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Tonight's Fascinating Public Hearing on the St. Clair LRT

I attended the public hearing tonight which is part of the Environmental Assessment process for the St. Clair LRT project. I thought it was a fascinating meeting.

Before I get into describing it, I should point out that there will be another meeting tomorrow (Wednesday) night, at Joseph Piccininni Centre (1369 St. Clair West, west of Lansdowne). Open house from 5pm to 7pm (to read the extensive material) and then discussion from 7pm to 9pm. I wasn't surprised to hear predictions that tomorrow's meeting will be a lot hotter.

What Happened Tonight

Tonight's meeting is just part 2 in a five-phase process. At this stage, various alternative solutions were presented, along with the plusses and minuses as seen by the TTC and City staff, as well as multi-stakeholder public hearings. The alternative design concepts won't be introduced until the next phase -- and this seems to be a frustration for many... I'll explain in the next section.

Arrayed around the room were boards that explained each of the 9 Alternatives that had been considered, as well as findings from surveys of St. Clair shoppers and the Spadina LRT experience. Also arrayed around the room were members of Save Our St. Clair (the anti-LRT group), City and TTC representatives, and members of Marshall Macklin Monoghan (the consultants managing the environmental assessment).

When the meeting began, Mitch Stambler (of the TTC) took us through a 45-minute presentation that was essentially the same as the boards around the room. At the end there were four alternatives left standing:

  • Minor transportation improvements -- i.e., no dedicated right-of-way (DROW), but signal timing changes, exclusive turning lanes, turn restrictions, parking restrictions, etc.
  • Transit priority improvements -- i.e., exclusive lanes for transit at intersections
  • A dedicated right-of-way for the St. Clair streetcar -- i.e., exclusive transit lanes, perhaps similar to Spadina
  • Unspecified combinations of the above

The remainder of the night was given up to speakers from the floor. This time was a bit unstructured, as many speakers merely gave speeches, while some others asked questions that were not necessarily answered -- nor in fact had anyone whose responsiblity it was to answer them.

Many of the initial speakers were opposed to the streetcar DROW. However, by the end of the night there were also many speakers in favour. Based on the comments made and the low-key hecklers behind me, it seems that reasons for opposition include belief that businesses will suffer, that moving about the neighbourhood will be made more difficult and that traffic will be diverted onto the residential side streets. Mentioned in favour were arguments based on environmental protection, fairness to the great number of TTC riders and simply the benefits that will acrue to residents who ride the TTC.

It should be pointed out that many of the opponents of the St. Clair DROW are unhappy with the Environmental Assessment process and feel that it covers up a City bias in favour of the outcome they oppose. I'll address this in the next section, too.

There was one particularly notable moment that may have been covered on TV tonight. An opponent to the streetcar -- who described himself as a union-member camera man, and told us his address -- began his turn at the microphone by commanding centre stage and addressing the audience. His reason for oppostiion to the DROW seems to be that he's concerned about the traffic that he believes will be diverted onto his street and endanger his daughter. His remarks became more controversial when he accused someone -- although I'm not really sure who... maybe the media -- of trying to turn this into a race issue by saying that resistance is led by the Corsa Italia Business Improvement Association. He also referred to SCRIPT -- the residents' group in favour of the DROW -- as an agent of the TTC.

One or both of these last two points really angered Mitch Stabler and he stood up to argue back, but before he was able to get to a microphone, the resident continued his remarks. He accused the consultants of being terribly biased by evidence of their naming the status quo alternative (i.e., rebuild tracks only) "Do Nothing". By this point the moderator was asking the speaker to leave because his time was up. He continued to speak and -- very quickly, in my opinion -- two big uniformed security guards stepped in to usher him away.

The night wasn't all conflict, however. Several speakers stood up to call for the community to come together and work out a solution. This was heard from voices on boths sides of the aisle.

I expect that all the presentations and supporting documents will be on the website soon. We were also promised that meeting minutes would also be online.

Insights on the Process

The process itself seems a bit strange. It is trying to be two things at once.

On once hand, it is structured as if it is a completely open process in which people will come together and identify problems, suggest alternatives, discuss those and narrow them down to a winner, which is then optimized. City participants and consultants take on a neutral air, in which they objectively report on the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal, without being a champion for any.

At the same time, the fact is this process began with a TTC recommendation about what, in principle, might be best for the TTC -- namely a dedicated streetcar right-of-way. Furthermore the City has specific goals laid out in its Official Plan that this project seeks to address. Alternatives are being evaluated on the basis of these objectives.

