Posts Tagged: denzil minnan-wong

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.


Feb 12

Notes on a Transit Plan

An April 2010 photo shows David Miller distributing "Save Transit City" buttons at Eglinton station. That woman on the left sure looks familiar. (Photo by Brad Pritchard / InsideToronto)

An April 2010 photo shows David Miller distributing "Save Transit City" flyers at Eglinton station. The woman pictured at far left sure looks familiar. (Photo by Brad Pritchard / InsideToronto)

1. We probably should have seen this coming

In April 2010, Karen Stintz spent a morning at Eglinton station with then-mayor David Miller. In the wake of provincial cuts to funding, the two of them distributed “Save Transit City” flyers to commuters. “I fully support Mayor Miller and his initiative and I’m proud to stand here beside him and get the message out,” she told the National Post.

That was a big statement. Stintz and Miller rarely saw eye-to-eye. It’s probably fair to describe her as a perpetual thorn in his side. She once dismissed his agenda as “bags, bottles and bicycles.” But when it came to funded and realistic transit planning, she was willing to work with the guy in the mayor’s chair. She was willing to be an advocate.

So what did we really learn about Karen Stintz this week? That she’s willing to stand up for achievable and realistic transit planning? That she’s open to working with people across the political spectrum to ensure those plans move forward? That she believes in Light Rail Transit?

We already knew these things about Karen Stintz.

2. Unavoidable truth: Transit City’s back

The light rail plan endorsed by council on Wednesday has got all sorts of names. Some called it the “Stintz plan.” Others called it the “Council plan.” The mayor, as is his way, called it “streetcar city.”

But whatever. Ignoring the politics of it — and maybe it’s not wise to point this out — it’s impossible to ignore that this plan is, essentially, a direct continuation of Transit City. It’s pretty well the same plan we would have seen go forward had David Miller remained in office for another term.

No bones about it: David Miller’s legacy got a shot in the arm on Wednesday.

3. Will the mayor get his Sheppard Subway anyway?

An interesting twist at this week’s meeting came from a Stintz motion that called for an “expert panel” brought together over the next month to discuss what to do with transit on Sheppard Avenue. The light rail plan — currently on the books as part of Transit City — has faced opposition because it’ll force an inconvenient transfer at Don Mills station on the Sheppard Subway line.

My first thought was that this panel was just an attempt to throw a bone toward Scarborough councillors, and that they’d ultimately conclude that light rail was the way to go. But during an appearance on NewsTalk 1010 Thursday morning, Councillor Adam Vaughan gave the impression that he expected the experts to support a one- or two-stop subway extension to Victoria Park.

A small subway extension would be an interesting outcome, serving two purposes: first, it shoves the question of what to do on Sheppard in the long-term off to the far-flung future. Another council and another mayor can figure it out. Second, it gives the mayor — even after all of his bitching and hyperbole and dirty tricks — a chance to deliver on a campaign promise.

4. Dirty Tricks & Pettiness

I mentioned dirty tricks: it’s worth noting how desperate and petty Ford and his allies got as yesterday’s council meeting rolled forward. Coming back from the lunch break, rumour was that the Ford allies were going to attempt the procedural equivalent of  taking the ball and going home. The talk was that the mayor would try to force a halt to the meeting by intentionally breaking quorum in the council chamber.

After a tense delay, Ford and a handful of allies did return to the chamber so the meeting could resume. There weren’t enough of them to break quorum.

They followed that up with further petty procedural meddling. When it came time to excuse councillors who were absent from the meeting, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong insisted on separating the vote into two parts. He wanted to vote against excusing Gloria Lindsay Luby, who had booked a vacation before talk of this special council meeting got started.

In a show of macho pride made completely bizarre because all it does is further alienate a councillor who is ideologically aligned with Rob Ford on most issues, Minnan-Wong voted against excusing her. So did Paul Ainslie, Mike Del Grande, Frank Di Giorgio, Doug Ford, Giorgio Mammoliti, Frances Nunziata and the mayor.

This is not how you win friends and influence people.

5. What happens next? 

As expected, the province was quick to lend legitimacy to council’s decision. In fact, we learned today that Dalton McGuinty told Rob Ford days before the meeting that he would not support the mayor’s subway plan without council’s endorsement.

The remaining piece of the puzzle is Sheppard. Council will come back for another special meeting on March 21, at which time we’ll know whether we’re looking at subway or light rail in that corridor. That should be another fun meeting for the mayor to sit through.

