Have citizens decide transit plans

johnThree strikes and you’re out is a pretty good principle to apply to human activity. After a third big mistake, maybe it’s time to look for a new way of making decisions.

City council’s approval to extend the Danforth subway line three stops further into Scarborough is the third big transit mistake. It was a decision made for political reasons, not because there is a good transit reason. Not enough people live close to the line to use the high-carrying capacity of a subway. A streetcar on a main street or a light rapid transit vehicle on its own right of way would serve transit riders just as well, and maybe even better if the convenience of more transit stops that a subway provides is an issue. And the streetcar and LRT options are far less expensive than the $1.8 billion needed for the subway’s three stops.

But council didn’t care about providing good transit. The majority who voted in favour were trolling for popular support and votes. From the point of view of transit, city council struck out.

The second strike happened 15 years ago when the newly amalgamated city council decided—against the advice of the then TTC general manager David Gunn—to proceed with the Sheppard subway at a cost of $1 billion. It was a dumb idea from the start, and has never managed to carry more than 50,000 riders a day, about half the number of the Queen streetcar. It was another example of precious transit dollars being spent on political priorities rather than serving the transit-riding public.

The first strike was just over 40 years ago. The then-Metro council was in a state of trauma because Premier Bill Davis had just killed the Spadina expressway with the famous words, “If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, then the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start; but if we are building a transportation system to serve people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop.”

The province offered some funding for a new subway serving north west Toronto but Metro wanted to keep open the dream of the expressway. To do that, the die-hards insisted that the subway go where the expressway was planned, through a ravine system and then past Casa Loma.  Those who cared about the subway as a transit facility argued that it should run up Bathurst Street, since that was where the people lived. The Bathurst Street route lost by one vote at Metro council, another dumb decision that used scarce transit dollars to satisfy political priorities.

Those are the three strikes. Council should get out of the business of making stupid transit decisions which don’t benefit transit.

It’s time to return to the decision-making structure which gave us the Yonge Street subway and the Bloor-Danforth line, namely a Toronto Transit Commission consisting of civilians, not of elected members of city council. Fifty years ago city council looked for citizens interested in transit and appointed them to the commission. It served the city well: witness the two subway lines that were built. But then the politicians took over, and the result has been three bad decisions, and little new rapid transit.

Some say that it’s a step back from democracy to have citizen appointees, but we are not a society where we require all important decisions to be made by those who are elected to office. Appointed judges in Canada have shown themselves very adept at making terrific public decisions (think of support for same-sex marriage which came about because of judicial decisions.)

Sure, funding is a political decision at the end, but an independent TTC would be a good foil for an elected council, forcing council to justify itself without fear of being fired. (When the TTC’s last general manager Gary Webster challenged the mayor on transit two years ago, he was shown the door.)

Our only hope at this stage is that the federal government will refuse to put $300 to $400 million into this bad decision and city council will recognize it shouldn’t be sinking money into something dumb. Then it could appoint  some transit-loving citizens to take over the TTC Board.

John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto