This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on November 26, 2017.
The King St. pilot project will become a real John Tory accomplishment. It may have been a difficult decision but it’s one that will help him politically in the next election campaign because it has made the lives streetcar-riding Torontonians a lot better.
Something had to give.
Until very recently, King St. looked more like a parking lot than the central artery of Canada’s financial district.
Today, you can shoot a cannon down the street and be confident that you wouldn’t strike a car or truck.
In July, Toronto’s city council approved a one-year pilot project focused on giving streetcars, bikes and pedestrians the priority on King St. The program, implemented two weeks ago, was designed to ensure that the transit experience for commuters using the King St. corridor would be more palatable. And, it has done just that.
The implementation of council’s decision also marks the unofficial start of next year’s mayoral campaign.
In less than 12 months from now, John Tory will find himself in a rematch with Doug Ford, as well as facing a yet-to-be determined left-wing candidate. (Watch for a Desmond Cole- or Mike Layton-like candidate to join the race.)
Mayor Tory is nothing if not a savvy politician. He knows that 65,000 trips are made every day on the King streetcar. He also knows that many of those making these 65,000 trips are young, left-leaning millennials, who would never in a million years consider voting for Ford. They would, however, consider voting for a transit-focused left-wing candidate.
Remember, in 2014, Tory beat Ford by only 60,000 votes, and Olivia Chow ran a lacklustre campaign. If Chow had performed at a higher level and effectively split the vote, the chain of office would currently be around Doug Ford‘s neck.
Tory was largely elected for two reasons. The first: he wasn’t Rob Ford, whom his brother, Doug, replaced as a candidate due to the former mayor’s illness. The second reason was Tory’s SmartTrack transit plan.
On not being Rob Ford, Tory gets full marks. He has brought professionalism, sincerity, thoughtful policy and a steady hand to City Hall.
On SmartTrack, he has faced more challenges. As once promised, transit lines will no longer extend to the Mississauga Airport Corporate Centre, the number of SmartTrack stations has been reduced and significant funding uncertainty remains.
In Tory’s defence, there has been real progress on SmartTrack, and much of its perceived failure can more properly be attributed to poor communication.
But Tory’s streetcar manoeuvre on King St. diverts attention from SmartTrack. Among downtown transit users, Tory is now seen as the Transit Mayor – a genuine hero who has given 65,000 commuters back 30 or 40 minutes a day.
This is wedge politics very cleverly played. The King St. pilot project (which will not be a pilot project for long) splits the electorate. There are two clear sides to this debate – those for the car and those for the streetcar.
Doug Ford has come out swinging. He’s announced that if he is elected mayor next year, he will kill the pilot project in its tracks.
Ford will position the project as an attack on the car, an attack on Torontonians who live outside the downtown core and an assault on businesses and the middle class.
Tory needs the King St. pilot to fend off a challenge from a transit-friendly candidate.
The project gives him cover to run as the fair and reasonable incumbent who made difficult decisions that kept the city moving.
Before the pilot project, Torontonians would have had trouble pointing to a Tory transformational policy.
At election time, this risks becoming a significant challenge for the mayor. As an incumbent, he needs to be able to point to victories that illustrate how he has made people’s lives better.
He has been an effective operational mayor; one who has kept the lights on and the city functioning reasonably well.
The King St. pilot project will become a real and well-understood Tory accomplishment.
This is smart politics. It may have been a difficult decision but it’s one that will help him politically in the next election campaign because it has made the lives streetcar-riding Torontonians a lot better.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.