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'War on the car is over': Ford moves transit underground

by David Rider

The $8 billion Transit City light rail plan championed by the former mayor David Miller — years in the making and with construction underway — is “over”, Mayor Rob Ford has declared.

Ford made the remarks Wednesday morning, and repeated them at afternoon press conference at which he also made the surprise pledge of no increase in property taxes in 2011.

“Zero per cent tax increase … Property taxes will not go up,” said Ford who, during the campaign, had promised only to hold the tax increase to around 1.8 per cent, the rate of inflation.

He got an early start to his first day on the job, meeting at around 7 a.m. with Toronto Transit Commission chief general manager Gary Webster to emphasize that subways are preferable to the 120-kilometres of streetcar routes laid out by Miller.

“I just wanted to make it quite clear that he understood that Transit City’s over and the war on the car is over, and all new subway expansion is going underground. And that’s pretty well it,” Ford said.

“I just told him that everything moving forward is underground. And he accepted that. And I look forward to working with him.”

Ford, who wants to build a subway to the Scarborough Town Centre, said he didn’t specifically insist that ongoing work on the new Sheppard light rail line be stopped.

“No, I just told him whatever we’re doing is going underground, so we’re going to build subways. I was elected on that mandate, and I’m going to deliver my promises to the taxpayers that subways will be built in the city.”

Ford said he has yet to speak to Premier Dalton McGuinty, whose provincial government has put up most of the money for Transit City, but added that officials from both leaders’ offices have had “good discussions.”

The new mayor did indicate he would like to see light rail money diverted underground.

“I look forward to meeting with Mr. McGuinty about the funding with respect to subways,” he said. “Again, I’m going to talk to Mr. McGuinty and we’ll take it from there. I’m trying to set something up as soon as possible.

Ford was non-committal when asked who will be responsible for the money already spent if the light rail plan is scrapped. The Ontario government says it has so far spent about $130 million and signed contracts worth $1.3 billion.

Ottawa is contributing $330 million for the Sheppard line, about one-third of its cost. The province has said it will cover the rest of Transit City’s $8.15 billion bill — for Sheppard, a Finch light rail line, an Eglinton crosstown route, and conversion of Scarborough’s aging rapid transit line to light rail.

“Again, I’m going to deal with the province with respect to that and take it from there,” Ford said.

At Queen’s Park, Premier Dalton McGuinty said if the “duly elected” new mayor and council want to cancel Transit City there’s little the province can do to stop them, the Star’s Robert Benzie reports.

“We’re going to sit down and meet and we’re going to talk. There is a new mayor; there is a new council. We’re going to work as hard as we can to find some common ground,” said McGuinty.

But the premier warned that there is no new funding for any subway lines beyond the $3.1 billion currently committed.

“If there are changes to be proposed connected with the original plan — and there are costs associated with that — those will be visited upon the council and the people of Toronto,” he warned.

“That will be an important factor for them to take into account.”

But NDP MPP Michael Prue (Beaches-East York) said Queen’s Park should intervene “to ensure Transit City gets built.”

“Allowing Transit City to be scuttled would be a very grave error on this government’s part,” said Prue, who is also a former city councillor.

“Work has started. Yet the McGuinty government appears ready to sit back and watch Transit City be stopped dead in its tracks at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars to the taxpayers of this province,” he said.

“People in parts of Toronto harshly remember the premier (Mike Harris) who killed the Eglinton subway. Does this premier want to go down in history as the one who helped to kill the Eglinton LRT, or will he do the right thing and join with New Democrats to save Transit City?”

At City Hall, some councillors were noting that city council as a whole endorsed Transit City and it will take a council vote, not a decision from the mayor alone, to change course.

“I think it’s premature,” rookie Councillor Josh Matlow said of Ford’s pronouncement. “I believe that council should have an opportunity for discussion about public transit in this city — transit affects everyone in every corner of the city and there are millions of tax dollars at stake.”

Ford could get a Transit City motion introduced as early as the Dec. 16 council meeting.

Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) acknowledged Ford was elected with a large mandate promising a subway plan, rather than Transit City, and wants to people to know “there’s a new sheriff in town.

“But many councillors were elected with large mandates supporting Transit City — let’s not invalidate those elections. We need a responsible, thoughtful discussion.”

At noon in Nathan Phillips Square, a few dozen protesters from groups including the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty huddled in cold drizzle in front of a banner stating: “Rob Ford’s gravy train will just feed the pigs.”

Lisa Schofield of OCAP said the protesters are demanding changes to the way welfare is administered, the elimination of the waiting list for subsidized housing and better public transit for the poor.

“As (Ford) is cutting Transit City, he’s also going to be cutting services to poor and working-class people,” Schofield told reporters.

“Our biggest fear is a (former premier Mike) Harris-style era in this city, which we can all be terrified of, quite frankly.”




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