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Ford to come out swinging on his first day in office

by Kelly Grant
City Hall Bureau Chief

On his first day as Toronto’s 64th mayor, Rob Ford is facing protests and a showdown with Queen’s Park over the fate of an $8.15-billion transit plan the province now admits will be “untenable” if city council withdraws its support.

Toronto’s new pro-subway chief magistrate is expected to start his tenure by reiterating to Gary Webster, the TTC’s top unelected official, that he wants work halted on Transit City, the light-rail network championed by Mr. Ford’s predecessor and funded by the provincial and federal governments.

The early-morning meeting could be a combative start for the Ford administration, which according to one councillor has added another controversial item to its first council meeting - urging the province to ban strikes at the TTC.

“Their information to me was that they intend to put making the TTC an essential service on the agenda at the Dec. 16 meeting,” said outgoing TTC vice-chair Joe Mihevc, who met Tuesday with Mark Towhey, one of Mr. Ford’s senior policy advisers.

Killing Transit City would be a thornier - and potentially much more expensive - proposition than anything Mr. Ford has slated for his first working council meetings.

If he wants to make good on his campaign pledge to extend the subway in Scarborough instead of building four light-rail lines across the city, he’ll have to face the prospect that the Liberal government would stick the municipality with the bill for cancelled contracts.

“The City of Toronto is going to have to bear any additional costs. We don’t have extra money,” Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

The province has already spent about $130-million on preliminary work for the four lines and has inked contracts worth $1.3-billion, Ms. Wynne said.

Ms. Wynne and Bruce McCuaig, chief executive officer of Metrolinx, conceded for the first time Tuesday that it would be impossible to continue with the Toronto projects as planned in the face of opposition from the city.

“Even if we chose to override a council resolution, we don’t have the capacity to do the work on the ground. So it really has to be working in conjunction with the municipal level of government,” Ms. Wynne said.

“If we don’t have the agreement and support of the City of Toronto, who are the representatives of the people of the community, it’s pretty hard for us to move ahead with the projects. There’s no question about that,” Mr. McCuaig said, adding he’s optimistic a compromise can be reached.

Metrolinx has committed $3.1-billion over the next four years - a total of $8.15-billion over 10 years - to building four light-rail lines in Toronto.

They include the Sheppard East LRT, which is one-third funded by Ottawa and has already broken ground; the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, which will run underground for much of its route through the centre of the city; the Finch West LRT; and a light-rail replacement for Scarborough’s aging SRT.

Mr. Ford and his staff continued to duck the media Tuesday, refusing to speak publicly except to confirm the mayor has scheduled a meeting with Mr. Webster.

Mr. Webster and Vince Rodo, general secretary of the TTC, met with Mr. Ford’s transition team earlier this month.

Sources say they made clear that extending the Sheppard subway from its existing terminus at Don Mills to Scarborough Town Centre - Mr. Ford’s preference - would cost $4-billion more than the Sheppard East LRT.

The subway addition would be eight kilometres and seven stations; the LRT would be 12 kilometres and 26 stations, according to documents the TTC presented at the meeting.

Some $34.1-million had been spent on the Sheppard LRT as of Sept. 30. Another $228-million had been committed through Nov. 1, the documents say.

But the sources also say the Ford team is determined to force all lines underground.

“We’re talking potentially several hundred million dollars gone for a [subway] pipe dream that makes no sense,” Mr. Mihevc said.

Mr. Ford, a former Etobicoke councillor, has already courted controversy by selecting of a team of like-minded suburban councillors to carry out an agenda that his office has said will include eliminating the vehicle-registration tax and cutting councillors’ office, staff and perk allowances on Dec. 16. (The new council’s first meeting on Dec. 7 and 8 is largely ceremonial.)

Meantime, left-wing activist groups plan to greet Mr. Ford with a protest at Nathan Phillips Square at noon Wednesday, the same hour and location 400 tuba-playing children are scheduled to give a concert.

Mr. Ford can expect a much warmer reception when David Johnson, Canada’s new Governor-General, visits the mayor at City Hall later in the week as part of an official swing through Ontario.