By Daniel Arancibia
Shawn Micallef wrote an article in The Star last week where he argues the urban-suburban war in Toronto needs to come to an end. He believes the city needs to come together as a socio-political entity and focus on the things we share rather than the aspects that divide us. While I couldn’t agree more with his diagnosis (and I tend to share his vision for the city in general), here I outline why I believe de-amalgamation (contrary to Shawn’s prescription) is the best way to accomplish said unity.
Toronto’s urban-suburban divide is a political crisis, not a social one. The system is broken because citizens from the Old City of Toronto and post-war suburbs cannot hold themselves or each other accountable for business at city hall.
For background: the Old City (From Lawrence South to the Lake East to the Beaches and West to the Humber) was amalgamated to suburbs like North York, Etobicoke, and Scarborough by the Mike Harris Conservative provincial government. This was done in spite of the people of Toronto voting to reject amalgamation on a referendum. The provincial government of the day felt this was a good way to reduce provincial spending in said suburban municipalities. Although it was said at the time the mega-city would be more efficient due to the lack of service duplication, there is very little evidence to suggest this is the case.
In order for the amalgamated City of Toronto to work smoothly, councillors from the Old City and councillors from post-war suburbs must allocate resources to meet the needs of all Torontonians. Inevitably, as this system rewards those who fight for resource allocation (as opposed to good administrators), people have come to vote for the mayors and councillors who promise them the biggest share of the municipal pie. It is imperative that we adjust our political structure to reward the best administrators of local resources. If we focus on creating and wisely managing resources in each corner of Toronto and the GTA, we can build functional sustainable communities capable of systematically enhancing the well-being of their citizens according to their particular needs. Accountability delivers better politics, and thus more dynamic governments and neighbourhoods.
Below I discuss how de-amalgamation would allow Toronto’s municipalities to effectively tackle two of the most divisive situations troubling councillors at amalgamated City Hall.
Fess, Taxes, and Transit:
People in the Old City feel that Toronto’s downtown is thoroughly underserved by transit. Downtowner’s views are supported by the fact the TTC would actually make a profit (!) if it wasn’t forced by the province (and now by the amalgamated city) to service the 905. This means that people living in the central areas of Toronto could have much more frequent transit service (without any government spending!) than they are currently allocated if they didn’t have to subsidise low-density suburban transit lines.
Suburban Torontonians, according to numerous polls, ideally want subways built in their wards. The only way to afford the operational costs of new suburban subways (without raising taxes) would be to bill transit riders downtown. It is logical therefore downtown councillors would oppose such subways. But why do suburbanites refuse to pay more taxes to get the rapid transit they crave? It’s a matter of accountability. While Torontonians do not feel a loosely defined government needs more of their money (see here), polls enquiring about potential taxes to be used specifically in local transit and infrastructure report overwhelming support. If we offer people the guarantee that a satisfactory share of their tax payments will be spent directly improving their living conditions, they will respond with more participation. Smaller more homogeneous municipalities can deliver this.
If the Old City of Toronto could handle their own transit system they would end up with much improved service for its residents. If each of Toronto’s suburbs controlled their own transit spending, they could actually work to accomplish their preferred goals with financial transparency and confident that any tax increase would be reflected in their community. This configuration would also encourage the mayors of each municipality to come up with financially viable long-term solutions instead of populist schemes.
What Types of Infrastructure Should We Build or Maintain?
Toronto is highly interconnected. It would be silly to assume, for example, that everyone working in Toronto’s financial district also lives within the Old City of Toronto. It would be equally silly to assume that everyone who currently works there resides within the amalgamated city. The real commuting patterns in the GTA are not being addressed by the City in its core. Currently, Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough enjoy a degree of representation with regards to accessing the Old City that Mississauga, Brampton, Vaughan, etc. do not. In order to allow people from so far away to comfortably commute into Toronto’s inner city, we should be looking to improve long-distance transit options (GO trains) and enhance our core with a multitude of transportation options to efficiently move masses from stations to workplaces (bike-sharing, car-sharing, public transit, affordable taxis, etc). Many of these initiatives would also greatly enhance local living standards. Increasing the number of GO Train stations in the Old City is long overdue, and someone needs to press Metrolinx for it.
Our city needs mechanisms that let locals decide where bike lanes do and do not belong, and where 6-lane roads do and do not belong. The status quo means the grossly inefficient and expensive central portion of the Gardiner Expressway is untouchable; it benefits people in Toronto’s immediate suburbs, even though the resources that keep it standing could, if properly allocated, help drastically reduce gridlock and pollution all over the GTA. The lack of appropriate cycling infrastructure in wards where a significant number of trips is made in bicycles is a symptom of a dysfunctional political system.
If Toronto’s suburbs were de-amalgamated their citizens would have a greater influence in how their inhabitants transport themselves to the Old City. They would still get money from the financial district (the Province happily redistributes it across all of Ontario, and would no doubt take some more in the event of de-amalgamation). Our suburbs would also be able to significantly reduce commercial taxes in order to compete with surrounding municipalities, instead of remaining hostage to the high rates imposed downtown. The Old City, on its part, would be forced to make itself more accessible to adjacent municipalities in order to retain precious commuter jobs.
Voters and politicians alike need a political system that holds them accountable for how their own resources are spent. De-amalgamation would teach suburban politicians that they can’t build subways without somehow coming up with the resources to keep them running. De-amalgamation would remind downtown councillors that if they want to keep The Old City as the centre of the GTA’s universe, they need to cater to the needs of the thousands upon thousands of commuters who come from all over the extended city. De-amalgamation would allow the people of Mississauga, Markham, Brampton, Vaughan, Richmond Hill, Oakville, and other suburbs of Toronto to feel more Torontonian than ever before. We are all one city, but here in amalgamated Toronto, an inappropriate political system is continuously tearing us apart.