, the mayor’s bound to start feeling pretty lonely. On the other hand, these kinds of compromises and face-saving moves are the only workable strategy Ford’s got if he wants to continue to drive the agenda at council.

Council will be revisiting the idea of transit in the Sheppard corridor on March 15. The lead-up to that meeting is critical. If Rob Ford is serious about his plan for transit, he needs to make a clear public statement in support of new revenue tools. No weasel words, no call for studies, no vague requests to the province: if Rob Ford really wants underground transit, he has to tell us he wants new taxes and tolls.

 


28
Feb 12

Tunnel Vision: four reasons we can’t have the subways Rob Ford wants

At this point it’s become a relentless drumbeat: Rob Ford wants subways. He wants them so much he’s prepared to spend the next two years campaigning for reelection on the promise of subways for Scarborough — and, if there’s time, maybe for Etobicoke too. Underground trains have become a live-or-die priority for his administration.

Why this is a foolish political play is well-established: Ford is promising something he has no workable strategy to deliver. He’s writing a multi-billion dollar cheque he can’t even begin to cash.

But beyond that, there are more reasons why Ford’s tunnel vision is bad for Toronto. A recently unearthed “secret” report, first publicized by the Toronto Star’s Royson James and then released by Steve Munro, raises a number of objections to the suburban subways at the centre of Ford’s demands.

Here are four of the bigger reasons why Ford’s subways won’t work.

1. Scarborough & North York haven’t become the bustling downtowns planners thought they would be

Rob Ford's Reasons Why Not Subways: 1 - Jobs

If you’re looking for proof that now-former TTC General Manager Gary Webster was loyal, look no further than this leaked report. Written in March of 2011, it basically lays out all that is wrong with Ford’s subways-only approach to transit building in the suburbs.

And yet the report — so devastating to the arguments Ford’s been using to support his transit plan — didn’t leak until recently, almost a year after it was originally written and then buried by the mayor’s office. And even then, indicators say that the leak didn’t come from Webster’s office.

The smoking gun part of the report goes like this: Toronto planned its transit expansion back in the 1980s under the assumption that they could limit growth in the downtown core and turn the city centres in Scarborough and North York into bustling job-rich urban spaces. Metro Council and the TTC expected huge job growth in the inner suburbs — projecting a 218% increase in the number of jobs in North York Centre, and a whopping 351% increase in Scarborough Centre.

Those projections turned out to be spectacularly wrong. More than 25 years later, neither North York or Scarborough has seen anywhere near that kind of job growth. The city as a whole has only added about 70,000 net new jobs since 1986. North York Centre added 800 employment positions, while Scarborough Centre actually saw a net loss of employment positions, shedding 700 jobs.

Employment areas and transit ridership are very closely linked. Toronto’s existing subways are so successful because they connect homes with all the big buildings downtown where people work. Most of the new residents in the city’s suburbs, unfortunately, don’t work in areas near where Ford’s subways would go — a lot of them find employment in the 905.

Which means that Ford’s 2012 transit plan is based on planning concepts and ideas from the 1980s. Concepts and ideas that turned out to be wholly and devastatingly incorrect.

2. In the wake of low job growth, ridership projections are much lower

Rob Ford's Reasons Why Not Subways: 1 - Ridership

Because these subways likely aren’t going to be of much regular use to the person who lives in Agincourt but works in Markham, the TTC has dramatically reduced its projections for rapid transit routes on Eglinton & Sheppard. The latter was expected to carry 15,400 people in its peak hour. In its abbreviated form, it carries less than a third of that figure. Expectations for ridership on Eglinton have been scaled down by a similar amount.

As of 2011, the TTC estimates ridership of 5,400 people in the peak hour per direction on Eglinton, and 6,000 to 10,000 on a fully built-out Sheppard line from Downsview to Scarborough Centre. About 15,000 riders per hour are needed to justify the costs of a full-scale subway.

3. The subway system costs us a ton of money to maintain — and Rob Ford’s subways would lose money

Rob Ford's Reasons Why Not Subways: 3 - Cost

An interesting statistic via the leaked report: the TTC spends $230 million in operating costs and $275 million in capital costs just to maintain the existing subway system. Assuming those figures take into account the costs of maintaining the Scarborough RT, that works out to per-kilometre maintenance costs of $3.2 million operating and $3.9 million capital. In other words: every kilometre of subway costs $7 million a year. Just to keep the trains running.

So much for all this talk of subways being an asset that last 100 years with minimal operating costs.

You can have a lot of fun with these numbers, though it’s important to remember that they represent long-term costs of maintaining infrastructure. Things will be much cheaper to run when the infrastructure is shiny and new.

Still, take the full 18 kilometre Sheppard Subway route the mayor wants to build. Not only will the new track and tunnel cost about $300 million per-kilometre, we can also expect to pay $59 million per year in operating costs and $79 million in capital. Working from the TTC’s assumption that each rider is worth about $2 in revenue, Sheppard would need in excess of 175,000 riders per day to even approach break-even operation.