Meanwhile, Rob Ford’s doing his best to make himself relevant to this debate. He’s spent damn near every hour since the vote attempting to spark public outcry over council’s decision, but there’s no real indication that he’s going to get anywhere with this plan. Yeah, the average person on the street will tell you that subways are awesome and we should have more of them, but that same person might also tell you that we should have libraries that are open 24 hours a day, free recreation programs, no property taxes and a fully-developed waterfront built by 2015.

Politics is about balancing what people want with fiscal reality — you can’t give people services you can’t pay for. You have to accept trade-offs to ensure public money is spent to maximum public benefit. You’ve got to be efficient and realistic. It’s weird that Rob Ford doesn’t understand this.

Feb 12

“Beyond comprehension”: Why is Rob Ford fighting a transit battle he can’t possibly win?

Council Scorecard: Likely Votes on Eglinton Overground (Updated)

While there's no consensus view on overall transit planning amongst councillors, a strong majority are likely to vote in favour of bringing part of the Eglinton LRT back to the surface. Council could then work with Metrolinx and the TTC to develop and debate a plan to put the $1.5 to $2 billion in savings toward other projects like the Finch West LRT or the Sheppard Subway. The Transit City vote percentage is an indicator on how councillors voted on seven Transit City-related items.

Updated Feb 2 2012: Chart has been updated to reflect recent statements by Scarborough councillors.

So Metrolinx Chair Rob Prichard wrote a letter today:

We will soon have to choose between these competing proposals — namely at or below grade, east of Laird Drive to Kennedy Road. In order to continue with this important project we require the support, and clarity from, the City of Toronto. s such, we are concerned that the [Memorandum of Understanding] has not yet been confirmed by Toronto City Council. Our concern has been sharply elevated in recent days by widely reported public statements from TTC Chair Karen Stintz and other members of Council suggesting Council will reject the terms of the MoU and seek a different transit plan with Metrolinx.

Absent Council’s endorsement of the MoU, the City is not bound by the plan and it is increasingly difficult for Metrolinx to implement it. We believe that both you and Council must soon confirm the direction the City wishes to take.

via Robert Prichard’s Letter to Rob Ford and Karen Stintz.

Ontario Minister of Transportation & Infrastructure Bob Chiarelli followed this up with a comment on his Twitter account: “We’ve got to move forward with transit in Toronto. City needs to land on a single position.”

With these comments in mind, and knowing full well the money and infrastructure hanging in the balance, six councillors, all of them stalwart Ford allies, used their power as TTC commissioners yesterday to sideline TTC Chair Karen Stintz and destroy a staff recommendation that would have seen transit staff produce a report detailing “analysis of the [Eglinton LRT] scope, alignment and vehicle technology.”

That report almost surely would have raised a number of questions about the planned underground alignment for Eglinton east of the Don Valley Parkway. It very well could have triggered the debate at council we’ve been waiting for: the one where councillors will overrule the mayor and change his transit plan.

Rather than set those wheels in motion and have the debate that everyone agrees council needs to have, these councillors — Denzil Minnan-Wong, Norm Kelly, Frank Di Giorgio, Cesar Palacio, Vince Crisanti & TTC Vice Chair Peter Milczyn — opted to engage in weasely tactics designed to delay the process, even though delays could wind up costing the city significant amounts of money. Councillor John Parker called the decision “beyond comprehension.”

Stintz was fairly blunt in her reaction to this move, as reported by NOW’s Ben Spurr:

“There are so many fundamental issues that need to be addressed, not just for this commission but for the next fifty years of this city,” Stintz said. “The commission had a decision to get that information and debate it and consider it, or they could not get it. They chose not to receive it.”

via Far more support for Stintz’s transit plan than Rob Ford’s | NOW Toronto.

Rob Ford knows he can’t win this vote, so his allies are trying to avoid the vote altogether.

Council Scorecard: How A Transit Vote Might Go

It’s important that any council debate on this subject remain limited in scope. The last thing we need is for 44 councillors to propose 44 different “transit visions” based on their own pet projects. Keep it simple: an up-and-down vote on whether we should acquiesce to Rob Ford and bury all of Eglinton or stick with the previously-approved Transit City alignment.

Once that decision is made, construction can move forward on Eglinton. Council can then work with Metrolinx and the TTC to set priorities and determine where to spend the remaining funds. (My preference would be for the Finch LRT to take priority, but the existence of federal money for Sheppard Avenue transit may complicate things.)

