Smart Growth Stupid

Tory Transit Plan a Victory for Developers

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so the harris tories say they’llante up $3 billion over the next 10 years for public transit. Whoopee.Progressive local politicians and environmentalists might want to keep the cork in the champagne.

Hot air or not, the premier’s announcement last week was the perfect sleight of hand to deflect attention from the killing of the Greater Toronto Services Board (GTSB) — a dysfunctional local political body if there ever was one, but also the only potential threat to the soul-sucking suburban sprawl that Mike Harris’s development buddies have grown fat on.

Sure, besides running GO Transit, the feuding local mayors, chairs and councillors from around the region who formed the GTSB didn’t do much. As Toronto councillor Howard Moscoe puts it, it was nice to have tea with Mississauga mayor Hazel McCallion but otherwise it was a useless experience.

GTSB-bashing is easy (it was practically a pastime in GTA political circles). But finance minister Jim Flaherty’s remark that the province had to step in and take control of transit because the GTSB wasn’t up to the job is bunk.

It was Flaherty’s boss Harris who kept the GTSB useless, happily letting local politicians from around the GTA take shots at each other instead of actually empowering them to curb suburban sprawl and improve public transit, as they quite capably could and should have done.

“I don’t agree that the GTSB couldn’t do it,” responds GTSB chair and former Toronto city councillor Gordon Chong, who spent the last year pushing to win the GTSB more powers to stop suburban sprawl and improve transit. “We just lacked both the authority and the resources.”

The Urban Development Institute (the developers’ lobby), the Ontario Chamber of Commerce and parochial (and developer-backed) regionalpoliticians didn’t like this direction and never supported the GTSB. The notion that one regional council of elected officials could hold all the cards and determine where roads would be built, what housing should proceed and where to focus public transit just sent the regional poobahs, the developers and the Harris Tories into a tizzy.

Despite the petty turf wars, last spring a majority on the GTSB finally demanded that the province enact legislation that would give the body expanded powers: it was time for Harris to crap or get off the pot.

Chong spent the summer lobbying Queen’s Park, only to have his job pulled out from under him by the Tories’ announcement last week. Evidently, they weren’t prepared to empower him.

“What was within the realm of the municipalities’ control is now going to be with the province,” says Chong, who isn’t too bothered by the decision and remains surprisingly optimistic that the Tories will deliver a plan that links public transit improvements to land use planning. Of course, he is a Tory and could play some future role.

The GTSB will be replaced by a new, provincially appointed “smart growth council” (uproarious laughter here), made up of provincial and municipal representatives, folks from the private sector (my money’s on developers) and non-governmental organizations. According to Harris, this council will provide “advice and support” on regional planning and transit matters. In other words, nothing binding. It will be business as usual.

“At least the GTSB was a forum where elected people could sit down and begin to come to grips with the massive urban planning issues we’re facing,” says Toronto councillor Jack Layton, adding that it could have become a “parliament of the GTA” where politicans and citizens could begin to understand the bigger issues.

So in the future if you want to stop mega-developments like the big pipe in King or the bulldozing of marshlands in Brampton you’ll still have to take your chances at the Ontario Municipal Board. Or let’s say your town is worried — as Toronto city council has been — about what effect development on the Oak Ridges Moraine is going to have on drinking water. You’ll have to set aside a million dollars of public money to fight at the OMB.

There’s no guarantee the Tories will deliver that $3 billion to public transit, but it’s a pretty good bet that badly planned, profit-driven sprawl will continue unabated for some time.

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