EDWARD KEENAN EMAIL: EKEENAN@THESTAR.CA
Deal lets Chow sidestep council showdown over Gardiner rebuild
John Tory suggested it almost exactly a year ago. Ana Bailão promised it in the spring. Olivia Chow delivered it on Monday.
After more than a year of saying it wasn’t going to happen, Premier Doug Ford agreed to have the province take over financial responsibility for the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, a move that will free up between $2 billion and $6.5 billion in capital cash for the city over 10 years.
That’s massive for the city’s budget crunch, and it’s just the start of what Ford and Chow announced Monday in their “New Deal for Toronto.”
There’s also another potential $1 billion for housing and new subway cars in the 10-year capital budget, and $1.2 billion over three years in help for the operating budget (in the form of dollars for homeless shelters, and for subway and LRT operations).
According to the agreement, it all amounts to at least $4.3 billion over 10 years and the total could reach almost $9 billion depending on cost inflation of some items (like the Gardiner) and certain conditional funding requirements.
On Monday, Chow acknowledged it doesn’t entirely solve the city’s $1.5-billion annual operating budget hole. She said it was “a good first step.” From here, it looks like a great first leap. An Olympic-calibre first long-jump. Chow and Ford both said repeatedly it was “historic,” and it certainly counts as a significant moment in the city’s recent budget history.
Of course, this comes with a highprofile concession from Chow on Ontario Place, the subject of much reporting and the initial questions from reporters on Monday. Ford tried to emphasize that the provisions granting the province some city land and permissions around Ontario Place were a tiny part of a massive deal.
But moreover, it seems to me this is just the city retreating from a hill it never had any hope of defending. As Chow said, the Ontario government owns the park and has always had all the authority it needs to do what it wants there. It’s always been the case that if Ford is going to claw back his plans, it will be in response to citizen pressure, not any demand from the city government. And the agreement does open the door to possible changes, including using Exhibition Place as a location for the parking lot, rather than building a new underground one. “I’m pretty open to making changes and making sure everyone’s half-happy,” Ford said.
To my eyes, the bigger implication for long-standing city hall pressure points is that the upload of the Gardiner and DVP takes Chow’s promise to cancel the rebuilding of the elevated link between those two highways permanently off the agenda. The province taking over those costs (and associated authority) means the city budget rationale for cancelling the project disappears. And Doug Ford is Doug Ford. The idea he would ever consider tearing down any part of the Gardiner is fantastical.
There are plenty of urbanists in Toronto who will be disappointed by that, people who will still believe (as I think I still do) that the city would build a better neighbourhood on the waterfront without that radically expensive elevated highway link. The poor value-formoney proposition remains the same, just on the province’s substantially bigger books now. But that’s now a provincial issue. Even if this disappoints some Chow supporters, it also helps her sidestep a potential fight that might have splintered her coalition of council support. One thing I’d been speculating about was how it would work to have infrastructure committee chair Jennifer McKelvie oversee a debate about tearing down that part of the Gardiner — when McKelvie was a senior member of the John Tory team that had advocated strongly for maintaining it. That potential powder keg has been defused.
The province stepping up for Toronto with such a substantial announcement now puts the ball in the federal government’s court. On Monday, Ford promised $200 million per year in operating dollars for shelters “contingent on federal support for sheltering refugee and asylum seekers.”
A further $758 million in capital funding for subway trains is also conditional on Trudeau’s government chipping in (as well as the city). The potential $342 million in new dollars for housing is not conditional on Ottawa, but amps up pressure for the long-awaited federal housing accelerator contribution.
Of course, we had news on that front recently too, with the federal government sending Chow a letter outlining some conditions it would like to see fulfilled before releasing big dollars. It is possible to look at that as evidence of Justin Trudeau’s folks yanking the mayor’s chain, making her jump through more hoops. But Chow’s office was enthusiastic about the letter, because in their eyes the conditions are all things they planned to do anyhow. And maybe, I’m guessing, on some items the dangled carrot of federal funding could help overcome any council reluctance to give up micromanaging control of development.
One final observation: one of the biggest knocks on Chow as a mayoral candidate was the suspicion her partisan activist nature would make it hard for her to get along with other governments headed by members of other political parties. When she visited the Star’s editorial board, she was asked specifically how she would manage the Herculean task of working with Doug Ford. She said she’d start by finding the goals they shared and working from there.
It’s possible her honeymoon-era popularity and Ford’s year of scandal have helped provide incentive to find common ground. In any case, it has worked fine so far. Monday, it was hard to recall how certain everyone was they’d be at each other’s throats.
Take it from the premier: “I just have a soft spot for the mayor, I do,” Ford said. “We get along very, very well. There’s certain things we may not agree on. But we’re gonna work together on the stuff that we can agree on.”
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