If Olivia Chow is elected, will she really be able to make her transit plan a reality?

If Olivia Chow is elected, will she really be able to make her transit plan a reality?


Unlike the single-idea transit plans of the other leading mayoral candidates—John Tory’s SmartTrack and Doug Ford’s “subways, subways, subways”—Olivia Chow’s transit platform is a patchwork of different proposals. To address immediate issues, she has promised to devote $15 million to increasing bus service and another $184 million to an expanded fleet of buses and a new garage, to be paid for by adding a new bracket to the land transfer tax. She has also pledged to build provincially funded light rail along Finch Avenue West and Sheppard Avenue East, and also to turn the planned Scarborough subway extension back into a light-rail line, freeing up additional funds. Her long-term goal is to build the downtown relief line—or at least set it in motion with engineering studies—to take pressure off existing subway lines.

election-idea-evaluator-light-green-smallIF CHOW IS ELECTED, WILL IT HAPPEN?

Each of Chow’s ideas comes with its own set of obstacles. Critics generally consider the $15 million she has pledged to improve bus service to be realistic. She could find the money; the problem is that it wouldn’t be enough. “The political challenge is to have the guts to give priority to transit on the streets and to convince people that everyone will be better off if we do that,” says Eric Miller, a transit expert and University of Toronto engineering professor. Miller and others contend that, if elected, Chow will have to be firm with the TTC if she intends to see more buses on city streets within a reasonable timeframe. She would probably have to fork over more money to lease a parking lot or facility until the TTC could finish building that new bus garage, otherwise the extra vehicles would have nowhere to go.

Chow’s LRT plan, meanwhile, may face some opposition simply because it’s light rail. “Strategically, she might have trouble—unless there’s an absolute miracle and council suddenly becomes all Olivia-friendly,” says transit advocate and writer Steve Munro. “So much of that is going to depend on the makeup of council. Even if she wins it, it will be tight.” The Sheppard and Finch lines, Munro adds, should be achievable so long as the province doesn’t get cold feet and cede to any local politicians who may try to halt the process in favour of other transit options. Some councillors and MPPs are already gearing up for the anti-LRT fight.

As for the downtown relief line, Munro says it’s too early to tell what will happen, and that council won’t need to make any decisions for at least a year. “I don’t think the dust is going to settle on the DRL until we have a sense of what a realistic collection of relief projects will cost,” he says.

With extra funding, a bit of creativity and some resilience, then, Chow’s plan is doable. “It’s going to take a bit of money and a bit of time,” Miller says, but it’s nowhere near as far-fetched as raising billions of dollars for subways. Its flaw is not its feasibility, he contends, but its scope: it won’t adequately address transit issues in Toronto. “The problem Chow is going to face is that she is not ambitious enough, and she will have to confront that at some point. Her challenge is to take the rail side of things more seriously. It’s not an either-or: vote for Chow and get buses, vote for Tory and get rail. We need both.”

How do other 2014 mayoral candidates’ ideas measure up? Click here to find out.