Tory facing headwinds

Contentious issues threaten to derail the mayor-elect's dream of forging a united city


As his transition team prepares him to take office next month, mayor-elect John Tory says he’s determined to heal the political divisions laid bare during the Rob Ford era.

His conciliatory rhetoric about “working together to build the city up” is exactly what many want to hear, but that kind of language, so easily deployed in this post-election honeymoon period, may be difficult to live up to once Tory gets down to the hard work of actually governing.

While it’s hard to imagine him igniting more controversy than his predecessor, a number of contentious issues are threatening to disrupt the new mayor’s dream of a united city.

Tax increases

A key pledge in Tory’s winning election platform was to keep property tax increases in line with the rate of inflation. If he keeps his promise, that would represent about $66 million in new revenue from property taxes next year, which is nowhere near enough to pay for the city’s growing needs. According to preliminary estimates, the TTC alone could require $84.2 million in new funding just to maintain existing service levels in 2015. 

Next year Tory might be able to make up the shortfall by using this year’s surplus. But some councillors fear that in the long term his tax promise means important programs will receive inadequate funding or even be cut. The potential implication for social programs “terrifies” one councillor, who’s warning that priority centres, affordable housing and daycare programs could all feel the squeeze.

Transit

Many councillors are open to exploring Tory’s signature SmartTrack proposal for surface rail on existing GO lines.

But sparks will fly if implementing his $8 billion plan requires reallocating funds from projects now under way. Tory’s tax-increment financing mechanism for SmartTrack has been heavily criticized, and many fear he will be forced to plunder other projects when it comes up billions of dollars short. 

“How is this going to sit next to the city’s existing priorities for transit?” asks Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam. “Will it have an impact on decisions already made?”

The provincially funded Sheppard LRT, which some Scarborough politicians are still pushing to cancel in favour of a subway, could be particularly vulnerable. Some councillors believe that even the Eglinton Crosstown isn’t safe from SmartTrack interference.

Contracting out garbage

Under Rob Ford, council voted 32-13 to outsource garbage pickup west of Yonge to the Humber River. But Tory’s promise to do the same east of Yonge could prove more contentious. 

For starters, the experience on the west side hasn’t been without controversy Green for Life, the private company that won the contract, saw its safety rating downgraded by the province in March. As a result, GFL ended up losing the contract it took over from Turtle Island in Etobicoke.

This past term, high-ranking city officials were openly supportive of keeping at least part of the city’s waste collection in-house in order to foster competition between private and public sector operations.

“It’s very important that we ensure that the city of Toronto has the ability to control its services,” says Wong-Tam. “That’s why we call them public services.”

Island airport expansion

Porter Airlines’ plan to extend the runway to allow jets to fly out of the Island airport could prove the most difficult test for Tory. 

The mayor-elect will likely have to recuse himself from voting on the plan due to a conflict of interest involving his son, who operates a charter service out of the airport. 

But even if Tory is sidelined, he has allies willing to push for the expansion. He helped two pro-jet candidates – Christin Carmichael Greb, a Bombardier employee, and Jon Burnside – get elected to council for the first time. And Vic Gupta, his principal secretary, is a former registered city lobbyist for Porter.

“His circle of people support the expansion of the island airport,” says Councillor Pam McConnell, who predicts the vote will be “very tight.”

Pride funding

Tory raised eyebrows at a mayoral debate in September when he said he would oppose city funding for Pride if Queers Against Israeli Apartheid (QuAIA) is allowed to march in the LGBTQ parade. The remarks seemed to indicate the new mayor would reopen one of the most protracted and unproductive debates of last term, but some councillors believe Tory was speaking off the cuff and will think better of revisiting the issue. City staff have already ruled that QuAIA’s participation doesn’t violate anti-discrimination policies.

“I’m thinking that people around him will probably temper his opinions on this,” offers McConnell.

That might reassure Pride’s supporters, but any backtracking on his pledge to fight QuAIA will displease pro-Israel organizations and some council members.

Bike lanes

Throughout the campaign, Tory asserted that painted bike lanes are “unsafe” and promised to pursue physically separated lanes in “sensible” locations instead. That puts him at odds with city staff, who are already working on a new citywide bike plan that will include the whole range of infrastructure options: bike boulevards, trails, separated cycle tracks, contraflow and painted lanes. Tory’s cycling policy could also jeopardize the long-awaited plan, already being studied, to put bike lanes on Bloor.

“The fact is painted [lanes] are safer than nothing,” says Councillor Mike Layton, one of many councillors who would oppose Tory’s separated-only approach.     

bens@nowtoronto.com | @BenSpurr

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