Provided council’s debate remains focused, I count 23 votes in favour of bringing Eglinton back to the surface. (The Toronto Star’s David Rider & Daniel Dale did most of the legwork on this one.) Those 23 votes are all council needs to pull off this off, though the vote will probably be more lopsided once the  nine undecided votes sort themselves out. I could see up to five of those fence-sitters going against the mayor.

While the result of the vote seems clear, the process for getting the item in front of council is still murky. Ford proved today that he’s got enough allies on the TTC commission to control the agenda there. To actually put this to vote, Council is going to have to get creative and find a way to bypass the committee/board process.

Unstoppable Force Meets The Immovable Mayor

Ford’s behaviour on this item isn’t surprising — his stubbornness was actually an asset on the campaign trail, even if it’s a terrible quality for a guy at City Hall — but it remains deeply irrational. In no way should this be a hill for the mayor to die on.

Stintz was sincere in her efforts to engineer this compromise as a way for Ford to save face and deliver some kind of Sheppard Subway extension. And there is no indication anywhere that the mayor’s popular support — which is only at 40% anyway — hinges on keeping the Eglinton LRT underground.

The smart move would be accepting a compromise and passing a unanimous motion at council affirming support for rapid transit on Eglinton Avenue. But Rob Ford doesn’t want to make the smart move. He doesn’t want to move at all.

Nov 11

Denzil Minnan-Wong thinks Denzil Minnan-Wong is wrong on new overflow recycling policy

The Globe & Mail’s Elizabeth Church brings us up to speed on the latest proposed service cut from the no-service-cuts gang at City Hall:

Toronto’s blue box program is the latest initiative to face money-saving cuts, with a plan to limit curbside collection to what residents can cram into their recycling bin.

The move is part of next year’s proposed solid waste budget and is expected to save the city about $500,000. The measure would end the long-standing practice that allows city residents to place any overflow from their recycling bins beside their blue box in clear bags.

A staff report notes that residents can “upsize” their blue bins for free if the new limit is a problem.

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the city’s public works committee, also noted that residents can obtain a second blue bin if one is not enough to meet their needs.

via Cuts to blue box program urged over environmentalists’ objections | Globe & Mail. (Emphasis added.)

Okay. So there’s Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, Chair of Public Works and good buddy of the mayor’s office, defending a cost-cutting move that will make it more challenging for residents to recycle.

Now let’s travel back to 2009, when the city’s solid waste management division attempted to make a similar policy change. Seems Denzil Minnan-Wong had some thoughts on this policy back then.

As reported by the National Post’s Allison Haines:

Toronto will soon be refusing to pick up the overflow bottles, cans and newspapers that don’t fit in the city’s new recycling bins — the latest in a series of changes to the curb-side collection program that require the cooperation of befuddled residents.

Still, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Don Valley East) said the message is the city is making things more difficult for the most avid recyclers.

“I’ve already heard from a few of my residents. They think it’s completely stupid,” he said. “We’re saying no to recyclers and we’re making it even harder for them to participate — I suppose it’s because it’s too much work for the garbage collectors to get out of their truck.”

via Toronto: New bin regime spawns new rules, confusion for avid recyclers | National Post. (Emphasis added; third-party link as old Post articles sure are hard to find since they switched to WordPress.)

So which is it, Denzil Minnan-Wong? Do your residents still think this change is stupid? Or has the fact that you’re now on good terms with the mayor somehow changed their mind?

One of the more interesting sideshows of the Rob Ford administration has been watching various councillors who seemed so comfortable in their role angrily opposing and shouting down David Miller wrestle with the realities of being in power. It’s almost inevitable that they’ll end up contradicting themselves. (For other examples, see also: Karen Stintz and Giorgio Mammoliti.)

Recycled Issues

On the change itself: it is stupid. It’s easy to say that residents can just get a bigger bin, or even a second bin, but that doesn’t really hold true for residents in the Old City, who have already had to cram the new-style garbage bins into the limited space they have in their front yards. This shouldn’t be a revelatory statement but maybe it is: not everyone has a garage in this city.

As is his habit these days, Budget Chief Mike Del Grande speaks most plainly and maybe-inadvertantly reveals the real thinking behind this move. He told Inside Toronto’s David Nickle that the reason behind eliminating overflow pick-up was purely political:

This year, the solid waste budget will see residential rates frozen – in part, according to budget chief Mike Del Grande, because of contracting out of more garbage collection that was approved at the last meeting of Toronto Council.