Because we haven’t seen the job growth predicted in the 1980s, ridership projections don’t approach that break-even point. The city would need to subsidize Rob Ford’s subways for decades to come

4. Given current priorities, Rob Ford’s subways are the wrong subways for Toronto

We run the risk with this subways-and-LRT debate to oversimplify things down to some sort of pseudo-ideological battle. But this really isn’t a matter of choosing sides: you aren’t either for LRTs or for subways. It’s about choosing the right mode for the right route at the right cost.

Let’s make it clear: no one is saying that we should focus only on surface light rail transit. Toronto’s transit future includes new subways. It has to.

There are two pressing issues facing Toronto’s transit system.

First, there’s a lack of higher-order transit connecting the inner suburbs. Mobility sucks across much of the 416 and that limits our ability to successfully address a host of social and fiscal issues.

Second, the backbone of our transit system — the Yonge subway line — is overcapacity and trending worse. (Current capacity estimates for Toronto’s subway routes and extension were compiled based on data provided by former staffer Karl Junkin on Steve Munro’s blog. Big thanks to him.)

The city’s current transit planning mostly tries to address the first point. With a network of suburban light rail lines, the TTC can provide service that’s way more effective than the current buses without breaking the bank. Light rail is flexible enough and cheap enough to provide for frequent expansion that isn’t always reliant on provincial funding gifts.

As for the second point: we’ve got nothing. The Yonge subway line operates at more than 100% of its capacity during rush hour, and often even outside of rush hour. Up until now, the TTC has proposed a bevy of short-term fixes like automatic train operation and adding extra cars to the subway trains, but these are expensive band-aids that aren’t going to permanently resolve chronic overcrowding.

No, the only real solution to fixing Toronto’s crowded subway problem is to build another subway.

The Downtown Relief Line, kicked around as an idea since the 1970s, could extend down Don Mills from Eglinton, connect with the Bloor-Danforth line at Pape and then continue on a route through the eastern part of the old city before connecting with the Yonge & University subways downtown. A second phase could take the line on a similar route in the west.

Unlike Eglinton & Sheppard, the TTC’s ridership projections for this route have actually increased since they were first made in 1986. With 13,000 riders per hour in the peak direction, the DRL would open with ridership very close to subway minimums and, more importantly, would serve as a relief valve for the overburdened Yonge line, solving one of the most pressing issues facing Toronto’s transit system. The line would provide new service to dense neighbourhoods while simultaneously having a positive network impact.

If Rob Ford really wants to champion subways, this is the one he should support. It’s achievable, justifiable and ultimately affordable, thanks to some of the revenue tools put on the table by Gordon Chong.

There is a subway vision that actually makes sense for Toronto — it’s just not the one the mayor is fighting for.


23
Feb 12

City Council Scorecard: Adding up the transit vote

Toronto Council Scorecard

February 23, 2012: Google Docs (Best View) - Download (PDF)  - Download (PNG)

Council has actually met three separate times in February, but only one of those meetings resulted in a vote worth recording on the City Council Scorecard. Aside from a couple of integrity commissioner issues that — while fun to watch — didn’t go anywhere, February’s regular council meeting was fairly quiet. If arguments in the chamber got contentious, it was probably because momentum was building behind-the-scenes for the special council meeting held on February 8 that saw the mayor’s transit vision smashed with a procedural hammer.

From that special February 8 meeting, the vote added to this month’s scorecard represents the most significant defeat of Rob Ford’s administration. I’ve made that claim several times before — and each time it was true! — but this is a serious major-league defeat for Rob Ford. The council he’s supposed to be leading basically told him that he wasn’t allowed to make decisions on transit.

The New Vote

Council Scorecard: February 23, 2012 (New Votes)

The vote added:

  • CC17.1, Motion 3a as moved by TTC Chair Karen Stintz, pushed council to endorse what they had already endorsed in 2009 (and several other times): light rail on Finch West & Eglinton. The second part of her motion, which also passed, will see an expert panel report back to council with options for Sheppard. While no one wanted to say it, this is the vote that brings back Transit City. It passed — after two re-votes because councillors kept hitting the wrong button — by a final and decisive margin of 25-18.

Trend Watch

What’s most notable about the chart is how bad 2012 has been for Rob Ford. Only 20 of 44 councillors have sided with the mayor more than 50% of the time on major items this year. And the gap is only widening: going by the same metrics I was using last year, only three councillors — Gloria Lindsay Luby, James Pasternak and Jaye Robinson — fit the profile of the “mushy middle” based on their 2012 votes, and they were all reliable Ford supporters through the first nine months of this term. Everyone else has either supported the mayor on virtually every item or come out in strong opposition.

Ford has lost most of the sway he had over votes through 2011. Opposition councillors are now able to round up 23 votes without too much hassle. That threshold has been crossed. And there’s no going back unless the mayor starts compromising.

