City Hall Watcher #40: Toronto transit swap meet

In this issue: TRADE CENTRE - Ontario Line for subway upload? Can they throw in some draft picks? Also: Queen's Park vs. City Hall on housing, Toronto's office space shortage & more!

Lordy, lordy, look who’s 40: this newsletter.

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Some stuff you’ve missed in recent weeks:

  • Council Power Rankings: a ranking of members of Toronto City Council by political power. Find out who made the Top 10, and why!

  • Lobbyist Watch for September: What’s up with redevelopment plans for the Matador? Want the latest on the effort to turn Ontario Place into a GIANT DOMED SPA? My latest report from Toronto’s Lobbyist Registry has some details.

  • TTC website delays: A scoop about the TTC’s tech woes, reporting that their developer has gone out of business. It’s leading to delays on top of delays as the TTC tries to get their new, mobile-friendly website out the door.

Plus all kinds of news and analysis, delivered every non-holiday Monday to an audience that includes mayors, councillors, senior-level staff at all three levels of government, advocacy groups, lobbyists, developers, business people and, best of all, Toronto residents with a nerdy passion for municipal policy.

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— Matt Elliott / @GraphicMatt /

What’s Council support for Doug Ford’s Ontario Line really worth?

Metrolinx IBC

Brace yourself: another major report on Toronto’s transit future is coming.

When the agenda for the next meeting of Mayor John Tory’s Executive Committee drops tomorrow morning, it’s set to include a report with an update on transit expansion projects.

The major focus is expected to be the Ontario Line, the “crown jewel” of Premier Doug Ford’s transit map unveiled earlier this year. Planning staff will offer their take on the Initial Business Case released by Metrolinx over the summer and make some recommendations.

But there’s a twist this story. The Toronto Star’s Ben Spurr reported last week that there’s a potential deal brewing between Ford and Tory that would see Ford drop his push to upload the subway system, in return for Tory marshalling Council support for the Ontario Line:

According to two sources with knowledge of the talks, Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government is willing to drop the proposed subway upload as part of a compromise that would see Mayor John Tory throw his support behind council endorsing the Ontario Line — the contentious $11-billion project that is the centrepiece of the province’s transit plans.

A follow-up from Spurr included a short interview with Tory, indicating the mayor would see such a deal as good news:

Tory described progress on a potential deal as vindication of his decision to reject calls from some members of council to walk away from the transit talks. He praised officials from both sides for showing “immense patience” in discussions over “several months.” 

“I always believed the only way really to get something done that was going to allow us to competently carry forward in co-operation with one another was to have a deal, rather than storming away from the table,” he said.

Tory has always been a politician who likes to find compromise, but with every compromise it’s worth thinking about two things: a) what both parties are giving up; and b) what they’re getting.

What the province would be giving up

What the province is offering is obvious, but there’s reason to wonder if Ford’s government even still wants to take ownership of the subway.

According to the TTC, the subway system needs an additional $13.5 billion in funding by 2033 just to maintain state of good repair. The provincial government certainly has more financial flexibility than the City, but that spending would still need to be included on a balance sheet somewhere.

It’s not clear Ford has ever really grappled with this part of uploading. Owning a subway system isn’t a passive investment. This isn’t like owning Bitcoin or a bunch of old stamps. It’s hugely expensive, and will get more so as components continue to age.

The upload plan has never been pitched as a way to help Toronto deal with maintenance costs, but rather as a means to deliver expansion. But earlier this year, Queen’s Park passed legislation giving themselves sole control of expansion projects. They’ve got the expansion part covered already.

So what’s the motivation now to upload the rest? There’s still the idea that ownership of the lines would give them more flexibility to borrow against the value of the asset. But, like the Eglinton Crosstown, the Ontario Line will be wholly owned by the province anyway, so an upload doesn’t do as much to aid this project as it theoretically would projects like the Scarborough expansion.

So it’s a good question to ask: yes, this deal would see Doug Ford give up on owning Toronto’s subways, but does he still even want this old and busted system?

What the province would get

Ford gets two things if a deal like this comes to pass: credibility and money.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has been very reluctant to play ball with Ford’s transit plan. Toronto MP Adam Vaughan made a point of tearing down the Ontario Line plan at a candidates’ debate I attended last month. He’s even got an applause line: “Someone needs to tell Doug Ford that magic markers aren’t actually magic.”

