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Levy: Furious George's curious counting

By Sue-Ann Levy
City Hall Columnist

You’ve got to hand it to Furious George (F.G.) Smitherman.

After making his adoring public wait for months for more than a few crumbs of his mayoralty platform, he sure knows how to make a splash.

Like Julius Caesar entering Rome, he strode with his usual swagger into his $250-a-plate fundraising lunch at the Metro Convention Centre Friday to deliver his Integrated Transportation Plan to a crowd of mostly Liberal re-treads and largely B-list MPPs.

That plan was pretty slick too, even if it took nearly five pages of platitudes about how Toronto is not working to get into it.

Note to F.G.: We already know Toronto’s streets are littered with potholes and people are sick and tired of “getting nickled and dimed at every turn.”

(I wouldn’t dare suggest it was your government that handed Mayor David Miller his licence to tax and spend — the City of Toronto Act.)

But I digress.

Smitherman’s plan — one he calls Transit Delivered — sounded suspiciously like Transit City the Sequel.

His first phase would be geared toward building the Spadina subway extension to York University and a variation on some of the LRT lines proposed in Miller’s Transit City plan to serve the Pan Am games.

He talked about building subway lines west on Sheppard, west on Bloor-Danforth and one to replace the Scarborough RT between 2015 and 2020, as well as an extended Finch West LRT to Highway 27.

He even promised to lower the Personal Vehicle Tax from $60 to $40 a year.

But then came the hard cold reality.

Smitherman pegged the cost of his transit scheme at $17.4 billion, $10 billion of which he says has been committed by the province and the feds.

He also claimed the city has “committed” $514-million towards the Spadina line extension.

The rest, or a whopping $7 billion, he contended, will come from an arrangement with the private sector.

To him, that means getting the private sector to build the lines and possibly debt-finance the $7 billion. Over time the city will pay back the financiers — whomever they may be — like they were paying back a mortgage.

To raise the money needed to pay this mortgage, Smitherman proposed establishing a Transit Trust, into which he would plunk city revenues acquired from the federal and provincial gas taxes, Toronto Hydro and Toronto Parking Authority dividends and fees from development on transit lines.

I don’t for a minute mind the private sector managing such projects. Unlike the TTC’s St. Clair fiasco, private interests might just get it done on time and on budget.

But hold on just a minute F.G.

For one thing, the $514 million you claim is committed by the city to the Spadina subway was already snatched by His Blondness in this year’s capital budget to pay down the debt. In fact, Miller and his budget brains approved a plan that proposes debt financing the subway project over 30 long years.

Isn’t your financing scheme just a creative way of saying you plan to put the city more in the red (not a stretch for a Liberal, methinks).

When I suggested it is rather naive of him to think he’ll have any money for his Transit Trust, when in fact the current mayor has swallowed up every penny to balance the books, he told me we’ll see his full financial plan in late September or early October.

He wouldn’t spell out budget cuts, only saying his plan will “restrain” growth in the city’s labour costs and focus on core services.

Hopefully we’ll know more before election day.

His opponent Rocco Rossi — who proposed selling off Toronto Hydro to pay down the city’s debt and to use the $450 million normally paid in debt charges to build new subway lines — wondered how citizens could trust the same guy who blew $1 billion on eHealth with a $7-billion Transit Trust.

“There’s a seven-times the eHealth scandal looming (with this plan),” Rossi said. “It’s absolute nonsense … there is no credibility to his plan.

“This is the same old political nonsense … promise the moon and then disappoint people.”