Toronto mayor's race: Who has the best plan to fix the city?

It's not just Toronto transit that's gridlocked, so is the campaign to be the next chief magistrate. Here's what you may have missed — aside from the usual nattering — if you took the summer off.

Slow race heats up as transit becomes central issue

Mayor Rob Ford took the podium during the announcement of a renewed Federal Gas Tax fund at a transit yard in Toronto in July, shortly after his return from rehab. (The Canadian Press)

For four years Toronto City Hall has explored the outer boundaries of dysfunction, warped by one mayor's unusual ability to bend the fabric of reality around him.

The Rob Ford-nado has calmed, compared to the height of the storm anyway. Yet the city now faces hard, concrete problems that demand difficult answers.

From an urban planning perspective, there are billion-dollar gaps in funding for aging infrastructure and affordable housing, and more than a million cars set to join our strangled streets in the next 15 years alone.

So if you're just tuning in after summer holidays, you may be wondering where this interminable mayoralty election is at, and who has the best plan to fix the city?

So far, the race has rolled along pretty slowly, just like Toronto traffic — inching forward, temperature rising, with candidates contemplating the challenge of "making Toronto move again."

Transit is now the central issue and, with less than two months to go, the field of real contenders has narrowed to the not-unexpected big three — Olivia Chow, Rob Ford and John Tory — plus one happily nerdy outlier, David Soknacki.

All are now starting to scrap more seriously about how to build a better city.

Spoiler alert: real money is not always involved.

Tory on top?

Coming out of the summer months, the momentum has shifted from left to right, and Chow has not only lost her early hold on the lead — she is even trailing the mayor, if the most recent numbers from Nanos and Forum Research are correct.

John Tory, who lost a previous bid to become mayor, as well as a shot at the premier's office, is said to be in the lead. He has support from 42 per cent of decided voters, according to Nanos. But with almost two months left for policy pivots and self-implosions, and plenty of undecided voters, it's anyone's game.

Mayoral candidate John Tory has an ambitious transit plan for a "surface subway," which he calls SmartTrack. (Reuters)

For those who have been on vacation from the internet all summer, Ford has kept reasonably quiet (context is everything in his case) regaining support since returning from rehab. But he continues to be the obstinate kid in the sandlot.

He and his brother Doug were the only dissenting votes recently when council approved a Raptors training facility at Exhibition Place.

Like so much the mayor does, it begs the question: even if he wins, how can he possibly get the next city council to play with the same ball he does?

Transit and congestion

Much of the battle so far has taken place around the candidates' proposed remedies for the two ailments voters want cured most of all: transit and congestion.

Chow and Tory have both pitched duelling, detailed transit plans knowing most of us feel like we've been waiting for Godot in gridlock.

Ford has stuck to his familiar incantation — "Subways, subways, subways" — and only yesterday released a $9 billion plan to "bore, bore, bore until the cows come home."

Chow is promoting, among other things, buses, promising the 60 per cent of transit riders who already use them that they will get a 10 per cent increase in rush-hour service.

While Chow's plan appeals to the city's need for sensible, near-term solutions, it has also seemed curiously unambitious. Numbers like "10 per cent" don't set off fireworks in the mind. And her rhetoric about building a future downtown relief line has only gradually acquired some sense of urgency.

That has left an opening for Tory, with a big, brand-savvy plan with a catchy name: SmartTrack.

SmartTrack cozies up to the Ontario Liberals plan to electrify existing GO rail tracks in order to create an alternate "surface subway" that would act as the city's de-facto downtown relief line, giving commuters an option over the increasingly jammed one-big-subway route downtown.

Tory says the 53-kilometre, 22-stop route could be completed in seven years — 10 years before any underground alternative, although his timeline has been questioned. He'd also move forward with the Scarborough subway extension.

Big ideas. But how do we pay for them?

Reality cheques

One of Rob Ford's enduring legacies is an abiding sense that City Hall is a kingdom of waste and inefficiency with a permanent hand in Torontonians' pockets.

The Fordian "gravy train" has an intuitive, get-back-at-someone appeal; Toronto is an expensive and often frustrating city to live in. It's easy to have the sense you don't get much for your money. But is it true?

In the dog days of August, a report from the Munk School's Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance found essentially that Ford's gravy train had never really been in the station.

Toronto's property tax revenues have been growing slower than the rate of inflation since 2000 and are actually lower than many Ontario municipalities.

The city has a modest level of debt, and there are few areas where its finances are fatty. The authors' conclusion is that Toronto actually has a revenue problem, especially if it wants to deal with its fraying infrastructure, let alone build for the future.

Olivia Chow is promoting, among other things, buses, promising the 60 per cent of transit riders who already use them that they will get a 10 per cent increase in rush-hour service. (The Canadian Press)

In the Rob Ford paradigm, even more so than a typical campaign, talk of new tax revenue is like drinking a vial of hemlock. It's an aversion that has even spread to a former NDP MP.

Early in the campaign, Chow called Ford's Scarborough subway plan a "billion-dollar, 30-year tax hike," and vowed to keep property taxes "around" the rate of inflation (although she has since proposed transit funding that might break this pledge).

John Tory wants property taxes to remain either at or below inflation, while Ford says below.

As for road tolls and local sales taxes — or other tools often used by municipalities and higher orders of government to finance city building — the candidates are doing conceptual somersaults to avoid talking about them.

Ford's subway proposal promises taxpayers they won't feel a thing (conveniently forgetting tax levies for the Scarborough extension). He says that a smorgasbord of speculative finance can pay the bills.

Tory's $8 billion SmartTrack has been criticized for offering a sort of financial Field of Dreams, premised on the idea that if we just build it, the money will come.

The system is called tax increment financing (TIF); the city borrows money for its portion ($2.5 billion) and then pays the loan back with the notional extra taxes brought in from rising property values along the rail line.

It's a neat idea. It's also never been done in Canada so ambitiously.

In New York City, a subway extension is being partly funded this way, but so far the financial windfalls have fallen short, according to reports.

Chow's bus plan comes with a comparatively modest $15-million annual price tag. And while she's said she would devote a property tax increase similar to the one levied for the Scarborough subway - which she'd cancel - towards transit, she too has shied from specific talk of new revenues. UntilTuesday.

Perhaps inspired by recent polls to reconsider her run down the fiscal middle, Chow announced she'd raise $20 million annually by increasing the Land Transfer Tax on homes sold for more than $2 million. She would put the money towards school nutrition programs, buses, and studies for the downtown relief line – because there’s no such thing as a free breakfast.

Yesterday, Chow even told the CBC's Matt Galloway that Toronto has a revenue problem. Will a return to her "progressive" roots reshape the geography of this campaign and create space for new debate? It's an open question as we enter the final stretch.

Only one prominent current candidate — David Soknacki — has been consistently candid about Toronto's desperate need for a new financial toolbox. He's currently in fourth place, and must decide whether to drop out completely.


Ben Travers

Municipal affairs

Ben Travers is the Manager of Development at Toronto-based Markham Street Films and a freelance writer with a keen interest in municipal affairs.


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