The transit city that could’ve been

Photo by Lisa Kannakko

Photo by Lisa Kannakko

By Lucas Costello

David Miller isn’t happy. His subway was delayed, the reasons for the delay, relayed over the subway intercom, unintelligible. And yet, as Toronto lurches toward 2020, it is likely that he will remain the amalgamated City of Toronto’s “Transit Mayor” for the foreseeable future — as the severed limbs of what was once Transit City are dug up and reanimated, discarded for new parts, then dug up and reanimated once again.

Ethnic Aisle sat down with him to discuss how an evidence based, interconnected transit plan, became a transit Frankenstein a decade later.

[Ethnic Aisle] What is your recollection of the reception of Transit City when it was announced, specifically from those communities that have now been left out of this whole process, such as Jane/Finch, Malvern, and Scarborough, which are now years behind?

[Miller] Well, we are years behind. Transit City was announced in March 2007 and the Premier announced full funding for the entire Transit City — not just the first three lines, which were Eglinton, Sheppard and Finch — on June 15, 2007. So as of June 15, 2007 the project went full steam ahead. About a year later he announced funding or we reached an agreement, I can’t remember the exact mechanism, but there was an announcement that Finch, Sheppard, and Eglinton would be the first three lines, and by 2009 the engineering was done sufficiently to allow Sheppard to start.

Finch was about to start and Eglinton was well on the way. All three lines got slowed down a bit because Metrolinx was structurally incompetent, they didn’t have the staff to be able to understand [Transit City]. That’s the background for the answer to your question.

We were full steam ahead for 2007 with the funding in place, and doing the engineering so that Finch, Sheppard, Eglinton construction could start in 2009 or 2010. In that context we held over 80 public meetings about the Finch and the Sheppard lines. There was overwhelming public support and excitement. In lower income, marginalized, and racialized communities I’d say that was also accompanied with a bit of skepticism “Are you really gonna do it?”

Because people have heard so many commitments in the past that haven’t come through. There were a few details that there were concerns about and work was done to address those community concerns. Those consultations included me as well, not in the public meetings, but I did a tour of some of the wards, particularly the Sheppard route, by taking buses from Malvern and talking to people on the bus.

So there was very, very strong public support for rapid transit to communities where people took the bus. For example, I rode the Finch bus one morning and main streeted a couple of stops and talked to people. So there’s very strong support in those communities and people I think understand, when they’re stuck on the bus, that rail based rapid transit through a modern network of light rail would make their lives significantly easier.  

Why do you think the resistance from Councillor Mammoliti’s ward, from the Emery Village BIA, and also the 2010 “transportation plan” from former mayor Rob Ford that stated he would get ten+ subway stations built for $4 billion by 2015, was able to undo the work that you had done so rapidly?

Well, I see history slightly differently. First of all, I had several meetings in Councillor Mammoliti’s ward with the business community about Transit City, they were one of the biggest backers of the Finch LRT. If you go back and look you’ll see.

It is true that my successor stopped the Sheppard LRT. It’s also true that Council brought back the essence of Transit City because it’s the right thing to do.

What you’re seeing is politicians speaking to different constituencies. People who ride the bus everyday, who disproportionately are lower income, racialized, and come from marginalized communities, by and large are delighted with the idea that they could move from a bus to rail based electric transit, whether it’s above ground or below ground.

Others, including my successor, are speaking to car drivers. They’re not speaking to transit users whatsoever.

Part of the push for subways is, “Bury it, it’s less inconvenient for car drivers.”

If you look at most of Transit City, you discover that road capacity doesn’t change.

There’s no negative impact on cars whatsoever and because far more people will take transit there’s a positive impact on road capacity — although that’s an argument that you have to take time to make, it’s not intuitive to people.

Another part of the problem was Premier Dalton McGuinty. In the narrative of history, he doesn’t get enough blame. Because Finch, Sheppard, and Eglinton were ready to go — we broke ground on Sheppard in 2009, Finch was ready to go in 2010. We could have broken ground and started construction, and Premier McGuinty halted that line. I’ve never understood that decision, I still don’t to this day. But if he had not halted that line, you had Sheppard and Finch under way, and Eglinton about to be under way — and therefore the beginnings of a network of light rail rapid transit in Toronto.

It would have been politically impossible for my successor, or anybody else, to halt the progress and stop it, because the Sheppard cancellation alone cost $100M. A mayor doesn’t have authorization to spend $100M, you need council approval. It was improper and unlawful at the time and remains so.

Cancelling Finch then, would have likely cost a similar amount of money, and I don’t believe it would have been politically feasible. So, we have to put the blame where it starts, which is with Premier McGuinty’s decision, in the 2010 budget, to defund Finch. That specifically undermined the transit potential for several of the lowest income communities in this city. Because the Finch line ran through Rexdale, Jane and Finch, and was going to connect Humber College into the fabric of the city. It’s a real tragedy.

That’s on Premier McGuinty’s shoulders, not on my successor’s or city council.

Seeing what has rolled out under the current administration, do you think that Scarborough subway plan will actually happen?  

