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Sean’s strong mayor agenda for a new era

Who knew, just two weeks ago, that Torontonians would be returning to the polls to elect a new mayor of Toronto?

Looking back on John Tory’s last eight-and-a-half years in office, the biggest disappointment might have been that he spent so little of the political capital that he had accumulated after decades as a backroom power broker, corporate executive, provincial party leader, talk radio host, and supporter of NGOs such as CivicAction and the United Way. Despite his promise as a business-friendly, progressive conservative leader who knew how to build partnerships and work with other levels of government, there’s little to show for it. SmartTrack? That was always a fantasy which has now been mostly forgotten. An improved public realm, including a new Rail Deck Park? That never happened either. Heck, we can’t even get a decent WiFi connection in the subway, never mind a cell signal, despite the mayor’s close ties with the telecommunications industry.

To be fair, there are a few things one can point to that got done during Tory’s tenure: new bike routes on Bloor-Danforth, Yonge, and University Avenue, some improvements to the TTC surface network, the King Street transit priority pilot, and surprisingly good pandemic responses, including excellent city-run vaccine clinics, weekend street closures for active transportation, and new street-level patio space to help restaurateurs recover from pandemic shutdowns.

But in 2022, the ActiveTO street closures faded away, partially due to influence from the Toronto Blue Jays management (note: the baseball team and its stadium are owned by Rogers), the King Street transit priority corridor deteriorated from neglect. As the homelessness crisis worsened, Tory and his allies backed repressive and violent clearances of public parks, without supplying enough alternatives for housing or supporting the most vulnerable in this city. A series of municipal budgets in which property taxes were kept low while other expenses piled up has caused this city to become reliant on the support of the province and federal governments to bail us out.

With Tory gone — brought down by his own error in judgment — we will have thirteen lost years in which Toronto will have to catch up. That’s a tall order.

I can’t claim to have all the answers, but I have a few ideas to share to help make Toronto a safer, more fun, more comfortable, and more humane place to live. If I were a mayor with strong powers, here’s what I would do:

  • A progressive property tax system. An unfortunate reality for Ontario municipalities is that they have very limited tools for raising revenue: property taxes, user fees (like TTC fares and recreation fees), and in Toronto’s case, vehicle registration fees. Municipalities are also given grants from the province and federal government for specific purposes, such as providing mandated services. Unlike sales, income, and business taxes, property taxes do not grow with the economy, so municipalities must raise the property tax mill rate every year to keep up with inflation and/or fund new or expanded services. However, no matter the assessed worth of the property, the tax percentage remains the same.

    A progressive property tax system can be used then to raise more money from higher-valued properties. For example, for residential properties, a basic tax rate could apply for the assessed value up to $1 million. Beyond that first $1 million, a higher bracket comes into effect. Such a policy could minimize tax increases for those in smaller or starter homes. To encourage the construction of secondary suites, high-value properties could then get tax breaks for every additional self-contained unit on site, provided they are inspected and meet fire code. A progressive property tax system could help raise revenue, encourage the construction of more housing units, and provide a more equitable revenue source.
  • A real Vision Zero plan. Putting up “Senior Safety Zone” signs and lowering speed limits on four and six lane streets does little when the roadway remains designed for high speeds, and motorists race through intersections with limited enforcement. To protect pedestrians and cyclists (as well as other drivers and their passengers), the roads themselves must be re-engineered for lower speeds. This means “daylighting” pedestrian crossings by ensuring crosswalks are always well-lit, crosswalks raised where possible to improve visibility and curbs extended to both reduce the amount of roadway that pedestrians must cross, and signal to drivers to slow down. Furthermore, a blanket right-turn-on-red prohibition, like those in New York, Montreal, and Mexico City, would eliminate a common cause of pedestrian-motorist collisions and make those new leading pedestrian intervals at Toronto’s street corners fully effective.
  • Prioritize transit and clean up the TTC. When I say “clean up the TTC” I don’t mean throwing more cops at the problem of safety on our subways, streetcars and buses. Under CEO Rick Leary’s leadership, it feels as if the TTC has given up on many of the gains brought forward by Andy Byford. Customer service has fallen by the wayside, wait times have increased, the streetcar network is faltering with trams running slower than ever before, communications have become unreliable, and customer confidence in the system has fallen. When customers no longer feel valued, they themselves give up.

    After cancelling upcoming service cuts contained in Tory’s last budget, one of the easiest things to do to show that transit riders matter is making King Street great. This means installing permanent streetcar platforms in the curb lanes along the streetcar priority zones and making it even more clear that drivers are prohibited from using King as a throughway. Eliminate the night time taxi exception to simplify signage, and automate enforcement with video cameras mounted at intersections and on streetcars themselves, as is done on some Select Bus Service routes in New York.

    Haffiz A., via Twitter, shows how King Street could look:

    The TTC also needs to modernize its street railway infrastructure so that streetcars no longer have to stop and crawl across every track intersection. Electric dual-blade junctions and wayside signals — used just about everywhere else — allow streetcar operators to know which way the track is pointed ahead of the intersection and can allow streetcars to glide through junctions at regular traffic speed.

    Finally, get TTC staff and all councillors riding the TTC on a regular basis. Meet passengers. Let them know they matter, and inform them of improvements, and be visible.
  • Build affordable housing. Lots of it. Use increased revenues from the progressive tax system proposed above to build more affordable housing directly (instead of just relying on market solutions like inclusionary zoning), including the co-operative home model. While doing so, shame the provincial and federal governments for pulling out of funding new construction in the 1990s. The city owns lots of land in good areas, such as Green P parking lots, TTC stations, works yards, suburban office spaces, and even on parts of municipal golf courses, which, of course, should be converted to general year-round public spaces.
  • Stand up to the bullies at Queen’s Park. One of Mayor Tory’s biggest failures was to ignore the province’s meddling in Toronto’s affairs and impose the province’s unpopular plans upon the city. This city should have the right to decide the composition of its own council; there was not nearly enough protest from city leadership when Doug Ford forced a cut in council from 47 to 25 (which will likely go down to just 24 in 2026) after an unprecedented level of public consultation in shaping the approved boundaries. Instead of waiting forever for a ministerial zoning order that was never going to come for a modular housing project in North York, real leadership would have gotten it built, the province be damned. Call their bluff.

    Meanwhile, Premier Doug Ford — the man Tory beat to become mayor in 2014 — is imposing his own ideas on Ontario Place, provincially owned public lands on Lake Ontario. If one could not get Rail Deck Park built, Ontario Place could have been the site for a renewed public realm, much like some of New York City’s new waterfront parks. Some vision, some willingness to spend political capital, and a good advocacy campaign could have stopped the plans for an overbearing private megaspa that effectively closes off major portions of our public waterfront.
New York City’s “Little Island” could have been an inspiration for a renewed Ontario Place

There will be some people who will be happy that I am not serious about running for mayor. For one, I don’t have the people skills, the connections, nor the energy to make a serious bid. But if I see some of the ideas suggested above make it into a mayoral platform, I would not be above making a personal endorsement.

One reply on “Sean’s strong mayor agenda for a new era”

[But if I see some of the ideas suggested above make it into a mayoral platform, I would not be above making a personal endorsement.]

There are some very good candidates running. The role of informed journalists and bloggers like Steve Munro, Marshall and others (Like Keesmaat et al) will be to analyse what the leading progressives are pledging, as one of my greatest fears is vote splitting and then Fordites win.

I’m hoping some present councillors realize this danger, and step aside to back a cohort to give one very strong candidate to elect, rather than four splitting the vote.

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