Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Stepping Back from the Marks

Now that the Biggest Hangover in British Columbia's History is well into its first week, and will be around in the background until the 2010 Winter Olympics are finally paid off - probably sometime in the 2040s, considering the depth of the economic straits we're currently submerged in - thoughts are naturally turning to the future. Torontoist's Stephen Johns, who was covering the Olympics from Vancouver, thinks that future should include an Olympic Games in Toronto. I can remember a time when I would have wholeheartedly agreed with him. I remember gnashing my teeth in 2001 after the announcement that Beijing had won the 2008 Summer Games over Toronto. I remember standing in Chicago's Daley Plaza last October, wearing one of those bright orange "CHICAGO 2016" shirts they were handing out for free, and seeing the crowd switch from anticipatory to angry in an instant when the Windy City was defeated in the first round of the voting that Rio de Janiero eventually won.

Now, though... I've had ample opportunity to re-evaluate my priorities. Hosting an Olympics in Toronto would, I think, be a mistake - an appeal to a too-temporary euphoria that puts itself above the day-to-day necessities of a vital city, even more so now than before. Max Fawcett at You Shall Know My Veracity fulminated about this yesterday, and I tend to agree with him. Vancouver's truly important projects, such as the SkyTrain's Canada Line linking downtown Vancouver to Richmond and Vancouver International Airport, is a sensible addition to that city's transit network and would have been built regardless of whether the Olympics were landing in town. What we should be thinking about is what Vancouver won't be able to build because the Olympics came to town.

I can think of one possibility - the Evergreen Line, a new SkyTrain extension. While BC Finance Minister Colin Hansen pretty much said that it was "full speed ahead" for the six-station line, intended to start construction next year, there is still $400-million that has yet to be accounted for. I can imagine it'd be slightly easier to find that money if Vancouver wasn't on the hook for a six billion dollar party.

Toronto has its own necessities waiting in the pipeline. The Downtown Relief Line, for one, which will only become more vital with each passing year, particularly once Transit City lines start transporting new passengers into the existing subway system. We have problems with insufficient community housing budgets and daycare program budgets and basic social infrastructure budgets. To prioritize what are literally called "games" over vital patches of our urban fabric is, in my opinion, totally wrong. These are serious times we're living in.

Honestly, times are frequently serious in Toronto, as the extremely limited powers it was granted in the City of Toronto Act tend to leave it in a difficult position. The current brouhaha regarding billboard taxes has arisen in part because billboards are one of the few things that the provincial government will allow Toronto to tax. Other cities have wide revenue streams - Toronto's is based on property taxes to an unhealthy extreme. If you think things are bad now, just wait until Toronto homeowners have to pay even more and more and more to make up for the cost of an Olympic Village or new purpose-built venues that would have to flounder for some post-Olympic role - because, after all, if there was a need for them, they wouldn't need to wait for the Olympics in order to be built.

Vancouver paying for their Olympics until the 2040s may be an exaggeration. It may not be. I would rather not take the chance. Ultimately I'd rather have Toronto's money go to something that gives us concrete benefits, something more valuable than simple egoboo and two weeks of warm fuzzies.

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