The thing to watch going forward is whether we’ll find a scenario where 30 votes will go against Ford. A consistent bloc of 30 councillors — controlling two-thirds of the chamber  – would effectively neuter any positional power Ford has as mayor. It’d be a whole different ballgame.

The path to 30 isn’t easy. Take the 25 votes who went against Ford on the transit item, then add Gloria Lindsay Luby, who was absent from the vote, to make 26. From there, the best bets would be councillors like Peter Milczyn — who bravely opposed the mayor on the Gary Webster firing –, Gary Crawford, Michael Thompson, and basically anyone else with a Liberal Party membership or a stated interest in the arts, the environment or sensible urban planning.

It’s not straightforward, but it’s doable. And every uncompromising and bullheaded decision made by the mayor’s office only makes it more doable.

Questions

Questions about the Council Scorecard? Read my notes on methodology. Also, you can email me.


22
Feb 12

Without Just Cause: Gary Webster gets fired

As expected, the TTC board formally released General Manager Gary Webster from his contract yesterday after a 5-4 vote. This is widely regarded as a dumb move.

The Globe & Mail’s Marcus Gee:

Mr. Webster is being fired just days after a public meeting in which he spoke his mind, in the most calm and respectful manner, about his views on the best way to expand Toronto’s transit network. Those views differ sharply from the mayor’s.

Firing him now reeks of spite. It confirms what many people already feel about the mayor’s blunderbuss, my-way-or-the-highway approach to governing the city. It conflicts with the mayor’s pledge to cut waste. Firing Mr. Webster only a year and a bit before the end of his contract could cost the city $500,000 and more.

Worse, it sets a dangerous precedent that could intimidate the other leading public servants who advise the mayor and city council on public policy.

via Shameful firing further alienates Mayor Ford | The Globe and Mail.

In addition to the cost and the dangerous precedent this sets, this move is ridiculously hasty and ill-timed. Even Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday has acknowledged that it doesn’t make sense to fire the most important civil servant at the TTC when you have no workable strategy for replacing him. The commission will likely spend a year (or more) trying to find a permanent replacement, through which time management will undoubtedly suffer due to a lack of leadership.

Webster was going to retire in a year anyway. Instead of just waiting that out, the city gets to dole out $500,000 in severance payments, deal with a difficult period of managerial change and — oh yeah — live with the consequences of being a crappy employer with a reputation for firing people without just cause.

There’s no way to sugar-coat that last part. The motion passed at the meeting was clear: Webster was fired without just cause. For no reason.

The timing of this also sucks for Ford’s policy ambitions — assuming he has any left. Had the mayor waited and made a move against Webster later this year, this would have felt a lot less petty and vindictive. He would have been able to retain more support from allies, especially as council as a whole would have moved on from the contentious LRT/subway debate and onto other issues. As it is, Ford’s move to oust Webster has only hardened the conviction of previously “mushy middle” councillors who have spoken out against his agenda in recent months. Worse, it’s also put significant strain on the loyalties of at least three councillors who had been, up until recently, critical and vocal supporters of the mayor’s agenda.

There’s no political calculus that says firing Gary Webster was worth potentially alienating Karen Stintz, John Parker & Peter Milczyn. Without those bedrock supporters in the chamber, Ford can’t even dream of getting to 23 votes on any significant agenda item. Without strategy and without allies, Rob Ford continues to cast himself into irrelevance.

“This mayor is not one that unites people”

The Toronto Star’s Paul Moloney & Mike Spears, quoting the current budget chief:

“The message is not good,” said Councillor Mike Del Grande (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt). “This mayor is not one that unites people. He has thin skin. Those that don’t agree with him aren’t going to last very long.”

via Soknacki retiring from politics | Toronto Star.

Sure, Del Grande was speaking about another mayor in another time (in 2006), but stripped of context his point will always be a good one: mayors should unite people. A mayor who fails to unite people is not very good at his job.

Criticize David Miller all you want — despite protests from some, he never saw a civil servant fired like this, without just cause and with such vindictiveness — but he was a hundred times better at uniting councillors in favour of a common agenda than Rob Ford has proven to be.

On the Defensive

In a parallel universe, the same group of citizens who gathered at City Hall yesterday to defend the career of Gary Webster could have easily spent a day criticizing his performance as TTC chair and demanding improvements. They could have made a list of a hundred things that Webster and the TTC should be doing better.

That’s not an indication of hypocrisy or political bias. It’s just one of those weird truths that come about when you’ve got a mayor who takes a damn-the-torpedoes approach to governance. By attempting to tear down and destroy, Ford puts his opponents into a perpetual defensive position. Nuanced viewpoints give way to a simple desire to preserve. Opposing Rob Ford these days generally means working to prevent programs, services and people from being tossed into the trash.