“It would be difficult, to say on solid waste, to increase fees when we just went through a big humongous process to save a lot of money,” said Del Brande. “We can’t do that when you have $11 million in savings.”

via City will no longer collect extra recyclables in plastic bags |

In other words: the Ford administration wanted people to feel like the move to contract out garbage had saved them money. And the only way to achieve that was to cut service.

Jul 11

Minnan-Wong planning “significant” downtown transportation study; believes more roads can solve traffic problems

I’ve been meaning to get to this for a while. Amidst a bunch of news cycles dominated by that thing where other councillors forced the removal of existing infrastructure in her ward — despite her objections, and those of local residents and business –, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam revealed a major plan for the renewal of the section of Yonge Street between Dundas and Gerrard. It calls for wider sidewalks, an improved public realm, “sharrows” for cyclists and, oh yeah, the removal of two car lanes. Pedestrians vastly outnumber vehicles on this stretch so this doesn’t seem like an overly crazy suggestion.

You can download the entire report here. I’ve compressed it from its original downtown-elite file size of nearly 140 megabytes, so the images are a bit grainy.

Response to the report was swift, of course. Councillor and Public Works Chair Denzil Minnan-Wong essentially smacked it down, citing the need to first do a “very significant transportation study” of the downtown before making any moves to revitalize streets.

The Sun’s Chris Reynolds:

While Public Works chairman Denzil Minnan-Wong said he had yet to see the report, he cautioned any rush to rip up Yonge St. traffic lanes.

“The city is planning a very significant transportation study of the downtown, all the major roads and thoroughfares,” Minnan-Wong said. “It is going to be proposed by staff, it is coming forward in September and we are going to be looking at gridlock and congestion in the downtown.

via Study says Yonge stretch should be narrowed | Toronto & GTA | News | Toronto Sun.

Oh good. We’re going to look at gridlock and congestion in the downtown.

Much of Toronto’s downtown ‘gridlock’ can be attributed to simple physics: there are too many cars coming into a relatively small space. You might be able to nominally increase some traffic metrics by improving signal timing and filling in some missing roadway links (as seen with the Dufferin underpass last year), but you’re not going to drastically increase overall capacity unless you start knocking down buildings to allow for wider streets.

Even then, adding roadway capacity only leads to the “induced demand” phenomenon, which says, basically, that new roads create new traffic. There isn’t a magical point at which roadspace is bountiful enough that congestion and gridlock stop happening. (The inverse is also true: contrary to logic, some traffic will simply disappear if road capacity is reduced.)

The principles behind induced demand are pretty widely accepted by planners and politicians these days. A notable exception would be the Councillor backing this downtown transportation study. He seemingly does not buy it, as he told Torontoist’s Hamutal Dotan last week that he thinks, “if you have more roads you will have traffic run better.”

And so, in an attempt to deal with downtown traffic, it looks like we’re going to try and dig our way out of this hole. Meanwhile, Yonge Street will probably be waiting a long time for its much-needed revitalization.

Somewhat Related: I wanted to throw a link out for Edward Keenan’s ambitious five-part series at The Grid, which stands as a remarkably thorough examination of the idea of road pricing in Toronto and the GTA. Recommended reading.

Jul 11

Searching for Council’s conservatives

Yesterday, Toronto City Council endorsed spending approximately $400,000 removing cycling infrastructure downtown and in Scarborough, despite staff reports that indicated the bike lanes had no substantive impact on traffic flow. They followed this up hours later by voting to uphold an earlier decision by the Executive Committee that, due to concerns that maybe someday the funding might be removed, Council not accept provincial money that would add two new public health nurse positions to the City’s payroll.

Let’s phrase that another way: over the course of one summer afternoon, councillors decided both to recklessly spend $400,000 for no clear reason and to play it safe, eschewing needed resources at public health because they might, one day — but probably not –, get stuck with a $200,000 per year bill for their trouble.

The same Council then had the relative gall to pass a motion calling for the province to step in and fund a greater percentage of the operating and capital budgets for the TTC. And so Council both rejected provincial money and asked for more of it on the same day.

Meanwhile, outside Council chambers, consulting group KPMG has spent the week releasing delightfully concise Core Service Review reports that all follow a similar template. First, they point out that the department they’ve examined has very little waste. Then, they drop a bundle of ‘considerations’ — not recommendations — that range from things like eliminating water fluoridation to selling the city’s stable of barnyard animals.

