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Mayor Ford's first stop: Hit brakes on Transit City

By Peter Kuitenbrouwer

Rob Ford has called a meeting at City Hall on Wednesday morning at which he is expected, in his first move as mayor, to tell the head of the TTC to stop building the Transit City light-rail network.

The Toronto Transit Commission has already lost its spokesman for Transit City.

“Ryan Bissonnette moved on a couple of weeks ago,” said TTC spokesman Brad Ross, who will be answering all future Transit City questions.

According to a source, Mr. Bissonnette, the Transit City spokesman, left the TTC after his bosses told him to stop talking to reporters. His departure came a few days after he took the National Post on a tour of Transit City projects on Sheppard Avenue East.

Mr. Ross confirmed the new mayor will meet Gary Webster, chief general manager of the TTC, on Wednesday but would not discuss the subject matter.

Mr. Ford said during the campaign he wants no light rail: only a subway to Scarborough.

A little more than three weeks after the election, on Nov. 19, Rob Prichard, the chairman of Metrolinx, the provincial transit authority, and Bruce McCuaig, Metrolinx CEO, met on the 16th Floor of City Hall’s west tower with four members of Mr. Ford’s transition team: Nick Kouvalis, Mr. Ford’s chief of staff; Mark Towhey, his director of policy; and former city councillors Gordon Chong and Case Ootes.

Metrolinx sought the Ford team’s blessing for the light-rail plan, but got nowhere.

“There was no sense of backing off,” said a source. “They are pretty keen on a subway.”

Since 2007 the TTC has been designing and engineering, and has begun to build, a network of light-rail lines.

The province in May committed $1-billion for the Sheppard Avenue East light-rail line, and $4.3-billion for the Eglinton Avenue LRT.

City council, the TTC, the province and the federal government have all approved the light-rail project.

Transit City employs 150 people, divided between consultants and TTC staff. The TTC has already spent $137-million in provincial money on the project.

Mr. Ford’s appointee to head the TTC, Councillor Karen Stintz (Eglinton-Lawrence) has been a longtime supporter of Transit City, whose centrepiece is a light-rail line along Eglinton Avenue, with its central stretch travelling through a tunnel. In April Ms. Stintz campaigned alongside Mayor David Miller at the Eglinton subway station to “save Transit City,” saying, “I fully support Mayor Miller and his initiative and I’m proud to stand here beside him and get the message out.”

But on Monday Ms. Stintz conceded that things have changed.

“The Metrolinx plan will be revisited and I will continue to support the Metrolinx plan as it gets revised provided it meets the objectives of the administration,” she said. “I campaigned on the Metrolinx plan.”

It is unclear whether Mr. Ford has the authority to kill Transit City.

“The TTC is the agent for the light-rail network that is currently being designed and engineered and, in the case of Sheppard, built,” said Mr. Ross. “Direction could be given by the commission to change direction. That would have to happen with Metrolinx at the table.”

Another big question mark is how Mr. Ford will square killing the project with his vow, during the campaign, to save money. Along with spending $137-million on Transit City so far, Metrolinx in June signed a contract for $770-million with Bombardier to buy 182 “Flexity 2” light-rail vehicles that will operate on the Sheppard, Eglinton and Finch lines. Metrolinx also signed a deal worth $54-million with Lovat, a division of Caterpillar, to build four tunneling machines for the Eglinton LRT line. And Metrolinx has a consulting contract with the New York-based engineering giant, Parkers Brinckerhoff.

“This will cost them money,” said a source close to the province. “If we spent $140-million on Transit City, the province isn’t going to eat that. So it’s going to cost [Toronto] money. The province is going to want to get paid back.”

Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne was not immediately available for comment.

The City of Ottawa was forced to pay nearly $100-million after a light-rail contract it signed in 2006 with Germany’s Siemens AG was subsequently cancelled under Mayor Larry O’Brien.