It is a shame, because nuance is important. Transit City isn’t a perfect plan. Gary Webster wasn’t a perfect manager. There’s room for improvement and innovation across every city department. But council hasn’t been able to work on the things that lead to improvement and innovation because they live in a constant state of defensive readiness. The entire political discourse in this city is dominated by strategy designed to preempt and contain the damage coming out of the mayor’s office.

Council wasn’t able to contain the damage yesterday. Webster’s career is over. But this story continues.


20
Feb 12

Down with Webster: Ford to spend half-million dollars because transit GM disagrees with him

Torontoist’s Hamutal Dotan:

Rob Ford either doesn’t understand the basic principles of good governance, or he doesn’t care to be guided by them. Neither do Norm Kelly, Cesar Palacio, Frank Di Giorgio, Denzil Minnan-Wong, or Vincent Crisanti—the councillors (and TTC commissioners) who signed a petition yesterday calling for a special meeting to oust TTC Chief General Manager Gary Webster.

via In Service to the Public Good, Not Mere Power | Torontoist.

At a special meeting of the TTC on Tuesday, those five councillors — in service to the mayor — will likely endorse spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to release Webster from his contract. The TTC will then presumably spend untold amounts of money and time conducting a search for a replacement.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars — respect-hungry taxpayer dollars! — flushed down the toilet all because Webster refuses to bend facts and figures to placate Rob Ford’s imaginary subway plan.

Webster’s great sin is providing evidence in support of a transit plan adopted by a strong majority of councillors earlier this month.

I’d never argue that Webster has been exemplary in his role as transit manager — the TTC is not without its problems — but he has presided over record ridership growth, new vehicle roll-outs, a vast expansion of new technologies like stop announcements and NextBus and design plans for the largest expansion of rail transit Toronto has seen in several decades. There’s a lot to be proud of.

Former GM David Gunn told the Toronto Star this weekend that Webster will be a hard person to replace:

At some transit agencies, Gunn said, senior management has been “rolled over and over” so many times for political reasons that only political people end up running the agencies, which he says require significant technical and operational expertise in addition to business or administrative acumen.

“They’re creating a situation where it is going to be difficult to have a very serious transit manager,” Gunn said. “Certainly they’re going to have difficulty replacing Gary, somebody of his quality.”

via TTC’s Gary Webster would be tough to replace: David Gunn | Toronto Star.

It’s clear, however, that Ford doesn’t necessarily care about qualifications. In fact, I’m not even sure that the mayor knows what he wants. Strategy coming out of the mayor’s office these days is mostly foolhardy, haphazard and ad-hoc. No one is thinking long-term. There’s no consideration of the three years ahead or the terrible precedents move like this set.

This decision appears to be entirely motivated by spite and cruelty, and not by any desire to improve management at the TTC.  Rob Ford realized he couldn’t fire Karen Stintz from her role as TTC Chair, so he’s firing someone else instead.

No Strategy

It’s hard to see this as part of a cunning plan by the Ford administration. What does the mayor expect to happen? Sure, he can oust Webster and a few other managers, but council can easily respond by dissolving the TTC board and reappointing councillors more agreeable to approved transit plans. Ford can’t expect to maintain any power or influence if he continues pissing everyone off.

If he actually wants to continue to have any influence on the transit file, Ford’s only real strategic move is to strike a conciliatory pose. He should turn back toward a compromise path. But he won’t do that. Even in the face of overwhelming reason, he won’t do that.

As it is, his latest move will serve only to further alienate allies like John Parker, Karen Stintz and maybe even Peter Milczyn. It will plunge council into another episode of procedural chaos where tensions run high and nothing gets done. And after all that, Ford will inevitably end up having little say in choosing Webster’s successor.

And none of this will impact the thing Ford’s really mad about. The light rail plan endorsed by council and accepted by the province will continue to move forward.

Who are the Ford Five on the TTC?

The TTC commission is currently made up of nine councillors. Five of them have signed the petition calling for a special meeting on Tuesday. Assuming that Maria Augimeri, John Parker, Chair Karen Stintz and Vice Chair Peter Milczyn vote against firing Webster, that makes for a 5-4 result.

Ford retains narrow control of the TTC only because these five councillors have seemingly dedicated themselves to following the mayor into the flames:

Vincent Crisanti is a first-term councillor who won his seat in Ward 1 by 509 votes, narrowly beating the incumbent by less than two percentage points. He’s voted with the mayor 97% of the time on major items, deviating only once on a matter relating to Community Environment Days.  Crisanti has distinguished himself by fighting tooth and nail against bringing higher order transit to his ward via the Finch West LRT.

The Finch West LRT has repeatedly been endorsed by the president of  Humber College. In 2008, the Emery Village BIA — located in the ward adjacent to Crisanti’s — indicated that “community response was unanimous in support of the LRT system.”

Frank Di Giorgio is a 90% Rob Ford supporter, though he’s been trending upwards in his support in recent months, while the rest of council has gone the other way. He won his seat, which he’s held on-and-off in various forms since 1985, by 422 votes or 3 percentage points. He voted in favour of Transit City at least seven times.

