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The Problem With By-Elections

Two sitting Toronto city council members faced off against each other in Wednesday's Ontario by-election, and a former councilor is running in another riding. Each is representing a different party. While this may seem banal, it is highly problematic.

Two sitting Toronto city council members are facing off against each other in Thursday's Ontario by-election, and a former councilor is running in another riding. Each is representing a different party. While this may seem banal, it is highly problematic.

Toronto has been plagued by provincial meddling for decades, particularly with respect to transportation planning. This round of by-elections has turned into a focus group for the three main parties to test out their transportation visions for the Toronto region. The fact that three council members decided to jump to another level to attempt to solve Toronto's transportation challenges underlies the reality that the city simply does not have the tools available to do its job. All parties seem to take this as an indication that the provincial government needs to get more involved in Toronto's transportation plan. As it happens, provincial government is the disease, not the cure.

Perhaps the most obvious example of Toronto's transportation failure over the last few decades was the Harris government's decision to fill in the hole bored by the TTC (funded by the Rae government) to build an Eglinton subway. That line is only now being built as a light rail transit line (which is slower and has less capacity than a subway).

Since then, the only significant additions to Toronto's rail system have been the Sheppard line and the Yonge-University extension to Vaughan. Neither of these ought to have been priorities for Megacity residents (let alone residents of Old Toronto). But each runs through politically valuable suburban areas, which provincial (and federal) politicians like to till. Even the Eglinton line shouldn't be a top priority. While it would be nice to have, it pales in importance to the Downtown Relief Line, which would de-stress the overcrowded Yonge-University Line. It's not just that provincial parties are fighting themselves and city council over transportation funding. They're not even fighting over the right projects.

Centralized decision-making is fraught with pitfalls. For one, it takes responsibility out of the hands of people familiar with the needs of the community in question. It also empowers people accountable to a much wider constituency -- provincial parties tailor their policies to province-wide voters. Moreover, provincial tax revenue is often seen by local residents as "free money." Since it's been taxed away already, they're often happy to get something back, even if it's far less than ideal.

There are two troubling aspects to the decision of these councillors to run provincially. First, it suggests that they've given up on Toronto City Council as a vehicle for solving Toronto's problems. Losing high profile leaders (including the deputy mayor) to the province means that the Toronto transportation policy simultaneously becomes more prominent provincially, and less prominent municipally. This will help exacerbate the centralizing trend. Indeed, Tim Hudak has promised a partial provincial takeover of the TTC if elected, and the Premier as well as the leader of the NDP have advocated for more federal funding for Toronto transportation spending.

Second, and more troubling, is that it reinforces the notion that local offices can be a springboard to upper levels of government. Some politicians who have an eye on higher office might well make certain decisions they would not otherwise have made. Consider school board trustees for instance. It could be the case that the school district would be better off diverting students from a school with declining attendance that is in need of significant investment to a school with excess capacity that is in better shape. It could even be the case that more people in the district agree with this move. But no one wants to run for provincial office as the guy who voted to close down a school. It's tough to say whether politicians are letting future ambitions dictate current policy decisions, but it is precisely what we'd expect them to do given the incentives at play.

Torontonians should be weary of politicians seeking to use local offices as a springboard for higher office, and provincial (and federal) politicians who advocate for shifting power for local decisions further and further away from local voters. Amalgamation of Toronto was the first real step in the process. That shifted responsibility for the TTC from downtown residents to suburban residents. Unsurprisingly, transit is being re-oriented towards suburban riders. Further broadening the constituency responsible for the TTC will lead to even poorer decisions, and the biggest losers of all will be residents of Old Toronto, the very people for whom a subway extension would be self-funding. Since their electoral clout pales in comparison to their suburban counterparts, this will only get worse unless we begin to shift power over Toronto back to Torontonians.

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