The OneCity backstory: 4 Councillors, 3 Months, 1 Plan
Perhaps the most remarkable detail to come out of the surprise unveiling of the OneCity Transit Plan is that it remained just that—a surprise.
The $30 billion proposal had been in development for three months, without anyone blabbing to reporters. Until the last few weeks, only four councillors even knew about the plan at all.
“It really started at the March 21 council meeting,” says Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre), about the OneCity Plan. (At the time, it didn’t have a name.) De Baeremaeker was made a member of the TTC board on March 6; the March 21 council vote would be the one that decided to build an LRT on Sheppard and put the final nail in the coffin of Rob Ford’s vision for an LRT-less city.
“During that debate over the future of transit, Karen and I and many others were in the strange situation of being called anti-subway,” says De Baeremaeker. “And we’re not anti-subway, we’re anti this subway because it didn’t make sense.”
With the end of that meeting came the perception that after the final Sheppard vote, council would not be making decisions about transit for the forseeable future. “At that meeting, people thought ‘we’re only building these LRTs, no subways, and nothing else for the next generation,’” says De Baeremaeker. He and Stintz felt there needed to be a second act.
DeBaeremaeker, in an interview with OpenFile earlier today, almost never spoke of his own role alone, referring frequently to “Karen and I”. That said, several sources, including Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) have emphasized the role De Baeremaeker played in getting the ball rolling, and especially on the priority of the Scarborough extension north from Kennedy Station, replacing a segment of the SRT.
Soon after the March 21 meeting, DeBaeremaeker was made aware of the relatively modest cost of extending the Bloor-Danforth line further into Scarborough—less than $500 million, in addition to money the province has already committed to replace the SRT. Though it had been made public in previous TTC reports, this information was new to De Baeremaeker. It got him thinking about where to find the $500 million that was needed.
And if you could find $500 million, could you find more? And what could you build with that?
“There was a discussion between Karen and I, with Councillor [Josh] Colle and Councillor Mihevc, about moving forward with a transit plan and a funding plan,” says De Baeremaeker, “and then we all went and did our homework.”
Mihevc says there was no eureka moment. “There was no one date or person you could pin this on. Instead, it was a number of conversations that took place on the second floor [where councillors offices are at City Hall], which is how a vision is put together sometimes.”
“One person remembered the $500 million number. Another person remembered that [Toronto CFO] Cam Weldon had raised the issue of CVA Uplift as a potential funding tool, and so on,” he says.
While any number of funding tools (taxes, to you and me) have been raised to pay for transit, one in particular had been mentioned in a staff report to council during the Great Subway Debate of February-March: Current Value Assessment Uplift. Currently, when property in the City of Toronto increases in tax-assessed value, the city is required by law to lower the tax rate to keep the effect balanced on taxpayers. CVA Uplift would let the city capture, in this case, roughly 40 per cent of the growth in property tax value.
What staff had described as a drawback—it would need provincial legislative changes—the Group of Four saw as an advantage. If Queen’s Park was going to have to change the law anyway, they could legislatively protect it from the passing fancies of council. If council got nervous, for example, it could only undo the funding for transit with cooperation from Queen’s Park. A repeat of Ford’s “cancellation” of Transit City on his first day as mayor would not be possible.
While this plan was being put together, the four councillors who knew about it managed to keep the secret relatively well. (It was only finalized, says Mihevc, three weeks ago.) Not even fellow TTC Commissioners knew about the plan until last week, though some had their suspicions.
At the North York Community Council Meeting on June 13, Maria Augimeri (Ward 9, York Centre) was chairing the meeting when, near the end of the meeting, she jokingly suggested adding a motion to extend the Sheppard subway line west to Downsview.
“Karen said it would be ruled out of order,” says Augimeri, “but I was the one in the chair making the rulings!”
Extending the Sheppard line to Downsview has been something James Pasternak (Ward 10, York Centre) has supported recently, but it’s also a priority for Augimeri, who wanted to get started on the issue because, she told Stintz, she wouldn’t be able to make the July TTC meeting.
“And then Karen said ‘Commission or Council? Because we need you at Council in July, Maria.’”
One hurdle remained: getting the plan on the council agenda. As originally reported by Don Peat at the Toronto Sun, the OneCity councillors put agenda items on several different committee agendas, making sure that if one item was ruled out of order or voted down, that at least one would make it to a full council meeting.
Mihevc says “that was Glenn’s idea,” while De Baeremaeker says once again “that was from a conversation with Karen.”
With the plan fully unveiled today, Mayor Rob Ford and his allies have gone on the attack, calling it an unnecessary tax hike and accusing De Baeremaeker of trying to placate his Scarborough ward with a subway. According to the Globe and Mail, Ford’s office was briefed on the plan on Tuesday, a day before the announcement of the plan.
““I will not and cannot support the plan,” he told reporters from Etobicoke. “The taxpayers cannot afford it. That’s the bottom line.”
The Mayor’s Office has circulated talking points by email, received by OpenFile this afternoon, saying “this is the third ‘exciting idea’ proposed by Councillors in less than 4 months.” He argues that Toronto instead needs a permanent transit planning office.