The consultants — who already have a checkered history with this kind of thing, having once produced a report arguing amalgamation would save the Toronto municipalities a significant amount of money — are clear that they aren’t even really looking at efficiencies as much as they’re laying out a list of things that could legally be cut from the city’s portfolio of public services. That this stands contrary to an election promise made by the mayor seems to have been tossed to the curb.

Also on that curb? The results of the city’s exhaustive consultation sessions regarding the Core Service Review. A full 60% of people who attended indicated they would accept increased taxes to pay for existing service levels. Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who’s had a fun week, said Monday that that group was irrelevant. “Self-selecting,” he said. Okay.

For the record, Toronto — you know, the city that we continue to hear is suffering from near-fatal fiscal wounds that can only be treated by deep government cuts — has some of the lowest property taxes in the GTA and recently voluntarily reduced its annual revenues by $60 million.

I’m not sure what you call the ideology that drives these decisions, but it can’t be conservatism, can it? Certainly not principled conservatism. A conservative would demand to see a business case before spending public money modifying infrastructure. In the case of Jarvis, Birchmount and Pharmacy, there wasn’t one. A conservative wouldn’t turn away provincial money — which the city has said it needs –, especially if there was a guarantee in place that the new positions could be eliminated should the funding ever be removed. (Which was the case.)  A conservative wouldn’t call on the provincial government for funding only months removed from electing to decrease the city’s own revenues, and hours removed from opting out of committed, ongoing provincial money for public health.

Our Conservative Mayor

Early in the day on Tuesday — before Council had really started rolling with the big items of the week — Mayor Rob Ford rose and asked to be recorded in the negative on four items relating to grant funding for community groups, including Etobicoke Services for Seniors, the Crime Prevention Association of Toronto and Variety Village. (The latter is interesting, as it comes only a couple of months after Ford made a rare media appearance announcing a new bus stop implemented to serve visitors to the organization, which supports disabled children.) The Mayor also stated his intention to vote against grants for heritage buildings. Late in the day on Wednesday, the Mayor added to this bizarre tally, lodging a vote against the 2011 AIDs Prevention Community Investment Program. This vote marked a milestone for the councillor-turned-mayor: he’s now voted against AIDS funding five years in a row.

The bottom line: If the Mayor of Toronto could have his way, it would appear that the city would cease most community grants, end some of its heritage protection programs and drastically cut back on public health funding.

My kingdom for a conservative

I don’t lean even slightly to the right politically, but I would like to think I understand the merits of conservative thinking. It’s about mitigating government risk, off-loading ambition to the private sector and, in times of economic hardship, turning to austerity as opposed to reinvestment. That’s fine. As much as I disagree with that line of thinking on an ideological level, I respect it. I can hold it in my hands and argue against it. It feels firm.

But what we’re seeing at Council these days isn’t that. It’s a weird mishmash of spite-based decision making and conservatism-when-convenient, held up by the enthusiastic wishes of a “silent majority” that only communicate through the cellphones of the mayor and his brother. It’s all glazed over with a slapdash of pseudo-libertarianism, the kind that exists in the minds of high school students who are like halfway through reading Atlas Shrugged.

Rob Ford is Rob Ford. I can’t fault him for that. He’s maddeningly consistent in his anti-government views and has been for years. What disappoints me — and continuously surprises me — is that he has commanded the support of a cabal of once-sensible Liberals and conservatives on Council, and has driven them to this point where Toronto is now governed by a Council with no consistent guiding ideology, principles, or direction.

Jul 11

The Jarvis vote: What the hell happened?

After a long and contentious debate that spanned across two days, Council voted today to remove the bike lanes on Jarvis Street and return the  street to its original five-lane configuration. The move will cost the city at least $200,000. The debate was marked by a series of (mostly) cogent arguments by councillors opposing the elimination of infrastructure that has, by all accounts, had no significant impact on traffic flow and increased the number of cyclists in the city. Those who supported the elimination responded by generally just wandering around the council chamber and not listening.  The hundreds of taxpayers who came to City Hall to support maintaining the lanes were dismissed by some councillors — notably Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday — as “bike people.”

The media narrative spinning out of today’s vote will be that the cyclists won a “concession” after Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee and architect of the 2011 Bike Plan, supported an amendment that will see the Jarvis lanes removed sometime in 2012, simultaneously with the installation of new, repaved, separated bike lanes on Sherbourne Street. This is a too-simplistic interpretation that ignores the damage Council has now done to ongoing neighbourhood revitalization efforts across the downtown east-side.

