As I was reading the terms of the deal between the Province of Ontario and City of Toronto announced by Premier Ford and Mayor Chow yesterday, Thucydides’ maxim came to mind: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The province is strong because its finances and credit rating are reasonably sound, and it has the power to veto the City’s initiatives and expropriate its land. Conversely, the City’s finances are in poor shape, and it does not have the power to issue debt. This is the context that is driving the New Deal for Toronto Act that the Ford Government will introduce and the Legislature will approve. The City of Toronto needs money, and the agreement provides money: $600 million over three years for shelters for the homeless, clearly an emergency; $1.4 billion over 3 years for transit, a key priority; and savings of at least $2 billion over 10 years by transferring responsibility for the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway to the province.
Waving the White Flag
In exchange for this money, the City has agreed to drop any opposition to two key Ford Government priorities in the area of public culture, Ontario Place and the Ontario Science Centre. On the former, the agreement says, “The City accepts that the Province has the authority to advance all project approvals and intends to assume ownership of City-owned properties necessary to enable site access and servicing.” Thus, the City will not challenge the Province in court. The citizens’ group Ontario Place for All, which has filed for a court injunction, will be leading the opposition to the Therme Spa, without the City’s support.
Regarding the Ontario Science Centre, the province only “agree[s] to discuss partnership opportunities with the City for maintaining public community-oriented science programming at the legacy [my italics] Ontario Science Centre.” This is a weak and ambiguous commitment on the province’s part. The current Science Centre is a major institution of science education, and “community-oriented science programming” will represent a sharp degradation of its role. The original Science Centre building designed by Raymond Moriyama is intended to house a grand public institution, and diminishing its program will likely lead to its destruction.
One can criticize Mayor Chow as having reneged on two promises made during her campaign for mayor. Her response, which I take from a radio interview she gave this morning, is that homelessness, public transit, and housing are higher priorities, and that other players – citizens’ groups and the provincial opposition parties – will have to continue the fight for their visions of Ontario Place and the Ontario Science Centre.
Part of the deal for uploading the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway is to “maintain these assets for the benefits of drivers and commerce as untolled highways.” As I discussed in a recent post, road tolls have been used in Stockholm, Singapore, London, and likely New York to reduce congestion and provide funding for public transit. The Ford Government, which is fixated on supporting cars and drivers, has no interest in road tolling. It would not have permitted the City to put tolls on the Don Valley Parkway and Gardiner Expressway that could have been used to pay for maintenance and reconstruction, as well as contribute to public transit. In that situation, the best thing the City can do is rid itself of responsibility for both roads.
I suppose the City could propose a road pricing scheme in which it places tolls on the off-ramps of the highways where the vehicles they carry access city streets, but likely the Ford Government would veto that too.
The City’s need for cash means it will provide no brake or check on the Ford Government’s agenda. That agenda gives priority to automobiles and to a public culture that values shiny new objects like the Therme Spa. Opposition to Ford’s agenda will have to be expressed at the provincial government level through the actions of interest groups and the opposition parties. Concerning the latter, next Saturday we will know the name of the third, and final, alternative leader to Premier Ford in the 2026 election.