Di Giorgio has been most outspoken in the lead-up to the special TTC meeting. On Sunday, he told the Star’s Brendan Kennedy that it made sense to fire Webster because the mayor’s mandate matters, implying that the will of council is essentially irrelevant:

Di Giorgio said the responsibility of the city’s bureaucracy is to follow the will of the mayor and achieve the objectives set out by his mandate, which TTC managers have failed to do.

“We’re trying to eliminate some of the problems that surfaced over the last month that should not have surfaced and need not have surfaced.”

via TTC transit chief Gary Webster may not be only one to lose job: Di Giorgio | Toronto Star.

In 2008, the Toronto Environmental Alliance awarded Di Giorgio an A+ grade for his commitment to green initiatives, citing him as their “most improved” councillor. They noted his support for things like studying the teardown of the eastern section of the Gardiner Expressway, implementing the Land Transfer and Vehicle Registration Taxes and beefed up waste diversion targets.

Since then, Di Giorgio has become a Ford-backing councillor who has supported closing libraries, rescinding the ban on the sale of bottled water at city facilities, eliminating bike lanes, backing off on the city’s tree canopy goal and killing Community Environment Days.

Funny how things change.

Norm Kelly has been in various offices since the 1980s, once serving as a Parliamentary Secretary under Pierre Trudeau. Under David Miller, he voted in favour of Transit City at least seven times. He has since become a 100% supporter of Rob Ford. In the wake of council’s vote on transit, Kelly implied that the province would be justified in ignoring council’s decision and deferring to the mayor.

Denzil Minnan-Wong is another Rob Ford stalwart at 100%. However, he differs slightly from Norm Kelly in that he expressed a desire for the mayor to accept council’s transit decision. “Council spoke and you just move forward,” he told the the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat. It’s unclear how firing the general manager figures into moving forward on this issue. Minnan-Wong supported Transit City at least four times between 2006 and 2010. He was absent for the other recorded votes.

Cesar Palacio is a 95% Rob Ford supporter. He also voted in favour of Transit City at least seven times. He’s decided that the litany of issues that arose with the St. Clair right-of-way project are reason enough to oppose on-street LRT, apparently working from the assumption that all surface transit projects inevitably go over budget because of scope creep, NIMBYism and nuisance legal cases.

 


16
Feb 12

Memo to the suburbs: pro-subway mayor wanted to cut your bus routes

Buried in a worth-your-time profile of Karen Stintz, the Toronto Star’s Jennifer Yang reports this gem, from former Ford Chief of Staff Nick Kouvalis:

Kouvalis said the first crack between Stintz and Ford appeared after she backed down on plans to cut 48 bus routes, a move that would have freed $7 million.

Kouvalis said the bus motion was a “test” to see which TTC commissioners would fall in line and which were “wet noodles.” Stintz was a noodle, he says.

“My advice was: Get rid of her, right there on the spot,” Kouvalis says.

He recently reiterated that point to Ford, he adds. “She’s committed the biggest sin in politics, which is disloyalty,” he charges.

via Toronto News: Karen Stintz reveals her master plan: There is none – thestar.com.

As a quick refresher, Ford started pushing cuts to bus service in January 2011, almost immediately after he took office. He called it a “service reallocation.”

Of the 48 routes impacted by the proposed cuts, most provided service to Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York. Many provided important links to subway stations and other forms of rapid transit.

The cuts drew a backlash. A series of public meetings on the issue did not go well. Transit users took issue with the TTC’s outdated ridership counts. And so the TTC blinked. The service cuts were rolled back. Instead of $7 million in service reductions, the city only saw $4 million.

At the time, it looked like both Ford and Stintz had yielded to the public response, but Kouvalis’ comments paint a different story. According to him, those initial route cuts stood as a twisted way to ensure that the mayor’s chosen TTC chair was, in fact, okay with screwing over transit riders to save a little money.

The truth was that Ford always wanted to cut bus service. It was Stintz that stepped in to preserve what she could.

Ignoring that this seems like an incredibly cruel way to test someone’s loyalty, let’s focus on what the move says about Rob Ford’s attitude toward public transit in the suburbs. He sees it as expendable. For all his talk about sticking up for transit riders in Scarborough, the mayor has now presided over two consecutive budget cycles in which suburban bus service was reduced. If he continues to insist on reductions to the TTC operating subsidy, this pattern will continue: fewer vehicles, wider headways, crappier service.

Even if Ford were able to wave a magic wand and build subways across Sheppard, Eglinton & Finch, most people in the suburbs would still live in areas far removed from subway stations. Bus service provides the local connectivity you need to make rapid transit corridors work. When you start making cuts to that service to save money, the whole network feels the impact.

