City’s King Street pilot project has everybody hot under the collar
by Mike Beggs
Restaurateurs, hoteliers, and shopkeepers have been making front page news about their losses under Toronto’s controversial King Street Pilot Project. Meanwhile, taxi operators are wondering why no one at city hall has given a second thought to their nose-diving fortunes since the implementation of the Vehicles-For-Hire Bylaw in July of 2016.
King St. business owners cite a 52 percent drop in trade since the year-long Pilot kicked off in November. After threatening protests and a law suit, they were granted a January 18 meeting with Mayor John Tory and Councillor Joe Cressy, while taxi industry leaders looked on in consternation.
“Isn’t it interesting, in less than two months since the King Street streetcar project began, the Mayor has already come to the forefront to assist (these) businesses,” says long-time owner/operator Gerry Manley. “Yet in the 18 months since the new Vehicle-For-Hire bylaw was enacted, and with taxi business losses of over 60 percent, Mayor Tory refuses to step in and help our membership.”
“We’ve lost money over a longer period of time (since the advent of Uber). I’m disgusted nobody gives a concern about our business loss,” observes Oakville owner/operator Al Prior.
He notes the licensing fees paid by King St. merchants are “not even close” to those of Toronto cab operators.
“It’s the same city, it’s the same traffic. We’re all tied together,” he complains.
“Nobody cares about cab drivers. It’s pretty sad…They completely ignore us, even though (Toronto taxi operators) still pay the highest licensing fees of anybody.”
“King Street business owners got city hall’s attention after two months. This is five years. (The City) obviously holds the taxi industry in disdain,” Manley agrees. “They should think about giving restitution to the taxi industry.”
“Is democracy dead for Toronto’s taxi industry membership? Do we work under an autocratic rule, or are we held is such disdain that we do not warrant help from Toronto city hall, regardless of the fact we pay approximately $12 million in annual licensing revenues?”
Under the pilot project (passed by Council on July 6) cars are now prohibited from making left hand turns off of King St. and they must turn right off of King after travelling just one major block. In a separate motion, cab drivers were granted an exemption to these rules between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.; but many industry leaders allege this amounted to “lip service” on the part of the Mayor.
Mississauga owner Peter Pellier says taxis should have been exempted 24x7, and that it should have been a “no brainer” like with HOV lanes.
“The partial exemption is useless, because the worst problem is the (morning and evening rush hour) traffic, and the cabs don’t get any breaks,” he comments.
King St. business owners say the onerous restrictions on cars are driving customers away from this 2.6-kilemtre stretch that runs between Bathurst St. and Spadina Ave., and ranks as the City’s busiest streetcar line (carrying 65,000 people per day).
At the January 18 meeting, Tory attempted to appease their concerns, by offering drivers two hours of free parking in the 8,000 Green P parking spaces off of King St. He had previously offered them such olive branches as a competition to improve the streetscape with art installations (outdoor planters, ice sculptures, etc.), and a Winterlicious food event.
But five days later, Al Carbone, owner of Kit Kat Italian Bar & Grill staged a press conference outside his restaurant, where he had erected an ice sculpture with a raised middle finger. He and several other restaurant owners called for public support to have the pilot project shelved completely, or at least for the City to lift these restrictions in non-rush hours (with most of their business coming after 7 p.m.).
Having locked horns with him over the year-long pilot project, mayoral hopeful Doug Ford branded Tory, “The King Of Congestion”.
“Does the Mayor really think ice sculptures, and flame throwers are going to bring people back to King Street?” he said to The Toronto Sun.
Fred Luk, owner of the restaurant Fred’s Not Here, told The Star that King Street was previously “a vibrant and important part of the residential and cultural fabric of our community.
“Go visit King Street today and it is a wasteland, no vibrancy, no pedestrians, no structure, and soon to be inhabited by Closed and For Sale signs,” he added.
His comments are echoed by cabbies like 33-year man Fitz Daley, who says the powers-that-be are, “just making it more and more difficult for us.”
“Oh, my God. I don’t know what to say about this Mayor. He’s a very good talker, but he doesn’t do anything,” he alleges. “Traffic is bad. He talks and he talks, he does nothing. Look at the King Street mess.”
iTaxiworkers Association director Mohammed “Reza” Hosseinioun agrees King Street is now a “disaster”, and the pilot has killed business for taxi drivers who now sit there, “for hours and hours”.
But TTC staff say this transit-centric project has resulted in heightened use of streetcars, along with improved reliability and travel times. And Cressy told The Star, polling on the King Street project is “overwhelmingly positive”, with 46 percent of Toronto residents supporting the pilot, and 71 percent believing the City had to do something.
A spokesperson for Tory’s office told The Star that the City has “no intention” of cancelling the project. And according to a January 24 report in Toronto Metro, the TTC and the City are expected to collaborate on a comprehensive “Surface Transit Priority Plan” which would extend the transit-priority rules from King to several other major downtown streets.
In 2011, the Ontario Superior Court, and the Ontario Court of Appeal dismissed a $100-million class action lawsuit launched against the City by merchants on St. Clair Ave. concerned about their loss of business due to City planning issues.