The golden sheen of mayor David Miller seems untarnished, but there's one area where the popular mayor is definitely losing his glow. I'm talking about the proposed $255-million Front Street Extension, a two kilometre roadway deemed the priciest in Canada. Transit buffs and environmentalists ask why our green mayor is backing this 20-year-old cash-gobbling, car-focused project when the TTC is starving to be refurbished? The answer is far from clear.
Miller's stated reasons tie the plan to the development of the waterfront, the burying of the Gardiner Expressway and the need to lessen car congestion and allow the TTC on King and Queen Streets more leeway.
But as his critics point out, studies of the Gardiner are just beginning and will take at least another three years. Who knows what the final decision about its fate will be? And don't public transit options offer much more economical and effective ways to move people?
The plan at the heart of this mayoral credibility gap would extend Front Street past Bathurst north of Fort York and give motorists new access points to the Gardiner. As well, it would create a small street from Bathurst to Dufferin and the Lakeshore below the half-developed Liberty Village. This despite the fact that there is already a new grid connection linking Liberty to Strachan.
The councillor on the hot seat over the street spree is Trinity-Spadina's Joe Pantalone, who is convinced that the plan is necessary because condos are sprouting quickly in the Liberty area, with another 10,000 units approved south and east of Fort York.
"There are whole new neighbourhoods being built over there,' he says. "And guess what? You need a road to put the bus on, you need a road to put the bicycle on, you need a road for pedestrians. If the FSE never gets built, the Gardiner will never be taken down. That's a fact.'
Perhaps if it were just a local road the debate might have a different tone - but Pantalone also endorses three new access routes for the heavy Gardiner/Lakeshore commuter traffic: a new spur connecting Front and the Gardiner at Bathurst; another from Strachan to the new Front Street Extension and the Gardiner; and an entrance onto the Lakeshore from Dufferin.
His thinking goes like this: People coming from the west or going westward have no way to come into or exit the downtown other than using the existing road system. That's creating a traffic mess at the Spadina and Jamieson ramps and gridlock on King and Queen, slowing streetcars. The new exits, he believes, would drain traffic everywhere in the core area.
Pantalone is a downtown councillor and knows the reality of auto-focused mobility. "The car is the single biggest environmental transportation problem" in the city, he says. Yet here he is helping to funnel a mountain of cash to the private transit solution.
FSE dissers point to an established traffic truth: new roads never lessen car density. And they can't figure out why Miller and his deputy mayor, Pantalone, aren't getting it. Grassroots transit expert Steve Munro says the project "would do on the west end of downtown (from a neighbourhood perspective) something on the same scale as the Island Airport" - opposition to which brought Miller to power.
And Munro insists the money could buy a range of better transit options. Critics are told they can't have that $255 million, shared equally between the three levels of government, for transit, he says, because it's earmarked for waterfront projects. "Well, I've got a few waterfront projects in mind, like rebuilding the Union Station loop to actually carry passengers from the east end of the city to the west." Or building streetcar tracks right down the middle of Front.
John Banka, the chair of Environmentalists Plan Transportation, is on the same wavelength. The real answer, he says, is to be found in adding more GO service. "Only 1,500 motor vehicles an hour will be able to use the proposed ramp, while one GO Train can carry 1,600 people. One GO Train an hour could carry all the traffic that would use the ramp of the FSE." The FSE plan, he says, "does not eliminate a single vehicle' and could hinder GO operations.
Also incredulous is the area's other councillor, Parkdale-High Park's Sylvia Watson. "The city doesn't have the money to maintain the infrastructure we've got, so how we would think it right to spend this amount on a new road is a mystery,' she says.
With the current budget crunch crippling most of the dreaming at City Hall, Scarborough Centre councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker warns that FSE funding is likely to come not from taxes but from the city's taking out a loan. "We're counting on the feds and the province to say absolutely not.'
Both these governments have environmental assessments for the FSE in process: the 15-year old provincial one is being appealed, hopefully to make it more stringent, and the federal one hasn't yet begun and could look at issues like climate-saving transit to help meet T.O.'s Kyoto targets.
So where is the mayor in all this? Sandwiched somewhere between car-oriented suburbanites and environmentalists, for one thing. When pressed for an interview, Miller replies that he'd like to avoid comment until the issue has stopped "evolving.' Some have suggested he may be considering separating off the roadway from the access routes, and that while he's wary of endorsing a plan trashed by green transit folk, he's loath to turn down waterfront cash from the province and the feds.
In a letter sent to me last month by Miller spokesperson Cara-Marie O'Hagan, the mayor is said to "believe the extension is a necessary first step to developing Toronto's waterfront.'
Will the city's eco-friendly mayor really risk his rep and the widespread grassroots support that goes with it for a Cadillac roadway and more expressway ramps? Or does he have up his sleeve a quick exit on steel wheels to this auto boondoggle?