What Council really did today was move to reclassify Jarvis Street — a place where people live and work and go to school — as a kind of downtown highway with a reversible fifth lane. In doing so they’ve thrown out a 2009 Environmental Assessment, a series of exhaustive community consultations and the objections of the local ward councillor, who was in the midst of ongoing neighbourhood beautification efforts in concert with local residents and business.

The vote on Jarvis came down with 18 in favour of keeping the lanes and 27 opposed. Or maybe it was 26-19. Or 28-9. No one is really sure.

Political Gamesmanship

Late on Tuesday afternoon, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam — the local councillor for Jarvis Street — moved three individual-but-connected motions. Together they worked to protect her efforts to continue to improve Jarvis Street, a recognized “cultural corridor” in the City of Toronto. You can read the motions in full in the Decision Document, but here’s a quick summary:

  1. Council not eliminate the Jarvis bike lanes
  2. Council not eliminate the Jarvis bike lanes before the proposed separated bike lanes on Sherbourne are implemented
  3. Council not eliminate the Jarvis bike lanes before extensive community consultation

Her third item, calling for the involvement of a variety of community groups in an extensive consultation, showed signs of support from a few right-leaning councillors. And why wouldn’t it? Most would acknowledge that it seems cold-hearted to make significant changes to a street over the objections of a local councillor without so much as a public meeting.

Minnan-Wong, as the last speaker on the item, had an ace up his sleeve, however, as he moved an amendment to Wong-Tam’s second motion, explicitly calling for a return of Jarvis to its “pre-existing operation.” This stood as the first significant reference to Jarvis’ former five-lane configuration, and came after several of Minnan-Wong’s right-leaning colleagues had made arguments seemingly in support of a 2009 Environmental Assessment that called for wider sidewalks — instead of bike lanes — and the elimination of the fifth lane. His amendment also employed softer language, calling for more limited coordination between the removal of the Jarvis lanes and the installation of the Sherbourne lanes, as opposed to the original implication that one not happen without the other.

Wong-Tam challenged the amendment, which was ruled to be in order by Chair Frances Nunziata. A vote on whether to uphold Nunziata’s decision saw councillors support their Chair 27-18.

From here, things quickly broke down into procedural chaos. After the vote to retain the Jarvis lanes failed 18-27, the vote on Minnan-Wong’s amendment passed 26-19. Wong-Tam’s amended motion then passed 31-14 in the confusion, which had the probably unintentional effect of making her third motion — the one that would have allowed for public consultation — redundant. Minnan-Wong’s efforts thus had the dual impact of explicitly calling for the return of the fifth lane on Jarvis Street and ensuring that no consultations would ever be held on this issue.

The rest was noise. Some councillors lobbied Nunziata with the sensible suggestion that council vote on the individual items contained in the 2011 Bike Plan one at a time, as this would allow them to express support for elements of the plan while opposing others. Nunziata, as is her way, was obstinate and opted to instead hold only one vote. That prompted nearly all left-leaning councillors to leave the chamber before the results of the vote were read, with eight of them opting not to register a vote at all.

Not About Bikes

The most disappointing thing about today’s outcome is that it cements Jarvis as little more than a strategic battleground in a spite-driven war between cars and bikes. Bike lanes on Jarvis were never the entire issue. A reasonable compromise would have been to see a return to the original staff recommendations made as part of the 2009 EA: removal of the bike lanes in favour of wider pedestrian thoroughfares, and perhaps the installation of a few key left-turn lanes for automobile traffic. Instead, some councillors were disingenuous enough to pretend that this was their favoured option while ultimately placing their support behind a reversible fifth lane.

Today’s decision does little except increase the speed of automobile traffic, foster a substandard pedestrian realm and prop up Jarvis Street’s mid-century-to-now legacy as the tragic story of a once-great street in perpetual decline.


Jul 11

On bike lanes, put up or shut up

At the Toronto Standard, Matthew Kupfer — who is doing some very good work on the City Hall beat — takes a look at the brief alliance between activist Dave Meslin and Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, which ended so spectacularly when Minnan-Wong endorsed a decision to remove the Jarvis bike lanes as part of his new bike plan.

