While some people have never forgiven Mike Harris’s government for it, the amalgamation of Toronto, which turned six federated cities into one megacity, has never been reversed — and, barring some unforeseen suspension of the current rules of politics, it never will be. Why? Because the current single-city structure makes more sense than Metro Toronto ever did. And it certainly makes more sense if you’re the premier of Ontario.
Keep that in mind as we delve into the debate over the future of Toronto’s subway. The Tories were elected partly on a promise to wrest control of the system away from the city. That promise preceded Doug Ford’s tenure — former Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown had it in his platform — but subways have also been a core part of Ford’s political career since he was elected city councillor in 2010.
Chaos, too, has undeniably been a part of Ford’s political career — and revelations this week from Toronto city council are a reminder of that. The premier’s office is demanding major changes to the Scarborough subway (which is partly funded) and the Eglinton West LRT (approved, not funded); it also wants to effectively re-start the planning process for the Relief Line, the line that planners, engineers, and transit activists have all agreed needs to be built not just for commuters’ convenience, but for their safety, too.
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Ford is also demanding that the relief line be built with new technology. Nobody outside the premier’s office seems to know what this means (and it’s possible that few people inside the premier’s office do, either), but, given Ford’s history, it seems likely that, at minimum, the province wants the kind of automated, driverless trains that are already common in other cities. Whether the province wants to go even further — say, by pushing something entirely new and untested (and therefore potentially risky and expensive) — is unclear.
It’s not written in stone that every subway line in Toronto needs to run the same trains, but there’s at least one good reason to share rolling stock: it gives the TTC the ability to move trains from one line to another if needed. In the summer of 2016, when air conditioners were failing on Line 2’s older trains, the TTC shifted newer Toronto Rocket trains from Line 1 to help out. That kind of adaptation becomes impossible when trains are fundamentally incompatible.
And while the government refers to Toronto’s existing trains as too “technologically outdated” for the Relief Line, they’re apparently just what the doctor ordered for Scarborough: the Ford government’s special adviser warned the city about rising costs for the Scarborough subway extension — but the province wants to add more stations, making the project massively more expensive. The government also wants the Eglinton West LRT to be buried, at enormous cost, for more of its length (for reasons yet to be determined). There’s nothing coherent about the province’s demands, and there’s certainly nothing in them that could reasonably be called a “vision” — much less a plan.
It’s worth pointing out here that there’s little chance the Tories get far before the next election with whatever they have planned. This is an inevitable consequence of their choices: they could continue with existing plans and maybe get them to the point where it would be too painful to reverse them and call that a win. Instead, they’re nearly guaranteeing that there won’t be shovels in the ground by the time voters go back to the ballot box in 2022. And if the Tories are replaced, their successors would potentially be able to reverse a lot of their decisions.
For the Tories, that’s a mixed blessing: Toronto voters have rarely punished anybody for selling them snake oil before, and there’s no reason to believe that this assault on transit planning will spur them to such action. The PCs may, in fact, relish the idea of running against the opposition parties on a transit plan.
Still, less than year into his tenure, Ford is already one of the least popular premiers in the country, according to one poll. And, according to another, the political pain for the Tories is concentrated specifically in Toronto. The 11 seats they currently hold in the city — including the premier’s — could be the difference between the PCs holding a majority in the legislature and being at the mercy of the opposition.
But this is where the history of Toronto’s amalgamation is worth revisiting. Even if the upshot of the next election is a new government that reverses Ford’s ill-thought-out transit plans, there’s no guarantee that Toronto would get its subway back. Having greater control of the city’s transit system is politically useful to whoever’s in the premier’s office. It’s going to take a lot for provincial politicians to give something back to Toronto once they have it.