Keeping the TTC on the rails
If there’s one thing Torontonians share a collective groan about it’s the time they spend sitting in traffic, waiting for a bus, or fighting the crowds on the subway. So when Queen’s alumna Karen Stintz, MPA’96, was named chair of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) last winter, she’d managed to land a job that many people covet.
Karen who was originally elected in 2003 knocking out one of the city’s longest running councilors in a battle over a huge midtown condo development, has taken on a big job. The TTC, with its annual operating budget of $1.4 billion, is the country’s biggest public transit provider, carrying an average of 2.5 million riders each day.
Re-elected to council last November and given the plum post by newly elected mayor Rob Ford, her job is to manage the TTC at a time when customer service issues and the future of public transit in the city are burning issues.
Karen views her job as managing for today as well as tomorrow. “We need to figure out how to change the culture of the TTC to make it more customer-focused. Up until now it’s primarily been a safety-conscious culture, focused on passenger and workplace safety, which are critical components. At the same time, there hasn’t the corresponding understanding of the rider’s experience. Usually when there’s a delay its safety related, and we need to communicate that to riders.”
Prior to last fall’s municipal election there was a lot of talk that Karen, who represents Ward 16 Eglinton-Lawrence, might run for mayor. She didn’t and says she has no plans to tackle that down the road. Already, the job of councilor and TTC chair are challenging enough especially because of the local nature of the job. “The issues are so day-to-day and affect people so personally. Living in the neighbourhood, having my kids go to the local school, using the local park, you become the information source for so many things that are going on. Most conversations include a comment about the TTC.”
When Karen was first elected in 2003, she came armed with a background in healthcare administration as well as a MPA from Queen’s. She admits book learning can’t prepare you for the ins and outs of local politics. “Municipal government is a lot different from provincial or federal government. The whole idea that you build consensus on council, you have tradeoffs and you don’t have party discipline is unique. Nothing in my schooling or my experience prepared me for this job.”
Karen lives in the ward with her husband and her two small children. In her leisure time, she likes to take her kids skating and for ice cream and enjoys activities in the nearby park. In addition to her TTC and council duties she sits on the boards of several neighbourhood arenas, and is active in several local business associations as well as the planning and growth management committee.
Karen says striking a balance in development issues especially with condominium development is her other big concern. “We’ve created incentives encouraging development and we have an environment where the development industry employs a lot of people, but there are communities that don’t want development and we have to find a middle ground. It’s a constant ongoing struggle.”
Several summers ago, Toronto weathered a garbage strike that saw residents suffer through five weeks without garbage pickup only to have the city concede to the workers’ demands which angered many citizens. Karen, who lived near one of the temporary dumps, endured the stench just as her neighbours did. However acrimonious that issue was, she says opposition to certain developments in the community has been even more bitter.
However, for all the stress, hard work and many subway and bus rides she now takes as part of the job, Karen finds it very rewarding. “The best part of the job is that I get to help residents and I get to help my neighbours.”
She has high hopes that as TTC Chair she can make a difference to the people of Toronto. “The good thing is the TTC matters to so many people. A lot of them have great ideas about what to do with it. We just need to find a good way to capture and harness the ideas and turn them into a more pleasant riding experience.”