Ford’s plan seems to be to sell himself as a champion for transit in the suburbs, but his attitude toward suburban bus service tells another story. He talks about building subways while simultaneously cutting service on the bus routes that would feed those subways. And now, via Kouvalis, we’ve got confirmation that Karen Stintz has been serving as the counter-weight to the mayor’s transit cuts. Without her, things would have been worse.

Measuring Stintz

Before I get accused of drinking too much of the Karen Stintz Kool-Aid, I want to note how disappointed I was when she did this:

The Toronto Transit Commission has decided to put an extra $5-million it was awarded by city council to maintaining Wheel-Trans service for dialysis patients – not to reversing some of the bus cuts.

The unexpected money also allows Wheel-Trans to start accepting new dialysis patients and restores overall eligibility criteria to earlier levels for 2012.

via TTC using $5M awarded by council to beef up Wheel-Trans | National Post.

That $5 million was directed to the TTC by council with the intention that it would be used to preserve conventional bus service. Wheel-Trans is a noble and important thing, but the commission had already identified a strategy to work to maintain service for dialysis patients when it was due to run out of funding later this year.

Stintz and other Ford-allies argued that using so-called “one-time” funds for bus service was a bad idea, because, hey, what if the city doesn’t have a surplus next year? We’d have to cut that service anyway. But, by that logic, this Wheel-Trans funding presents a similar risk: are we going to kick dialysis patients off the bus in 2013?

We’re not, of course. Because there will be a surplus next year. And even in the crazy unlikely event that there isn’t, there are always ways to find revenues to maintain the things we value most.


15
Feb 12

Rob Ford’s Sheppard Subway plan: days late, a billion dollars short

Rob Ford's Sheppard Subway Plan: a  billion dollars short

After a year of waiting, we finally have our hands on former councillor Gordon Chong’s Sheppard Subway report. This is the document that was supposed to open the door to cheap and extensive subway building. This is the document that was supposed to propel the mayor toward making good on his campaign promise to extend the Sheppard Subway.

That was the theory, anyway. In reality, Chong’s report doesn’t do any of those things. Instead, it suggests that the city make a series of irresponsible financial decisions that will screw with Toronto’s operating budget for decades to come. And it still leaves a billion dollar gap.

To illustrate, here’s how our friends at KPMG — brought in to help with Chong’s financial analysis — suggest we might build an eastward extension of the Sheppard line, from Don Mills to Scarborough Town Centre, at a total cost of $2.7 billion over seven years. This is just one of the scenarios studied. It’s a simple five-step process.

1) Finance $221 million based on an expected rise in property values along Sheppard and Eglinton. They call this Tax Increment Financing. Yes, this means that future property tax revenues generated by Eglinton development will be tied up with construction on Sheppard instead of used to pay for infrastructure and services that might be needed on the Eglinton corridor. But disregard that — we’re building subways here!

2) Finance an additional $446 million based on expected revenue from development charges. And don’t just limit yourself to development charge revenues in the Sheppard & Eglinton corridor — take the cash from developments all across the city. Yeah, this might screw with the city’s credit rating and any increases to non-residential development charges could chase business into the 905, but, again, try to ignore the details. Focus on the subways. They go fast.

We should pause here to note that to drive the revenues we need from the first two steps, we’ll need to drastically increase density along the Eglinton and Sheppard corridors. This means building high-rise condo blocs in the 800-metre zone along both streets. Good thing residents hardly ever oppose tall building projects.

3) Sell 18 city-owned properties along Eglinton & Sheppard for an additional $221 million. We don’t really know which properties, but let’s just assume that we probably don’t need them.

4) Hope against hope that the Eglinton LRT project comes in under budget — which it surely won’t if it’s built underground like the mayor wants — so that the province can transfer $650 million in funding to the Sheppard project. If this doesn’t happen, the whole plan falls to pieces. (The federal government’s $333 million contribution might be contingent on secured provincial funding.)

5) Raise a billion extra dollars somehow. Maybe with tolls and new taxes. Maybe with magic. Who knows? Think of this step like a mystery we’ll all get to solve together. Even if we find a private sector partner willing to pitch in on a P3 for this corridor, KPMG says there will be a similar funding gap — about $730 million — that the city will be on the hook for over the life of the project.

In the end, even granting the sizeable assumptions that there will be provincial funding available for Sheppard and that there’s a politically-viable way to raise a billion dollars that the mayor won’t call a ‘tax grab’, we’ll still face decades of city budgets where some revenue from property tax and development charges won’t be available because they’ll be tied up in bond payments from this subway financing deal. This will handcuff council’s ability to even consider funding any further transit or infrastructure projects until 2050 or so.

All this for eight kilometres of subway.

The Bright Side

Revenue tools presented as options for transit financing in Gordon Chong's report

Revenue tools presented as options for transit financing in Gordon Chong's report

But let’s look on the bright side: at the very least, the $150,000 the mayor spent commissioning this report has provided us with a preliminary analysis of potential revenue tools. Rob Ford is never going to consider tolls and taxes — and using them to fund subway construction in the Sheppard corridor is a tough sell —  but they’re important because inevitably Toronto will have to look to these kinds of revenue-drivers if it wants to continue to grow and improve its infrastructure.

