In the highly unlikely event that the Ontario Line ever gets built, we can safely assume it would look nothing like the napkin drawing Premier Doug Ford dragged out when he unveiled the scheme last spring.
Turning a sketch into a fully realized subway isn’t quite as easy as the Man With The Plan would have us believe. Before that happens, the line must be laid out. And so far, virtually no design work has been done.
In other words, it’s much too early for people who extol the virtues of the Ontario Line to know what they’re talking about.
It was all the more perplexing, then, that Toronto City Council embraced the proposal so enthusiastically last week.
Led by Mayor John Tory, who described the Ontario Line as “the best opportunity we’ve ever had,” council ignored warnings that there are too many known unknowns, let alone unknown unknowns, to make such a commitment.
They voted 22 to 3 in favour of the 15-kilometre line.
But as Toronto city manager Chris Murray made clear in his report: ‘Given the current stage of the project and the early state of design and development, the City and TTC are unable to assess the validity of the started timetable or the estimated cost at this time.’
Clearly, councillors accepted the deal in part because it also came with a promise from Ford that he wouldn’t follow through on his threat to upload the TTC.
What one has to do with the other is a mystery, but such are the machinations of a vestigial council reduced by the province, i.e. Doug Ford, to little more than a civic spectator.
Perhaps that same lack of power helps to explain council’s historic failure to deal with the transit file. With each new mayor, councillors adopt a plan – only to drop it with the next.
From David Miller’s Transit City to John Tory’s Smart Track and Rob Ford’s “subways, subways, subways,” the city has been spinning its wheels on transit for years. Little wonder Toronto has fallen decades behind where it should be, and where it needs to be.
With Premier Ford, we have reached the point where a major transit project can be conceived without input from the city.
Still, the idea behind the plan has plenty to recommend.
For much of its length, the Ontario Line follows the Downtown Relief Line, the much-discussed subway route first proposed in 1910. In its new iteration, the line would run from the Ontario Science Centre at Eglinton and Don Mills to the downtown core and further west to Ontario Place. It would also bring under-used sites such as the former Unilever site into the urban fold.
But already critics are sharpening their knives.
For some, in addition to the lack of detail, the big issue was the absence of consultation. As federal finance minister Bill Morneau said at the time, “Our obvious question is why the Ontario government is out talking about investments in Toronto without the Mayor of Toronto.”
The query was obviously rhetorical; the Canadian constitution leaves cities completely at the mercy of the provinces.
Others worried about the technical aspects of the subway, especially at the bottom end of the city, where below grade is a spaghetti junction of sewers, pipelines, cables and the like. They want to know how the line deals with the Don River – does it go over or under? – and where it emerges in the West Don Lands, the planned neighbourhood still under construction.
Tunneling deep enough to avoid all this and the endless escalators that would necessitate will increase costs exponentially.
And let’s not forget the residents of Leslieville. They have already begun to express their concern about the construction of a subway that would run down Pape Ave. disrupting their neighbourhood for years to come. Given Toronto’s history of local empowerment, their opposition will present a serious obstacle.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of money.
Ford has pledged $10.9 billion to build the Ontario Line, which only his most wildly optimistic supporters believe will cover the actual cost. The final price could easily double estimates.
More than anything, however, Ford’s proposal continues the Toronto/Ontario tradition of transit-planning-by-politics, the very reason this city and province find themselves in their current mess.
Though jurisdictions around the globe are taking steps to transition to a post-car future, we remain ensconced in a technology and culture that are fast coming to an end. Ford, a denier in deed, if not word, isn’t the Premier to lead us out of a past in which he is firmly mired.
The on-going fiasco that is transit planning in these parts will be a major reason why Toronto will have an increasingly hard time keeping up. Already, Montreal is poised to become Canada’s premier city.
Ford’s habit of running off half-cocked says more about his desire to win votes than to build a top-notch transit network. If he were serious about the Ontario Line, he would think before he speaks.
So, too, would Toronto City Council.