No. If by that you mean, “Will it get built?” — no. I’ve lived the political history of transit in this city for over 25 years. I’ve watched, I’ve fought for it, I’ve learned, I’ve listened. I’ve seen all of the best planning, I’ve had access to all of the best information about how to build transit in this city.

It is impossible to believe, if you have that background, that what will be a $4 billion subway stop will ever get built. What we will see is more studies, and money spent on it, but you won’t see it be built. Because some government’s going to come to its senses and cancel the project because it makes no economic or transportation sense whatsoever, because it uses up so much of the money.

It prevents the building of the rapid transit that is needed, which is the rapid transit that serves low income communities across this city.

What you’re saying, with the Scarborough one stop extension, to low income neighbourhoods is, “Stay in the bus”. In fact, what you’re really saying to people is, “get to the back of the bus.” Because you’re saying, “we don’t care. We have this money to spend on transit, that we know could make a significant difference to your lives — which is part of the provincial and city strategy to support people in low income neighbourhoods — but we don’t care because we’re going to use the money to build one subway stop.”

It’s that blunt, that direct, and that clear.

So what are the future impacts now that we are still at zero, with no new transit in that area?

Well, Toronto has to build rapid transit. It needs to build rapid transit that helps the city direct the growth that’s come into the city appropriately. It needs to build rapid transit that serves people from all walks of life. It needs that from a transportation perspective, from an environmental perspective. Which is why it should be rail and electric based, no emissions or close to zero emissions. That rapid transit network will not only address transportation issues, it will address economic issues, so it’s good socially, economically, environmentally, and for transportation. We need that, the city’s not going to thrive without it.

The sad thing about what’s happened since Premier McGuinty made that decision, is that... essentially nothing has happened except going backwards and literally throwing away hundreds of millions of dollars — either on cancelled projects or wasted studies. Everybody involved in that should be ashamed. We’ve had the same provincial government that whole time. They know what’s needed, and I think it is incredibly sad that the crassest political consideration, winning a by-election, has caused the potential for the entire transportation network in Toronto to serve people who ride transit the most and need it the most to be pushed aside.

I’ve encountered a lot of people who were conflating the Scarborough RT with LRT, which it seemed your successor was able to capitalize on. How do you see these conflations of “fancy streetcars” and so forth being undone?

It is true that in Scarborough, there’s a historic concern that they were treated as an experiment by the Bill Davis government. It’s also true that the RT has issues in our climate — it works very well in Vancouver, but it can’t handle snow. So people have legitimate concerns, and they have a historic sense of injustice, absolutely no question about that. It is also true that the light rail plans provide far more people in Scarborough with far better transit.

What the one stop subway extension does is make it easier to leave Scarborough and go downtown. What the Sheppard, Scarborough-Malvern, Eglinton, and RT replacement LRT lines do is create a network that, in addition to making it easier for people to go downtown, makes it far easier to get around Scarborough. In fact, the majority of the money of Transit City in some ways would ultimately be spent in Scarborough if the network was built as originally planned.

The polls always showed that in Scarborough people wanted a subway, there’s no question about that, but also the exact same polls said that people wanted LRTs. A little bit less, 82% for subways, 72% for LRTs. There is an amazing case to make for the people of Scarborough and I made it — “You have said that you want rapid transit to get around Scarborough, not to just go to downtown Toronto, this LRT network provides you that. It’s modern, efficient, it’s like Europe. You can be proud.”

You can sell that case in Scarborough, absolutely, because it provides far more people far better access to transit. Some have chosen not to do that. There’s no doubt in my mind based on the polls, on my own personal experience and winning all of Scarborough in 2006 on this exact platform, that you can make this case and people will get exceptionally excited about it.

Are you tired of talking about this yet? How do you feel seeing all of this coming back, the undoing and redoing? When you sit at home and see this, now that you’re not there what are the thoughts that run through your head?

I left politics because I felt that I had achieved everything I possibly could, and I’d watched other politicians try to hang on to power for too long because they liked power, and I didn’t want to be that kind of politician.

I’m values based, and a big part of what drove me to run for office was building the 21st Century transit that Toronto needs and that the residents deserve. Particularly residents in the lowest income neighbourhoods in this city, who use transit proportionately the most, and deserve it the most: clean, rail-based rapid transit.

In that context, I alternate between outrage and bemusement. Because everything that comes out of City Hall and Queen’s Park, you think “I’ve just seen the most ludicrous thing possible,” and then the next day it’s even worse.

So I get angry, I get outraged, I get frustrated, I bang my head against the wall — occasionally, literally and then sometimes I laugh.

But at the heart of this, I actually do have confidence in Torontonians. Eventually, we are going to force the people we elect to do the right thing, I always put my faith in Torontonians, they never let me down.

I think people are going to speak up as this shamble continues to unfold and say, “wait a minute, we want to use money prudently and efficiently. We want a rapid transit network. We want to serve people who need it the most. We want it to be rail- and electric-based.” In a lot of places in this city that means light rail, in a few it means subways, if you’ve got massive populations there.

Eventually and hopefully, in the not too distant future people are going to say, “We’ve had enough of this. Build that network.”

Does this mean we’ll see a re-match betwee--





Note: An earlier version of this interview incorrectly stated the date of Transit City's funding announcement. Ethnic Aisle regrets the error.