Toronto’s transit expansion can’t stop here. The city needs to push forward with a Downtown Relief Line, an extension of the Eglinton LRT to the airport, a transit connection to Malvern and plans for right-of-way streetcars along the waterfront. Absent committed support for transit from the federal and provincial governments, new tolls and taxes represent the responsible way forward. The alternative is to continue drawing hopeful lines on maps and waiting for other governments to swoop in with funding promises at election time.

Council can throw out most of Chong’s report — it’s irrelevant in the wake of council’s decision last week — but they should give careful consideration to this section. Toronto’s transit future depends on it.


13
Feb 12

Ford in decline: populist mayor is unpopular

The Toronto Star’s Wendy Gillis:

Research and communications firm Stratcom polled 1,300 Torontonians on Thursday and Friday and found that 35 per cent of city residents “strongly disapprove” of Ford’s performance on the job.

The figure represents an 11 per cent jump in the past six months, and double the number from last March, when only 17 per cent of Torontonians voiced their strong disapproval of the mayor.

via Ford’s approval drops after transit defeat | Toronto Star.

The full Stratcom results peg the mayor’s approval rating at 43%. For comparison, Ipsos declared “Miller time is over” when David Miller polled at 43% in June of 2009. (A month later, in the midst of a labour dispute that saw mountains of garbage stack up in public parks, Miller’s approval was 33%.)

These are not good numbers for a municipal leader just a year into his mandate.

For the most part, Ford can’t point to extenuating circumstances (like a strike) or external factors (like a bad economy) to explain his spiking disapproval numbers. His administration dug this hole all by themselves: with obstinate refusal to compromise, a continued inability to play well with others and a series of ridiculous controversies.

The labour victory that wasn’t

Even when Ford does achieve a victory, his ability to capitalize  is limited. Just a week ago, the Ford administration achieved a negotiated settlement with Local 416, averting a labour stoppage and reportedly wringing some significant concessions from its workers.

By all accounts, this should have been a time to celebrate for the mayor and his supporters. Ignoring the particulars of the deal — which we don’t even know yet — this was an easy play for the mayor’s communication team: Toronto elected Rob Ford to deal with out-of-control unions, and now he’s succeeded.

But they couldn’t even get a Toronto Sun cover out of the labour resolution. The mayor bounced so quickly to the next contentious issue — transit — that his strategy on labour barely had a chance to register.

Ford Nation Redux

In the wake of last week’s vote on transit, the mayor and his brother have plunged headlong into campaign mode. They’re at least two years early. Their strategy seems to involve leaning on subways as a wedge issue designed to sow resentment between the suburbs and downtown. From there, I guess, the Fords will achieve such widespread support in Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke that they’ll end up unseating a dozen incumbent councillors who oppose them and emerge into a second term with solid control over council.

And then: utopia. Magical budget reductions without service cuts. The Land Transfer Tax tossed into the lake. Subways raining from the sky. Rainbows. But not those kind of rainbows.

I got some flack for calling the mayor a ‘lame duck’ last week, but I’ll stand by it with one added qualifier: Rob Ford is only a lame duck because he insists on quacking. At every turn, council has offered the mayor a face-saving compromise. In almost every case, the mayor has rejected the compromise. Then he’s publicly attacked the compromise.

In today’s political panel, the National Post’s Jonathan Goldsbie sums up the situation:

Ford sells portions of the public on impossible solutions to real problems, and then tries to lead his disaffected followers in a full-on charge against reality, hopefully to eventually beat it into submission. The only thing keeping this from being deceitful is that the mayor himself is too dim to understand that the things he is promising are wholly made-up.

via Posted Toronto Political Panel: Rob Ford derailed by subway debate | National Post.

If Rob Ford insists on continuing down this course — rejecting compromise, alienating allies — he’ll never have the votes he needs to effectively move his agenda forward. Without council’s support, all he can be as a lame duck.


10
Feb 12

Here I go again on my own: three stories about Rob Ford

Rob Ford: Here I Go Again On My Own

Original photo by Craig Robinson / Toronto Sun.

To end the week, three stories about Rob Ford.

December 15: In the midst of major budget meetings, Rob Ford finds himself standing in a backyard in Councillor Frank Di Giorgio’s ward, looking at a pile of sand. After examining the sand — a neighbour had complained about the pile — the mayor decrees that the sand must be moved.

Rob Ford is the CEO of a corporation with $10 billion in annual revenues and a workforce of 50,000 employees. He runs the sixth biggest government in Canada. His decision to involve himself in a civil dispute over a pile of sand goes beyond micromanagement. It’d be like if Apple CEO Tim Cook volunteered to take a look at your broken MacBook.