Well worth reading. I wanted to note this part specifically, as it’s a line Minnan-Wong has been pushing to reporters repeatedly:

Minnan-Wong stands by the bike plan that is going to be voted on this week. He said it represents an investment in cycling infrastructure of nearly $43 million in five years—nearly double what Mayor Miller invested in his final term. As for the so-called war on the bike, he said those charges are trumped up.

via Tandem Troubles | Toronto Standard | News, Media, Art, Business, Technology, Fashion, Events.

I don’t think any cyclist in this city thinks the previous council did a great job installing bike lanes, but it should be noted the the previously adopted city-wide bike plan, written way back in 2001, actually called for $68.3 million in spending. Minnan-Wong should remember that. He voted for it.

I say this not because I’m happy about how the previous bike plan was — or, more accurately, wasn’t — implemented, but instead to point out that there’s a gigantic difference between money that’s been committed as part of a plan and money that’s actually been spent. In other words: put up or shut up.

Jul 11

First Core Service Review report: cut snow-clearing, street-sweeping, fluoridation and recycling programs

Cast your mind back to when Rob Ford, then a candidate for mayor, ran on a platform of austerity and service cuts, highlighting a need for Toronto residents to sacrifice things like regular street cleaning, water fluoridation and snow-removal in order to maintain Toronto’s lowest-in-the-GTA property tax rates? Remember that?

You might not, because it never happened. Instead, Ford ran on a platform that called for an end to “gravy train” waste. He told voters he would be able to save them $230 million on the 2011 operating budget, and ultimately produce a $1.7 billion surplus over his first four years in office, all without cutting services. The city doesn’t have a revenue problem, he was fond of saying, but a spending problem. And he could fix that.

Today, the campaign-era theatrics and slogans all came crashing down, as the Rob Ford administration revealed the first phase of their Core Services Review report. The initial release relates to programs that fall under the purview of the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee. It concludes that a  full 96% of the services provided by these city departments are absolutely essential. Nearly all the potential avenues for savings are listed as “small.” They include things like cutting down on the frequency of street sweeping, changing our standards for snow-removal, setting less ambitious targets for recycling and green bin programs and discontinuing the practice of fluoridation for the city’s water supply.

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, Chair of the Public Works & Infrastructure committee, seemed to agree with media reports that claimed very few — basically none — of the report’s areas for consideration are actually plausible cuts, telling the Toronto Star’s David Rider and Paul Moloney that PWIC was not “a sweet spot” for easy savings. Which is decent enough logic, but if that was so obviously the case, why lead the multi-stage announcement of the Core Service Review reports with this document? Why not come out swinging with a report that highlights real areas for savings?

It might be because there is no such a report. This PWIC document identifies only $10 to $15 million worth of savings, which means the remaining seven reports — relating to committees like Economic Development, Parks & Environment, and Executive — need to contain considerations that average out to approximately $100 million in savings each to even begin to approach this year’s budget shortfall of $775 million.

As Torontoist’s Hamutal Dotan points out, the most glaring failure of this report is that it doesn’t even address the fiscal efficiency of how services are delivered, but instead jumps right to listing things that could be cut:

Which is to say, the administration directed its consultants to look for which programs it was allowed to cut, and by how much, without ever asking it to look at how it could maintain service levels by delivering them more efficiently. The underlying message of today’s report: if we want to cut the size of the budget, it will be, in the first place and not as a last resort, by cutting the scope of government.

via Waste Diversion, Fluoridation, and Cycling Infrastructure in First Round of Potential City Hall Cuts | Torontoist.

In other words: they’re skipping the gravy, and going right to the meat.

Jun 11

What we talk about when we talk about Jarvis

At yesterday’s meeting of the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee, while discussing Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong’s new bike plan, Councillor John Parker moved an amendment to kill the bike lanes on Jarvis Street.

Here’s the text of Parker’s amendment:

City Council rescind its decision related to the bicycle lanes on Jarvis Street.

via Agenda Item History – 2011.PW5.1.

Council will debate the item at the July council meeting. If approved by a majority of council, the lanes will be removed.

No Justifiable Reason

I’m going to have lots to say about this over the coming weeks, but let’s get some stuff out of the way. First, the big one: as far as city planning, traffic engineering and economics go, there is seemingly no justifiable reason for removing the bike lanes on Jarvis.

The city’s own numbers tell the story. Since the lanes were installed, traffic levels for cars has remained at the same level as previous. Travel times increased by about two minutes in the morning, and three to five minutes in the afternoon. If that latter figure seems a tad high, staff agree, and are taking steps to correct it:

Much of the increased travel time could be attributed to the delays and queues experienced at the Jarvis Street/Gerrard Street East intersection, particularly in the northbound direction during the p.m. peak period.

