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Sheppard "Mothballed"

`This is a subway on the instalment plan. Great subway, eh? No track and no stations.'

- Councillor Brian Ashton

By Gail Swainson and Paul Moloney
Toronto Star Staff Reporters

In a stunning surprise, Metro Council has put the $875.3 million Sheppard subway line on life support.

Council, in a chaotic late-night vote, approved spending $130 million to complete twin tunnels to Don Mills Rd. from Yonge St.

But in a move that left everyone scratching their heads, council did not approve laying track or building stations for the Sheppard line.

"This is a subway on the instalment plan," said a baffled Councillor Brian Ashton just minutes after the council chamber dissolved into bedlam. "Great subway, eh? No track and no stations."

The council chamber erupted into confusion after North York Mayor Mel Lastman's motion to complete Sheppard to Leslie St. was defeated on a 16-16 tie vote. Under Metro Council rules, all motions are lost on a tie vote.

The tide turned moments later when Councillor Dennis Flynn - who later told his colleagues he pushed the wrong button - switched sides on an amendment and voted in favor of awarding the $130 million twin-tunnel contract.

In a bizarre twist, Flynn said later that he voted for the contract because he thought the motion contained a clause urging the province to fund all TTC capital projects at 75 per cent.

When it was pointed out that the funding provision was contained in a separate motion, Flynn said he would consider asking council to reopen the matter today so he could change his vote.

"Isn't that strange?" Flynn said when reached early this morning at his Etobicoke home. "I must have been seeing double. I guess I'll have to rethink this."

Later, Metro staff clustered together trying to figure out what the vote meant to Sheppard's future.

But an ecstatic Lastman, who would have lost it all if Flynn hadn't changed his vote, called it "a step ahead."

"I guess we got the tail track, but we have no track and we have no stations and we have no subway," Lastman told a crush of reporters after the vote.

"Somebody switched their vote, otherwise the whole thing would have lost on a tie vote."

Both Flynn and a furious Metro Chairman Alan Tonks rushed from the floor after the vote before reporters could speak with them.

Tonks, who supported mothballing Sheppard, had earlier argued the region simply couldn't afford such a costly mega-project.

Last month, Metro's chief administrative officer, Bob Richards, issued a stern warning that local taxpayers can no longer afford to build Sheppard in the face of unprecedented provincial cutbacks, assessment loses and a stagnant economy.

Richards' report stated that unless Sheppard was scrapped, Metro taxpayers would be saddled with a 2.5 per cent tax increase within five years.

Yesterday's vote was a major defeat for Tonks, who wanted council to defer Sheppard until Metro's "financial stability is restored."

Council also voted to complete the tailtrack at an estimated cost of $28.2 million. The tailtrack extends west of Yonge St. along Sheppard, and would be used as a storage and marshalling yard for subway cars.

A total of $118.9 million has been spent on Sheppard, with Metro's share running at 25 per cent, or about $30 million. The total close-out costs are estimated at $171.1 million.

It cost $95 million to close down the Eglinton subway, which was cancelled last summer by the newly elected Tories.

Councillor Ken Morrish, who was undecided up until the last minute but finally voted against the Lastman motion, said he had never seen such intense lobbying on an issue before.

Despite a last-minute effort on behalf of Sheppard by his son-in-law, Toronto City Councillor Tom Jakobek, Morrish said he couldn't agree to approve any project if it meant a certain tax increase.

"I've been in this business for 30 years and I've never seen anything like this," he said.

Right from the moment Metro Council opened the debate at 10 a.m. yesterday on the little subway line that wouldn't die, it was political soap opera at its best.

At one point, hundreds of hard-hatted construction workers watched while the informal vote count, tabulated by observers, seesawed dramatically back and forth as each side scored important debating points.

Tempers flared as the debate wore into the evening and staff were called repeatedly to the floor to justify their warnings that Metro could not afford the subway.

In the end, cheering Sheppard supporters had a victory of sorts.

Afterward, many councillors grumbled that Sheppard supporters had employed vigorous strong-arm tactics to get the line approved.

"It's really getting dirty back there, I was asked what I wanted in return for supporting this," one disgruntled politician said. "This has gone beyond reason, it's into trophy hunting."

Another said: "There has been an unbelievable number of people in high places putting pressure on us.

"It's sleazy," she said.

For the ebullient Lastman, it was a dramatic and poignant end to a 10-year effort to get the subway built. The Sheppard line was first proposed in 1986 as part of the Toronto Transit Commission's Network 2011 plan.

The issue brought together some very strange bedfellows on both the left and right.

Conservative Councillor Dick O'Brien teamed up with the left-wing Jack Layton to defeat Sheppard. The conservative Lastman was joined by the NDP's David Miller to push for Sheppard's completion.

Layton said he was baffled that Metro politicians were willing to spend $304 million on the 5 million riders Sheppard would attract, when almost 4 million riders were lost in the wake of two recent TTC fare hikes and route cuts, at a saving of $15 million.

"This is amazing - here we are spending weeks debating 3 million riders on Sheppard when we won't even talk about losing riders when we increased fares," Layton said.

Metro Councillor Joe Pantalone said a vote against Sheppard was a vote of non-confidence in Metro's future.

"Those against Sheppard are willing to be fatalists, but I want them to consider whether they have faith in Toronto or not," an emotional Pantalone told a subdued council chamber.

"This economy is sinking deeper and deeper into depression and the decision by this council is going to make it worse. We are saying `no thank you' to $511 million in provincial dollars, `no thank you' to 17,000 person years of employment."