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Tax freeze, transit plan among Ford's priorities

by Natalie Alcoba

Mayor Rob Ford pulled no punches on his first day at the helm of the city, announcing a surprise property tax freeze and proclaiming a plan to build light-rail transit dead.

Vowing to give voters what they asked for, Mr. Ford outlined his priorities at City Hall during a packed press conference in the Mayor’s protocol lounge.

“Toronto taxpayers do not want a larger budget and more spending. There will be no tax increases next year, there will be no major service cuts next year, we are going to keep the budget the exact same as this year,” Mr. Ford said.

He will strike a customer service task force, and introduce measures he says will improve accountability and transparency at City Hall. “I want city managers to find ways to deliver city services more efficiently and effectively,” Mr. Ford said.

He also made it abundantly clear that his Toronto is about subways, not the surface transit routes that former mayor David Miller championed and the provincial government is paying for.

The Toronto Transit Commission is already working to present a revised transit plan that includes subways.

The mayor’s office, the TTC, Metrolinx and the province say that city council would have to sign off on a new plan.

“We will not build any more rail tracks down the middle of our streets,” said Mr. Ford, who pledged to stop the “war on the car,” starting by nixing the $60 vehicle registration tax at the Dec. 16 council meeting.

Just how he will achieve spending cuts — $230-million next year — without impacting services, remains to be seen; his pledge to flat line the budget will have to accommodate a 2.25% cost of living salary increase for city workers. Meanwhile, anti-poverty activists staged their first Ford protest and promised that more are to come.

His team members believes they have the support on council to eliminate the despised car tax.

But Mr. Ford can expect a showdown with left-wing members of council who defend the light-rail network known as Transit City, and say any changes threaten to delay new transit for a generation.

“Council approved all of the environmental assessments, the budgets for it, the routes, we had a say on all of the key elements of this plan and we have a right and an obligation because we represent constituents to have a say on these changes,” said Councillor Janet Davis (Beaches-East York).

The provincial government has committed $3.1-billion to the first phase of construction on four light-rail transit lines on Sheppard Avenue, Finch, Eglinton and converting the Scarborough RT. During the campaign, Mr. Ford said he wanted Premier Dalton McGuinty to redirect that money to the extending the Sheppard subway line, and turning the RT into a subway.

The provincial government is signalling it is open to changes, but the province isn’t going to be putting up any extra money. Subways are significantly more expensive than surface light rail (the TTC says $300-million per kilometre compared to $75-million per kilometres for LRTs).

“If council and the Mayor make this decision to change course, we’re obviously going to have to work with them,” said Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s Minister of Transportation. “But make no mistake the decisions that appear to be being made today will cost money, they will cost time and they will cost money in terms of broken contracts,” she said. The province has already spent $130-million on the original plan, plus signed $1.3-billion in contracts.

Gary Webster, the chief general manager of the Toronto Transit Commission, said the TTC will take the next six weeks to cost out the Mayor’s subway plan, and also find out how much it would cost to turn the current Metrolinx plan into subways, or to build the LRT lines underground.

The Sheppard LRT is already underway. Mr. Webster said contractors working on a grade separation at the Agincourt GO station will continue toiling away because it is necessary regardless of whether an LRT or a subway is built.

He could not say what sort of delay would result from switching gears to a new plan. It’s also too soon to say what this means for a light rail transit line across Eglinton, 10 kilometres of which are underground. “He seemed OK with the piece on Eglinton that is underground,” Mr. Webster said.

Mr. Webster, during a meeting Wednesday morning, told the mayor it would take about five or six years to construct something like his proposed Sheppard subway. “It was at that point that Mr. Ford made it clear that the challenge for us is to have it done by the Pan Am games, so clearly, that’s challenging,” said Mr. Webster. The TTC is looking at a faster construction schedule that has more tunnel boring machines working at once.