Originally published on Torontoist on February 29, 2012.
Left to right: John Parker, Anna Pace, Andre Sorenson, Karen Stintz, Josh Matlow.
“This is going to be a heated meeting,” an audience member confided to us before last night’s transit town hall meeting began at the North Toronto Memorial Community Centre. That prediction was prompted by an angry woman at the opposite end of our row, who bemoaned the number of business bankruptcies tied to the construction of the St. Clair right-of-way and suggested that meeting organizers Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) and Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton–Lawrence) have disgracefully spread lies about the benefits of LRT.
The attendee’s rage was revealed to the rest of the overflowing room early in the question-and-answer period, when she asked if there was a plan to handle potential lawsuits from businesses affected by construction of the new transit lines. When Stintz attempted to respond, the questioner yelled over her, causing the rest of the audience to urge her to respect the TTC chair (“Let her talk!”). Stintz noted that planners had learned from mistakes made along St. Clair, and, as she would throughout the night, assured the audience that St. Clair–style construction issues would not recur: “I want to make sure people don’t leave the room with the notion that we’re building St. Clair all over the city. That is not the case.” As the audience cheered, the questioner yelled, “you’re a liar,” then repeatedly called Stintz a liar as she fled the room amid a chorus of boos.
Though that was the most dramatic incident, tensions were evident between supporters of the transit plan approved by City Council on February 8 and those backing Mayor Rob Ford’s call for subways and a fully underground Eglinton crosstown line. Most speakers from Scarborough fell in the latter camp, their questions couched in feelings that the eastern suburb deserved better than a transit system they perceived as second-rate. Matlow, responding to a question about why people keep coming back to the subway option asked by a man representing a LRT-friendly coalition of BIAs, said that Scarborough residents and their desire for improved service had been exploited by Mayor Ford, in the “the most cynical type of politics” he had ever witnessed.
Former Scarborough councillor Kurt Christensen listens to the response to his question.
Among the voices from Scarborough, one of the most amusing was a doctor who surveyed his fellow east-end physicians and found that nearly all agreed subways were needed. Far more bellicose was former Scarborough city councillor Kurt Christensen, who believed high-rises built around Scarborough Town Centre justified a subway, traffic at busy intersections along Eglinton would be nightmarish, and LRT shouldn’t be built because both the Scarborough RT and St. Clair line have, in his mind, been disasters. Stintz’s response was blunt: there is no money to build an underground line to Scarborough Town Centre.
Using money wisely was a recurring theme for the organizers, as was examining the evidence backing city council’s plan. Throughout the meeting, Matlow urged the audience to forget promises or rhetoric they’d heard and carefully consider city council’s option, a fiscally responsible plan that he feels would “use every dollar to increase, enhance, and expand public transportation for every corner of the city.” Matlow also reiterated a message he posted on his website on Monday: that if anyone devised a sound, feasible plan for building a subway, he would support it (though he admitted his subway preference was a downtown relief line).
Stintz’s opening remarks were brief. She noted that when the town hall was being planned in December, she and Matlow had imagined they’d be updating their constituents on the Eglinton project and not hosting a forum on recent transit developments. She stressed that financial resources were limited, and emphasized the need to provide the most service to the most residents. “Modern cities have subways, buses, LRTs,” said Stintz. “That’s how modern cities work. That’s how our city works.”
Following the introductions, University of Toronto professor Andre Sorensen gave a presentation on “Transit and Density.” His slideshow depicted a gridlock-clogged future for Toronto, with potential productivity losses of $6 billion if current infrastructure isn’t improved by 2031. Maps showed areas of residential and job density better connected by the original Transit City plan than later, Fordian revisions. He noted that Eglinton was better suited for a rapid-transit line than Sheppard, due to its large chunks of mixed-use, low-density land that would be easier to redevelop. By contrast, existing residential neighbourhoods bordering Sheppard would be difficult to raze for higher-density developments, like condo towers, if the subway were extended west of Yonge.
The second presenter was Anna Pace from the TTC’s Transit Expansion Department, who gave updates on construction and design work on the Eglinton LRT. After her slideshow, Pace offered to show a video about LRT in Phoenix, but by this point the session had only an hour to go and the testy audience was eager to move on to the Q&A. Cries of “Enough!” settled the issue.
Audience members raised concerns about emergency-response times, traffic flow, the type of vehicles being built for Eglinton by Bombardier, ease of converting the line to a subway, funding methods, suitability of LRT for winter conditions, implementation of “Shop Local” programs during construction, street beautification, and the timeline for a final decision. Despite occasional heckling, the responses from the councillors and presenters were treated respectfully—sometimes with loud cheers from the pro-LRT contingent.
Among the supportive audience members was Councillor John Parker (Ward 26, Don Valley West), who told several reporters that he hoped the session cleared the confusion surrounding Toronto’s transit future. Parker noted that much misinformation had been spread, and said that David Miller’s close association with the original Transit City plan made any LRT line toxic in the eyes of those who despised the former mayor.
The next crucial dates for transit planning are March 5, when council will debate whether to change the composition of the TTC board (switching from the current nine councillors to a mix of five private citizens and four councillors), and March 15, when a special council meeting will be held to consider a blue-ribbon panel’s report on Sheppard Avenue transit. (The panel is widely expected to endorse light rail rather than a subway.) Until then, the conversation will remain a heated one. “Don’t go for the bumper-sticker rhetoric or false-promise rhetoric,” Matlow urged during his conclusion. “Look at the facts and you’ll come to your own conclusion.”
BEHIND THE SCENES
As of this writing (March 2018), council has supported a Scarborough subway extension, whose limited reach (one station) and high price tag are endlessly debated. Any link I might include will be useless tomorrow.
Put me on the record as not being a great fan of town halls where the loudmouths rule the floor, giving little room for nuanced thought or carefully considered questions. You won’t find too many more examples of covering such events.