The introduction of an advanced left turn phase in the northbound direction at this intersection, scheduled this summer, will reduce the delays at this intersection and the overall travel times between Queen Street East and Charles Street East.

via Bikeway network — 2011 Update. (pg 17)

Most notable, however, is that the total number of vehicles (cars + bikes) using the road in both directions during daily peak eight hour periods increased from approximately 13,290 to 14,180 after the installation of the lanes. 100% of this increase comes from bikes.

In other words: a $63,000 one-time investment in infrastructure increased the daily utility of a Toronto roadway by about 7%. That’s an incredible value-to-dollar ratio.

This isn’t some hippie pinko gut-based opinion. This is black-and-white fact. The Jarvis Street bike lanes aren’t preventing people from moving through the city. They’re enabling people to move through the city.

Let’s ignore cyclists in this debate

But, on this issue, we might be best to ignore cyclists. I have a very real concern that if we let this debate spiral into the same tired car-versus-bike war we’ve seen a dozen times before, bikes will lose. And lose bad.

Rob Ford car-friendliness isn’t just a part of his character. It turns out it’s also what drives some of his most bedrock support. In a post at OpenFile yesterday, John Michael McGrath took a look at an academic paper by doctoral candidate Zack Taylor at UofT, which laid out the strong correlation between people who commute by automobile to work and those that supported the mayor:

The other strong predictor in Taylor’s paper was car ownership and use. No surprise, the man who ran against “the war on the car” picked up the support of Toronto’s most car-dependent areas. “Toronto isn’t the only place you’re seeing this happen. Once you own a car, once you experience the street as a car—a car driver—you experience anything that impedes you as an annoyance,” says Taylor.

via Why suburban motorists voted for Ford, and why this is news | OpenFile.

If the Jarvis lanes are simply held up as a key battleground in the ever-ongoing war between cars and bikes in the city, Rob Ford likely still has enough clout on council and enough popular support to kill the lanes. It’s as simple as that.

You bike guys had your way with the previous council, they’ll say, but things are different now. We have to give the people what they want.

What Jarvis Street means

Jarvis Street was, for much of Toronto’s history, a place for Toronto’s well-off. One of the richest thoroughfares in the city, it was lined with trees and huge mansion homes setback from the roadway. To illustrate, BlogTO’s Derek Flack compiled a beautiful-then-sad series of images that sets the scene.

Spacing’s Shawn Micallef described the old Jarvis in an Eye Weekly column as “once the most beautiful street in Toronto” that “has been reverse-gentrified and turned into a fat arterial traffic pipe between North Toronto and downtown.”

The widening of Jarvis street and the installation of a reversible centre lane — one that flowed south in the morning and north in the evening — immediately changed the character of the roadway.

During the first debate over what to do with Jarvis, a local resident told the National Post’s Allison Haines that “many consider Jarvis Street to be a freeway and it’s not – it’s a downtown city street.”

Yes, Jarvis is a downtown city street. It’s a street with numerous homes — and more coming, with a recent condo proposal for the once-thought-uninhabitale Dundas intersection — businesses and institutions. The National Ballet School calls the northern part of Jarvis Street home, as does a public high school and a large downtown Toronto park and conservatory.

The Jarvis bike lanes were not part of the original plan to revitalize Jarvis Street. The thought was to instead improve the pedestrian realm with wide sidewalks and landscaping. The idea was that the street would look like this:


via Jarvis Street Streetscape Improvements Class Environmental Assessment Study (2009) pg 13

That may have been a better option in the long-term than what we got — further improvements to the streetscape on Jarvis seem to have stalled out after the bike lanes were installed — but the two approaches carry one thing in common: both called for the removal of the reversible fifth lane.

Removing that lane under any context was a huge win for Jarvis Street.

It’s unclear at this point whether Parker’s motion means that the fifth lane will be reinstalled if council approves his amendment, but it is important that councillors understand that Jarvis Street about far more than just travel times. It is a downtown city street with all that entails: a place for people to live, learn and work.

Any further discussion about what to do with Jarvis must take that into account. It is not and should never be again thought of as a mere urban arterial, where speed is king, and nothing else matters. Not only does that sort of argument shortchange the growing number of people who call the area home, it also ignores the huge economic impact a revitalized Jarvis could have.