Both of these aspects are legitimate, but the result is that roles are sometimes confused. TTC employees are involved with presenting the results while part of the audience resents their preference for one of the outcomes. When questions come up about the DROW they can answer some of them, but are not willing to play the role of champion and openly present a vision that favours their plan.

What's more, the fact that this whole process started with a potential end point in mind makes these initial phases seem redundant. Businesses, for example, are worried about parking spaces, but there are no specific plans for anything on the table yet. That is phase 3, but it is a major issue of concern for many. At the same time, people are already complaining that this process has been too long and too divisive.

In any case, at the beginning of the meeting I was asking myself what purpose it could serve. Clearly there are already people who hold entrenched views on opposite sides of the question. Meetings such as this one can:

  • Inform the public
  • Allow discussion of details in order to optimize or tweak a plan... and flush out all of the little issues that need to be addressed
  • Provide a chance for opponents and advocates to meet each other and build alliances

But it seems to me that it is likely the decision about whether or not to recommend a big move like the DROW is going to be made by the City planners based on their analyses and objectives. After that, the final judgment will be made by politicians... who will probably back up the planners unless:

  • A loud and widespread movement has stood up to stop the plan
  • Political deal making takes place that trades votes on this issue for support on something else
  • An election result (or polling) sends a strong message

So, I was initially thinking that the goal of hammering out a consensus through meetings like these was somewhat of an impossibility. (Not that I've been convinced that the majority view -- if one could be reached -- would necessarily be the best or smartest thing to do.) However, through the night I began to see some benefit to the process beyond giving people a chance to make speeches and try to convince each other.

For one, this process makes it necessary for proponents of the St. Clair LRT to ultimately address all the challenges raised by opponents. For example, when we get to stage three, it is clearly mandatory that the City have a plan on the table for ensuring that there is new parking developed to replace that which is lost. This is one of the major things necessary to bring some of the business representatives on board.

In fact, there have been many concerns raised about the LRT that I believe the City is working on solutions for. This would seem to be the backstory to all the shouting and debating that is taking place. When phase three roles around, I expect that there will be plans in place for parking, traffic flow, delivery of goods, sidewalk preservation, street beautification, and minimization of north-south barriers.

These hearings have made it both possible and necessary for the City to address the concerns of opponents. If they fail to do so in the next phase -- when specific plans become public -- they risk creating the sort of situations that can actually derail the project... any of the 3 mentioned above.

So, the process is a bit strange -- with undefined objectives -- but I think it will work in the end.

My POV on the St. Clair LRT

Since I have written so much, I might as well share my point-of-view.

I'm obviously a transit advocate and have been supporting the LRT since I first heard about it in 2002.

The GTA is a growing region, and it is in the interests of the City of Toronto that much of this growth take place within the city limits. We have to choose what kind of development this is going to be.

On one hand, if we do not support transit, the alternative will be sprawl. Either way, our roads will be working at capacity. The only way to increase throughput on urban arteries like St. Clair is with higher-intensity vehicles... i.e., transit vehicles that carry many more people than cars do.

By increasing transit capacity we will enable growth to take place along St. Clair West, helping to make it a more vibrant and successful community. But if we leave things the way they are, the increase in traffic from upstream locations will make transit increasingly ineffective and make the area less desirable -- in general and as a growth opportunity.

Either way, traffic is going to get worse. This is inevitable in a rapidly growing metropolis where urban arteries can't be expanded and the low-hanging-fruit traffic flow improvements have already been applied. Nevertheless, in the St. Clair LRT proposal we have an opportunity that can:

  • Maximize throughput and therefore make growth possible
  • Ensure continued access, even as traffic volumes grow
  • Give transportation priority to those in the neighbourhood, over cars from beyond
  • Reduce the increase in the number of cars on the road (compared to other types of development) -- thus relieving stress elsewhere
  • Support a walkable, attractive, vibrant community
  • Harm the environment less than other growth scenarios

In the end, it is going to be someone else's decision. But I think that choosing the LRT can reduce the risk that St. Clair West becomes a down-trodden inner-ring suburb, and instead becomes an area desirable to young people, with rising property values.

That said, I do have some concerns and want to see what the plans will really look like.

POSTSCRIPT: Okay, maybe "fascinating" was an overstatement. Sorry if you were tricked into reading this.



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