Unbelievably, with all the challenges Toronto faces, City Hall is wasting its breath talking about plastic bags and Expo/Olympic City bids, another sign of the haphazard approach to governing we're getting used to.
On the plastic front, instead of tackling large-scale issues, council last week ended up re-debating a successful program that at most deals with considerably less than 1 per cent of our waste stream.
While there are a lot of good reasons to consider a plastic bag ban, it should be part of a broader environmental plan to cut down waste. Such a strategy exists but got short shrift in council's haste to smack down the mayor for his ill-considered bid to eliminate the bag tax.
Many on the progressive wing will consider the ban a defeat for the mayor, and in one way it is, but it could also backfire. It's clearly the type of issue that may work up those people up who don't understand that many cities around the world are doing the same thing. In many ways the issue feeds into Ford's successful depiction of council as a bunch of out-of-touch people preoccupied with issues that seem unconnected to major concerns.
The bids for Expo 2025 and the 2024 Olympics seem another symptom of a council not watching the ball. International sporting events can be a great way for cities to showcase themselves. But while Toronto has a lot to celebrate, it's a weird time to compete for the "opportunity" to spend billions of dollars. The Olympic price tag would be way over $10 billion at a time when the city and province, and to a lesser extent Ottawa, are dealing with budget deficits.
Olympic Games and Expos never make money when all is said and done, especially with the rising costs of security (remember the G20). And they rarely meet the visitor counts hoped for because many people assume these events will be crowded and expensive. Sometimes Olympics have even been known to drive down the number of traditional tourists, who avoid a city in the midst of a major spectacle.
It's unlikely that Toronto's bid will be given serious consideration, because our transportation system isn't up to the job of accommodating Olympics-size crowds.
Even London would probably have been unable to win this year's Games had the major Crossrail project not been under way prior to the bid. Toronto's equivalent is the Downtown Relief Line, at least an $8 billion project for the south-of-Bloor section.
In addition, we'd have to commit to many of the Transit City lines and GO improvements. Transit needs alone could run in the $15 billion range, and all the other costs like stadiums and athletes' housing would add billions more. While the athletes' housing would become affordable housing, the new sports facilities could become underused white elephants, leading to high operating costs in the future.
We should be worried about initial financial projections. The London bid originally had a £2 billion budget; it's now expected to be closer to £9 billion and will likely grow larger. The bid there was based on the fact that over 60 per cent of venues were already in place and only needed refurbishment, while Toronto would need to build many more units from scratch.
One reason cited for hosting a major sporting event is that we'd finally get some investment in infrastructure paid for by the Ontario and federal governments. This is an appealing argument, but we're probably only talking about one major transit line and one or two extensions. At the end of the day, if we want infrastructure built, council has to develop a campaign to get other orders of governments to pitch in.
Instead of focusing on bread and circuses, and small symbolic battles, there needs to be a practical conversation - call it a visioning session - about what areas the majority of council would like to focus on. Council should set about working with staff to bring forward ideas and refine and rework them, a process that must also involve consultation with the public. This is why committees exist, and it's the role of the mayor to initiate these conversations.
It can also be the role of the city manager to insure that a comprehensive suite of new programs or program adjustments is brought before council. After all, the city manager reports to council, not the mayor. If the mayor is unable or unwilling and the city manager is blocked, then a few councillors must step up and help the process.
Toronto needs to focus on buttressing many of the positive trends from the last decade. We can't allow a progressive agenda to be sidetracked by flashpoint issues like the bag ban or unrealistic sports bids. Important city-building needs to be done.