Why John Tory's sticking by the shaky Scarborough subway plan

By Steve Paikin - Published on June 28, 2016
Like it or not, Toronto Mayor John Tory's subway decision is a case study in how politics works. (Chris Young/CP)

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I don't pretend to know what's in the mayor of Toronto's heart ‎as he faces down one of the most intractable issues of his mayoralty.  

But that's not going to stop me from offering what I hope is some informed speculation on the issue, based on watching him do politics for more than three decades.

As a former chief executive officer of  Rogers Cable, one of Canada’s biggest companies, John Tory came into the mayor’s office determined to make decisions guided ‎by facts and good information, rather than silly slogans or ideology.  

His own political disposition, forged ‎during the 1970s and 1980s while working for Ontario premier Bill Davis, has always been to try to do what he genuinely feels is the right thing to do, and keep the political BS to a minimum.  

But I suspect the Scarborough subway issue has put Mayor Tory’s core values to their ultimate test.  

Toronto's 65th mayor penned an op-ed piece that ran in the Toronto Star Tuesday morning. In it, he acknowledges the Scarborough subway “process has been flawed and it’s a decision I have struggled with, but the current plan to extend the subway east is in the city’s best interest.”

The mayor makes a number of solid points:

  • He can’t be held responsible for the previous councils’ decisions to flip, then flop, between support for a multi-stop light rail line and/or a subway line.
  • If a lower-cost LRT were built instead of the subway extension, it is possible that it and his own SmartTrack plan, built in the same corridor, would cannibalize riders from each other.
  • It’s no slam dunk that hundreds of millions of dollars offered by the federal and provincial governments will be guaranteed to be there in future if Toronto city council changes its mind on the Subway vs. LRT debate yet again.

However, Mayor Tory in his heart of hearts must also wish the hard data surrounding the proposed one-stop subway now on the books were a lot firmer. I’m sure  ̶  without even asking him   ̶   that he wishes the ridership projections for the subway were higher; that the population per square kilometre around the subway stop were denser; and above all else, that the cost of this project (which just jumped a billion dollars earlier this month) weren’t so egregiously high. More favourable facts on the ground, which would have made this project so much more justifiable, would be such a lifeline for this mayor. Alas, those more favourable facts just aren’t there.

However, other political realities are:

  • For better or for worse, the prevailing political winds at all three levels of government have agreed that Scarborough must have a subway   ̶   that an LRT is somehow seen as second-class, and Scarborough, after being the butt of jokes for too long and being under-resourced with public services, can’t be seen to be receiving second-class treatment any longer.
  • Anybody hoping to be re-elected as mayor of Toronto in two years will need to cover his suburban flank against Doug Ford, who although currently out of politics is already increasingly appearing in the media and giving every indication he’s going to challenge Tory to a mayoral rematch in 2018. He was on Newstalk1010 the same morning Tory’s op-ed appeared, blaming the mayor for the return of “the gravy train,” a slogan so compelling, it propelled his late brother Rob to mayoral victory in 2010.
  • At the risk of indulging in too much psychobabble, Tory knows he is a child of privilege, went to the best schools, has had some great jobs, and lived a wonderful life. It is perfectly consistent with his sense of fair play or even noblesse oblige to ensure that Scarborough, with its large numbers of new and lower income Canadians, gets a subway, even if it’s only a one-stop model.

I don’t doubt for a second that Tory has struggled hard with this issue, as he confessed in his Star op-ed. He must know the cost estimate of this project is awfully tough to justify. And given the Toronto Transit Commission’s track record on previous projects, does anyone seriously believe this thing won’t eventually cost billions more? Who knows? It’s going to take years to build. Critics will say think of all the other more useful transit projects we could have funded with that money. And they’d be right.

But here’s the reality: rarely in politics do the decision-makers have issues fall onto their desks where the facts present themselves in neat, tidy packages, leading to an obvious call. Most of the time, the hard decisions are hard because some facts take you in one direction, while others take you exactly the opposite way.

Former premier John Robarts used to say: “By the time an issue gets to my desk, I could flip a coin to decide on it.” There were as many compelling arguments on one side as on the other.

Similarly, former premier Dalton McGuinty once told me: “One day, the facts are 51-49 pointing you to one decision. So you make it. Then a week later, circumstances change and it’s 51-49 the other way.” Talk about frustrating. But that’s the job.

At some point, acknowledging all the imperfections of politics, engineering studies, arm-twisting, and competing arguments, someone just has to decide, even in the face of some fairly embarrassing facts that made defending your decision supremely difficult.

I think Toronto’s mayor has come to that place.

He sees the good reasons for building this subway. And he’s not blind to the ridicule he’ll have to face when future foul-ups present themselves (and they always do).

But for better or for worse (and oftentimes for both), he has decided. And at the end of the day, that is what we elect politicians to do. 

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