I once described Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong as the city official that “knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing.” In 2014, Minnan-Wong complained about the costs of building new washrooms at the soccer fields at Cherry Beach, holding up a sign that simply said “$600,000.” That photo of Minnan-Wong, scowling for the cameras, trying to generate some outrage in an election year, was meme gold and so was parodied in the #TOpoli Twittersphere.
At $600,000, yes the washrooms were expensive. But as they were built in an isolated part of the Portlands, they required a new connection to the nearest watermain; a sewage tank had to be constructed as well, being so far from existing lines. The city has a mandate to provide quality parks and recreational facilities. Minnan-Wong, along with the Fords, also complained about the costs of umbrellas at Sugar Beach, a popular new waterfront park.
In 2016, under Mayor John Tory’s administration, we have a City that doesn’t know the cost of some things (like the Scarborough Subway) nor does it know the value of other, smaller things, like the Toronto sign.
The Toronto sign, placed on Nathan Phillips Square ahead of last year’s Pan Am Games proved to be incredibly popular with residents and tourists alike. The LED backlighting allows the sign to be coloured at night to mark any holiday or any important current or special event. The $100,000 climbable sign (reminiscent of the successful “I amsterdam” signs) was supposed to be temporary, and will have to be replaced within three years. A staff report estimate the cost of major repairs to the existing sign, and a new mobile sign, would cost $421,700 over two years. This would be money well spent.
But some councillors, including Etobicoke’s Stephen Holyday and Scarborough’s Raymond Cho, would rather privatize the sign, perhaps selling it off. At least Councillor David Shiner, a fiscal conservative, called it “a potent symbol of Toronto pride and unity” after amalgamation, but even he questioned the need for paying for city staff to maintain the sign. A strong argument could be made that the costs to maintain the sign should come from Tourism Toronto and the local tourism industry, but calls from some quarters to sell it off are ridiculous.
Last Friday, we learned that the estimated cost of building the one-stop, six kilometre subway extension to Scarborough Centre jumped from $2.0 billion to $2.9 billion. But unlike cycling infrastructure or fully funding an effective Vision Zero program to protect vulnerable road users, the mayor, key council allies, and provincial MPPs remain hell-bent on building it.
Scarborough Centre MPP Brad Duguid, a powerful cabinet minister in the provincial Liberal government, quoted in the Toronto Sun, said that critics of the subway plan “…have been yapping away on this project from Day 1 and the vast majority of those critics come from fairly elitist downtown views of the city. People in Scarborough and the suburbs of Toronto count as well.” Duguid claimed that “the area surrounding the new [Scarborough Centre] station is growing fast.” Never mind that population and employment densities are not very high along the subway route, even in Scarborough Centre, and no major commercial development has come to central Scarborough since the 1990s.
On Metro Morning, Duguid, a former city councillor who endorsed John Tory’s mayoral bids in 2003 and 2014, doubled down on his previous rhetoric. He repeated false claims about Scarborough Centre’s growth, claimed Scarborough residents have paid for downtown subway expansions, he even stated that the Scarborough Subway “transcends politics” (which earned a guffaw from host Matt Galloway).
I live downtown, and I don’t use the subway; like many who live here, I walk to work. Many others cycle, or take overcrowded streetcars on King and Queen Streets. The Yonge Subway is overcrowded from commuters from outside the downtown core. Most downtowners wouldn’t directly benefit from a Relief Line either, but it’s an essential part of the network. The last subway built in Downtown Toronto was in 1966. I’m hardly an “elitist” either; I rent my apartment. I don’t enjoy many luxuries, and I certainly don’t hold a position of power or influence. I simply want the best transit for the best price; the Scarborough LRT, along with GO Transit RER and the Eglinton-Crosstown and Scarborough-Malvern light rail corridors represent the right investment for the eastern half of Toronto.
We’re content to keep up an underused section of the Gardiner at greater expense than an urban boulevard, at the cost of lost development opportunities on the eastern waterfront. We’re committed to a $2.9 billion, 6 kilometre one-stop extension when a 10 kilometre, 6-stop LRT would cost $1.8 billion, funded entirely by the province. But we’ll complain about umbrellas and washrooms, budget too little for road safety plans, and question the costs of maintaining a popular sign at City Hall. I love this city, but sometimes Toronto still gets me down.