That matters, because while Ford initially — and bizarrely — claimed his government could fund the entire $11 billion estimated cost of the Ontario Line if other governments didn’t lend their support, it quickly became clear he really didn’t want to do that. He wants the federal government on board, and they’re resisting.

But there may be a way for Ford to get federal cash without getting explicit federal approval. The City of Toronto is sitting on $3.2 billion in committed federal funds that have been earmarked for the Relief Line. If Council were to vote to redirect those funds to the Ontario Line project, it would be hard for the federal government to say no.

In addition to cash, Council would also be giving Ford something he desperately needs: a credibility boost. The Ontario Line was met with a wave of skepticism when it was unveiled, and confirmed support from Tory and Council would be an indication that this plan has moved past the “magic marker” stage of transit planning.

What the City would be giving up

But would that credibility be earned?

The Ontario Line is still at a much earlier stage of development than the Relief Line. In April, planning staff had a list of 61 questions about the plan. I repeat: SIXTY-ONE QUESTIONS. Unless there’s been a whole lot of question-answering going on behind the scenes over the last few months, Council could be in a situation where they’re formally supporting a plan that’s still pretty half-baked.

In this potential deal, the city would be giving up certainty and taking on an unknown degree of risk.

The transit capacity added by this transit line is badly needed. If Council endorses a plan that turns into a delayed quagmire stuffed with SNAFUs — while a more-advanced Relief Line subway plan sits on a shelf — riders will suffer, and Tory and councillors won’t be able to blame Doug Ford for it.

What the City would get

First: closure. With any talk of a provincial upload off the table, Council could stop debating the merits and drawbacks of a provincial upload and focus on other things — like the huge amount of money they need to find to keep the subway system in a state of good repair.

Second: a deal helps secure provincial transit investment. If the only way to get billions from Queen’s Park for downtown relief is through a deal on the Ontario Line, can the City really afford to walk away?

Still, is that enough? Council finds itself holding $3.2 billion and the gift of credibility for a provincial government that appears to badly want both. What’s that really worth?

RELATED READING: QP Briefing’s David Hains looks at the swirling uncertainty around the plan. Transit expert Steve Munro gets Shakespearean with it, and wonders, “To Upload Or Not To Upload?”

Chart of the week: Toronto office vacancy rate lowest in North America

Toronto Economic Bulletin

The newest update to the City’s Economic Bulletin brings some good news and bad news on the office front.

The good news: Toronto actually added office space in the second quarter of this year, with about 240,000 square feet added to the overall City inventory.

The bad news: that’s the first significant addition of office space since the 3rd quarter of 2017. And it’s not as if there’s not demand: Toronto’s office vacancy rate is the lowest in North America, according to Cushman & Wakefield — a title it’s held since 2016.

While the report says there’s nine million square feet of office space coming via projects set to be completed in the coming years, it’s worth paying attention to this. Lots of people are moving to Toronto with expectation that they’ll live close to their office. What if the offices aren’t there?

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More supply = more affordability? City and province have very different views on housing policy

The Planning & Housing Committee got together this morning to talk, well, planning and housing. (Also: signage. More on that later.)

One of their agenda items was a report from Chief Planner Gregg Lintern and planning staff responding to recent revisions to the Provincial Policy Statement on housing by Premier Doug Ford’s government.

The report includes a very clear distillation of the key difference of opinion between the two governments on the housing file.

The province thinks adding a bunch of supply is the key to making homes more affordable. The City disagrees.

The policy statement prioritizes three things: 1) increasing housing supply; 2) supporting jobs; and 3) streamlining development approvals.

In essence, it’s about helping developers build a lot more stuff.

Planning staff are not enthusiastic about this as the basis for housing policy:

The Province's policy assumption that an increase in supply will have a bearing on the cost of land, or that a shorter approvals process will result in a more affordable residential market place relies solely on the actions of the development industry to pass along any savings to the purchaser of the new dwelling.

Toronto’s planners do not think developers will pass along those savings.

In fact, they’re skeptical in general that there’s a simple relationship between building more supply and increasing affordability, noting that 242,081 units were built between 2002 and 2018 and there are 382,522 more in the pipeline, but the cost of housing is still through the roof: “Despite the supply of new units, and the number of units approved but not yet built, the cost of housing in the City has continued to rise over this period.”

It’s a core philosophical disagreement, with the City challenging “the assumption that with more supply, prices will become more affordable.”

But nearly everything the provincial government has done on the housing file is built around that assumption.

More from Matt: Transit, affordable housing and the opportunity of a federal election

Some personal news: for at least the next little while, you can find my columns and analysis every Tuesday in the pages of the Toronto Star.