The neighbour with the sand pile told the Toronto Star’s David Rider that he couldn’t understand why the mayor had taken an interest. “I don’t think he should be involved in such a petty issue,” he said. “He has staff, councillors, labour negotiations. When did the mayor get involved in such small matters?”

In the same Star article, Doug Holyday defended the mayor’s decision. “He does care about the little guy,” said the deputy mayor. “I guess it’s hard to stop.”

Yeah, hard to stop. The mayor comes out on the losing end of the city budget debate, but the sand is moved from the backyard a month later.

January 26: With local councillor Frances Nunziata, a handful of staff and — always — a crew from the Toronto Sun, Rob Ford visits a TCHC building in Mount Dennis. This is the kind of thing he’s best at. Never is the mayor more likeable than when he’s visiting with people, listening to their concerns and promising action.

While admirable, the mayor’s passion for this kind of politicking and governance — one-to-one, personal, on-demand — hints at one of his big weaknesses. As the mayor of the city, Ford can effect more large-scale change sitting at a board room table with staff than he can wandering the halls of a TCHC building, pointing out needed repairs.

Even Rob Ford doesn’t have the energy to personally monitor the condition of every TCHC property in the city. If he really wants to improve conditions, he has to start with policy. With funding. With leadership.

But, still, the mayor visits. People smile and give him hugs. The Sun’s Don Peat hears from a resident that she really appreciates the mayor’s visit. “It’s good,” she says. “He’s showing he cares.”

Meanwhile, Ford is rightly put off by the number of holes he’s seeing in the walls of TCHC units. “Holy, there’s three of them,” the Sun reports him saying. “These holes are driving me nuts.”

February 8: A few hours after losing a major vote on transit at a council meeting he didn’t even want to hold, Rob Ford decides to get on the subway. He begins riding at Royal York station in Etobicoke, going east toward the Scarborough RT and then on to Scarborough Town Centre.

There are a lot of different things a mayor might be expected to do after losing a major vote. Riding trains and buses for four hours in the middle of night wouldn’t generally make the list. But Rob Ford isn’t conventional.

The Sun’s Joe Warmington,  invited along for the ride, tracked the mayor’s conversations with riders. The idea, I guess, was to collect feedback in favour of Ford’s subway plans.

“This is where it’s all about it. I don’t call it retail politics. I call it the ground game. This is where the people are,” the mayor says, according to Warmington.

In addition to talking transit, the mayor also talks to riders about other topics. His weight loss comes up. So does the old stand-by: city hall expense accounts. “I think it’s ridiculous all of the money that we have available to us at city hall,” the mayor says, maybe forgetting for a second that he’s no longer the perpetual outsider, no longer a rogue councillor from Etobicoke. He’s the mayor.

Somewhere along the route, Warmington reports, a rider asks the mayor if he has a lighter. The mayor doesn’t, so he gives the woman five dollars.

On the way back — it’s well past midnight — the mayor’s trip gets interrupted as the subway closes for the night. Rob Ford has missed the last train. He soon finds himself on the bus, but at Eglinton he and his staff realize they forgot to get transfers. The ride is over.

The mayor takes a cab home. Again on his own.


10
Feb 12

Developers, businesses want mayor to back Queens Quay LRT

From a letter submitted by John C. O’Keefe Jr., managing partner of 3C Lakeshore Inc., a consortium of realtors and developers currently working on waterfront development, submitted as part of this week’s council debate on transit:

I am writing to you on behalf of numerous Landowners and Investors on the East Bayfront corridor between Yonge & Cherry Streets.

[...]

Last fall, this group conveyed our disappointment to the Mayor’s office in the delay and possible elimination of the Queens Quay LRT. All of the aforementioned stakeholders made significant initial investment totalling well into the hundreds of millions of dollars on the promise and expectation of LRV’s connecting this burgeoning community to the wider transit system at Union Station.

via Letter from John C. O’Keefe Jr. (CC.New.CC17.1.57) | Toronto Council.

The waterfront light rail projects planned for the east side of downtown have been mostly overlooked over the past couple of the years, lost in a sea of other contentious issues. As originally planned, streetcar tracks would be extended down Cherry Street through the West Don Lands development to (eventually) connect with a new LRT line on Queens Quay East extending out of Union Station. Both lines would run in private right-of-ways, like Spadina and St. Clair, using a side-of-road design.

As it stands, the rail line for Cherry Street seems set to move forward — it’s promised for the Pan Am Games –, but Queens Quay East construction has stalled out. At issue: missing funding of $120 million, some technical issues related to the Union Station connection and, of course, a mayor ideologically opposed to surface rail.

Ford has spent much of the last week talking about what people want. He says he’s listening to what people tell him. But here’s a case where a group of businesses are clearly and unequivocally telling him that they want just one thing: surface rail. Hanging in the balance is billions of dollars of economic activity to be forged through neighbourhood development. Compared to the amount of cash tossed around this week as council debated various transit schemes, the investment required is almost trivially small.

But is the mayor willing to listen?