Experts give John Tory some Scarborough subway advice

Experts give John Tory some Scarborough subway advice

John Tory is in a bit of a situation. The mayor won another city council vote on the proposed Scarborough subway extension last week, bringing the multi-billion-dollar plan incrementally closer to realization. But the project is ballooning in cost, and transportation experts continue to insist that aboveground light-rail transit would provide better value.

If Tory abandons the subway extension, he reneges on a promise and risks alienating subway-hungry Scarborough voters, endangering his likely 2018 reelection bid. But if he follows through with the project, he becomes a driving force behind the construction of a single, arguably overpriced subway stop—which will, when and if it replaces the Scarborough RT, actually result in fewer rapid transit stops on the city’s east side. How should he navigate this seemingly impossible bind? We rounded up a few political experts and asked them.

Brian Kelcey, urban policy consultant and founder of State of the City Inc.

What would you tell Tory if you were advising him?
The solution to this problem has always been hidden in plain sight. Theoretically, it’s possible to start building the Eglinton East LRT now, and still say you’re going to build the subway on schedule three or four years from now. And then there’s still the possibility that everybody wakes up in 2020 with an LRT line almost operational, and people are so happy with the results that they’re willing to reconsider other options on the subway corridor itself. That’s the obvious compromise to me.

So, build the Eglinton LRT now and push the Scarborough subway down the road, and perhaps people will change their minds?
I’m not even proposing pushing it down the road. If you look at existing construction schedules and timelines, it’s already down the road. I’m just suggesting that they admit that and adjust their plans accordingly, to take advantage of the transit they can already build.

John Sewell, activist, author and former mayor of Toronto

What’s one piece of advice you would give John Tory?
I think he has to admit that he’s made a bad mistake here, and that if we’re going to have a good transit system in Toronto, he can’t live with that.

There would be some inevitable blowback. How should he weather that?
If your best opinion is that you’ve made a mistake, you say, “Sorry. I made a mistake. I want good transit for Scarborough, and I now realize that what I was doing was not going to give good transit to Scarborough.”

How would you convince John Tory to support the LRT?
I would say we’ve got to talk about public priorities, about transit dollars. In fact, the whole debate, in my opinion, has been off-centre for three or four years now, because they aren’t talking about how you provide good transit in Toronto. They’re talking about how we build a subway in a place that doesn’t need it.

I imagine John Tory has probably heard that from various advisors and colleagues at city hall.
It doesn’t convince him. He’s so wrapped up in what he personally promised that he just won’t budge from that. If you want to be a serious politician, you’ve got to get beyond your own personal opinions.

Is there a way to change the public’s perception of LRT technology?
If you’re pitting it against the subway in Scarborough, I think that’s where it’s difficult. The debate out in Scarborough has been poisoned. It’s hard to talk rational, reasonable sense out there.

Scott Reid, principal of Feschuk.Reid

If John Tory changes his mind on the Scarborough subway, it’ll look like he went back on his word, right?
If I was advising John Tory, I would say to him, “You run the risk of being Brian Mulroney and pulling the CF-18 contract out of Winnipeg if you were to reverse course on the Scarborough subway.” I genuinely think it could become a pivot point in the politics of the city of Toronto and really be animating and angering to folks in Scarborough.

Is there a point at which the political costs outweigh the benefits?
The cost discussions around this stuff can slide into complete horseshit. From my perspective, all of these major transit projects are going to be costly. Obviously, a subway is going to be more costly than an LRT, but a subway has a lot more advantages than an LRT.

Under the subway plan, people in Scarborough will lose their stops, because the new line will have fewer stops than the Scarborough RT line does. Do you see an opponent using that as ammunition against Tory?
No. You will hear that argument all the time: “Well, actually the LRT will actually provide greater…” You do not hear that from people in Scarborough. That is an argument that is made by others, and I think that you would be walking into a wood-splitter if you were trying to campaign in Scarborough on the basis that an LRT is a superior transit option to a subway.

Supriya Dwivedi, host of AM640’s The Morning Show and former consultant

If you were working for John Tory, what would your advice to him be?
Right now, honestly, it would be to stop with the already-proven falsehoods. The Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro has been calling him out, as have others in the media. He should just stick to, “We’ve made the decision. We can get the funding. Go straight ahead,” instead of delving into some of the more Ford-esque aspects of the arguments for the subway extension.

Do you think John Tory’s pretty much wedded to this?
If he went back on this, can you imagine what Doug Ford would do? I don’t think he has any choice—in terms of optics, in terms of comms strategy—but to forge ahead.

Brenda Thompson, co-chair of Scarborough Transit Action

If Tory faced backlash from political opponents and people in the public for backing out of the Scarborough subway extension, what would your advice to him be?
I think the LRT network plan is a very, very good plan. And I don’t think he would have to convince very many people of the merits of that plan. If he were to talk about the redevelopment potential, the network that it would create, the jobs that it would create, and the connectivity it would create for Scarborough residents and transit riders across Toronto, it’s a no-brainer.

The subway would actually take rapid transit stops away from people by replacing the Scarborough RT with one stop. How has nobody suffered any political consequences from this?
We’ve actually gone out to people living in the neighbourhoods near the Lawrence RT and Ellesmere RT stations. They hadn’t connected the dots yet. They were under the impression that the subway wasn’t going to change anything for them—that they’d still be able to use those stations. When they realize that those stations will be eliminated, they’re very upset.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.