I’ll also continue to contribute to CBC Toronto and, of course, this newsletter. I’d never abandon you.

First up: I wrote about how ridiculous it would be if this country had a federal election and barely talked about transit and affordable housing and — oh, whoops! — that’s actually what happened.

With the election less than a week away, it’s also a good time to check back in with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and their Building Better Lives election platform tracker.

FCM asked parties to commit to five priorities on transit, housing, climate change, fiscal tools for communities, and rural & norther communities.

Despite giving parties lots of time to respond, there’s a lot of “coming soons” on the page. A recent addition is FCM’s take on the Conservative housing plan, which they note actually proposes building affordable housing more slowly than Canada is today:

The proposal does not meet FCM’s recommendation for increased investments in housing affordability. The proposal represents a year-over-year reduction in planned levels of investment. While the CPC platform commits to proceed with approved projects, the platform does not provide clarity on how it will invest in the social and affordable housing supply going forward.

They say the same thing about Andrew Scheer’s transit plan.

In other news

The week at Toronto City Hall

MONDAY: It was Thanksgiving! I finished watching Fleabag. Great show.

Quick note for the rest of this section: Substack isn’t digging my emojis this week. They’ll return.

TUESDAY: The Planning & Housing Committee met this morning.

In addition to talking about their response to provincial policy statement on housing, they also tackled a review of the bylaws applying to temporary signs, like those annoying “buy this condo” A-frame signs you see on every street corner. If Council adopts the new bylaws, rules will be stricter and fines will be higher.

Councillor Brad Bradford also took the opportunity to request a report on regulatory options for dealing with signs with “graphic imagery.”

The request is targeted at restricting the display of anti-abortion signs that frequently use graphic medical imagery. At the meeting, Councillor Gord Perks expressed his concern that it will be hard to craft rules that don’t run afoul of rights to freedom of expression.

The Dangerous Dog Review Tribunal also met today, deciding whether to confirm or rescind muzzle orders for German Shepherd Mix Rex, German Shepherd Bo, and Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Storm. (Only Storm won a reprieve.)

The Civic Appointments Committee met to consider appointments to the Library Board, the TRCA, the Aboriginal Affairs Advisory Committee and the Accessibility Advisory Committee. Names will be revealed later.

WEDNESDAY: The Economic & Community Development Committee meets at 9:30 a.m. to talk about provincial cuts to childcare. Councillor Paul Ainslie also has an item on the agenda with a request for a report on fining people who get caught trespassing on Scarborough bluffs (and require rescue) to cover the cost of emergency services. Not bluffing.

The rest of the Community Councils met last week, but Scarborough likes to be different and so their Community Council meets today.

Bid Award Panel contract award of the week: $4,435,796 for the supply and delivery of nine sidewalk street sweepers.

THURSDAY: The Infrastructure & Environment Committee meets with a packed agenda.

They’ll review a report laying out the $28 million the City expects to spend over the next ten years repairing and flood-proofing Toronto Island Park.

The committee will also look at the winter maintenance plan for the coming cold season, which includes the limited plan to test snow clearing on some sidewalks in the old part of the City.

There’s also a 160-page report about the City’s plan for self-driving cars.

On the road safety front, IE8.8 responds to a bunch of councillor requests for Vision Zero-related items. Of note: staff say adding a pedestrian crossover or traffic lights at all 2,700 midblock TTC stops isn’t doable.

If you’re wondering whatever happened to bike infrastructure that was approved years ago and never installed, this new report listing some technical amendments to traffic rules needed to install bike infrastructure might provide some clues. (Hello, Sumach Street contraflow lane. It’s nice to see you again.)

City of Toronto report

Finally, the last item on the agenda is about Yonge Street. Through downtown, it’s a street with narrow sidewalks and more pedestrians than cars. There’s a plan to transform the street to be more pedestrian friendly, but the project, estimated to cost $47.1 million, is currently on track for an implementation schedule that won’t see it started until 2022 and fully completed until 2027.

Committee members might want to look at ways to speed that up.

FRIDAY: No meetings scheduled.

City Hall Watcher #40

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In the weeks ahead, I’ll be bringing you updates to the Council Scorecard and a new edition of Lobbyist Watch, plus all kinds of analysis of the coming Council meeting on October 29.

You’re not going to want to miss my recap of the Halloween Council meeting. There will almost certainly be costumes, though I’m not sure anyone will ever top Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker’s 2012 effort.

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