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On transit, Rob Ford needs to show respect for taxpayers

Rob Ford, Toronto’s new mayor, has an important mandate: to deliver essential public services effectively and at lower cost, and to cancel punitive fees like the vehicle registration charge. But he cannot both preach fiscal rectitude and proceed with an expensive, wasteful and unnecessary cancellation of the city’s public transit expansion plan.

Mr. Ford, who is meeting Wednesday morning with TTC general manager Gary Webster, wants to scrap existing, provincially funded Transit City streetcar projects and build new subway lines instead. He likes subways because they are fast and convenient and dislikes streetcars because they are slow and disrupt street traffic.

Fair enough. Different modes of transit provoke emotional reactions. But three aspects of Transit City should give Mr. Ford pause.

Toronto’s current streetcars are small, overcrowded and tend to block traffic. By buying longer streetcars for downtown lines, wait times will go down. Suburban residents, meanwhile, will get new routes on separate rights of way that promise speeds comparable to subways at a fraction of the cost. The Transit City plan tames some of the public’s worst, and legitimate, irritations around streetcars.

The city is getting a great deal. The province is footing almost all of the bill for billions of dollars in projects.

Most importantly, the projects are under way. Construction on the Sheppard East line has been going on for a year. Tunnel-boring machines have been ordered for the Eglinton West project. Around $130-million has already been spent. If Mr. Ford were to get his way, this money would be squandered. Breaking an existing $770-million contract with Bombardier for new streetcars would cost untold millions more. These results would be at complete odds with Mr. Ford’s prime, stated mission, to cut government waste.

There are enough problems with transit in the Greater Toronto Area as it is: insufficient co-ordination; poor customer service; delays and cost overruns on past projects; and a failure to consult the public. Picking a fight over streetcars is not the answer.

In fact, this should not be about “streetcars vs. subways” at all. The relevant question is: What is right for Toronto now, and the coming years and generations, given the current infrastructure and the available resources? Transit City is a good deal for the urban taxpayer for whom Mr. Ford demands respect.