Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Captive, Bound and Double-Tunnelled

The day after tomorrow is the Ides of March, the day to beware; the day after tomorrow was to be, before some behind-the-scenes wrangling delayed it, the day of transit reckoning between Toronto mayor Rob Ford and the other Toronto mayor Doug Ford on one side and City Council on the other. That's been delayed until next week, and while I'm confident that Council will follow up on its previous rebuke and vote in favor of the light rail plan and not in favor of extending the subway to nowhere, I have to wonder... does it really matter? At this point, will it really make a difference?

After more than a year in the mayor's office, Rob Ford admittedly has done one thing well: he has thoroughly politicized the concept of light rail transit. Five years ago it was innocuous and unknown, and the average Torontonian on the street likely would not have been able to explain it if asked. Now, of course, it's a tool of the downtown elites, a program of "glorified streetcars" that devastates neighborhoods and makes people wait in the cold winter and takes away lanes from cars and hurts Scarborough's feelings. It doesn't matter that the average Torontonian on the street still likely couldn't accurately explain LRT if asked; the clamps have been hooked on and the current is flowing, and anyone who grabs that baton now is going to find out whether the juice runs out of the battery before they get electrocuted.

In theory, there's no reason why Toronto can't still embark on an LRT-building program, regardless of what the mayors think. They're just one vote apiece, after all, and in the end the power resides in Council. In reality, though, not every choice can be made - sure, you might be able to see the other option, but if you took the right fork a while back on a road that doesn't let you go backward, you just can't reach it. That's my concern, coming on the heels of the notoriously rowdy and disappointing event at the Scarborough Civic Centre last week, where LRTs were practically found guilty and hanged in absentia. That at this point, tempers are too high and ideology is too thick for light rail to move.

You might want to go straight, but the tracks say otherwise.

It wasn't a short road that led Toronto to where it is today. The roots of the city's present choice go back a long, long way, back to 1994, when Mel Lastman latched onto the idea of a subway as being key in the transformation of North York into a major city in its own right. As early as the 1960s, municipal politicans were speculating about the possibility of an east-west subway through North York, and the idea of the Sheppard Line as connecting downtown North York to the "emergent downtown" at Scarborough Town Centre is as old as I am - of course, those plans did not take into account the massive growth that would be experienced in York Region, and thus that the densities subways required wouldn't have materialized even thirty years later. The Sheppard Line was the only aspect of 1984's Network 2011 proposal ever to be realized.

Particularly after what's been going on, I can only conclude that the Sheppard Line as a whole was a mistake, and that for the last eighteen years the people in charge made choices that only dug ourselves deeper. If it had been built all the way to Scarborough Town Centre, that would be one thing - perhaps Ford would then be leading the charge for an Eglinton West subway. If it hadn't been built at all, though, it would be vastly more difficult to get things off the ground; people like finishing things, after all, and from the bare concrete walls of the platform levels to the fact that it's little more than a shuttle service between two shopping malls, the Sheppard Line is manifestly unfinished.

The choices that brought Toronto to where it is today may have seemed wise at the time; today they bind the city, restrict its paths, push it forward resolutely.

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