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Councillors insist they'll have final say on transit plan

By John Lorinc
and Kelly Grant

Invoking his broad election mandate, Mayor Rob Ford has ordered the Toronto Transit Commission to jettison the Transit City light-rail plan in favour of subway construction. But a large majority of councillors from across the political spectrum are already insisting that council, not the nine-member commission, should make the ultimate decision.

Twenty-three of 29 councillors surveyed by The Globe and Mail said council as a whole must be the body that decides on the fate of the $8.15-billion, provincially funded strategy.

The apparent gap between the new mayor’s hard-driving game plan and the wishes of his 44-member council could point to a looming showdown over one of the meatiest items on Mr. Ford’s to-do list. While the commission may be stacked with Ford loyalists, a council vote could have a less predictable outcome. How all this will play out politically in the coming weeks is anything but clear.

The decision “should come from council,” said Davenport Councillor Ana Bailao. It’s a view shared by pro-Ford councillors such as Etobicoke’s Vincent Crisanti and John Parker, the new deputy Speaker.

Some councillors, however, felt the mayor already got his marching orders from the voters. “I think the people have spoken,” said David Shiner (Willowdale), an at-large member of Mr. Ford’s executive committee. Others are openly skeptical about Mr. Ford’s ability to deliver. As Gord Perks (Parkdale High Park), a staunch Transit City supporter, said, the mayor’s subway promise is “fairy dust.”

Interestingly, former mayor David Miller never obtained full council approval for the Transit City strategy. The centrepiece of his 2006 re-election platform, the ambitious light-rail plan was approved by the TTC in March of 2007, and received pledges of provincial funding later that year. Council subsequently voted on individual aspects of the plan.

Mr. Ford could be pursuing a similar game plan, except in reverse. “I ran on a platform, as you know, of subways and I was elected with quite a large mandate to deliver subways, and that’s exactly what I’m going to do,” Mr. Ford said Wednesday. At the first commission meeting later this month, incoming TTC chair Karen Stintz (Eglinton Lawrence) will order the agency to stop Transit City spending and develop options for a subway plan by late January.

In an interview, Ms. Stinz said the options, which could include more underground light-rail projects like the one proposed for Eglinton Avenue, as well as a financial assessment of the costs, will go to council “no later than February.

“I think the commission will be charged with bringing forward a new plan and ultimately council should debate the new plan.”

Ontario’s transportation minister Kathleen Wynne warned Wednesday that “decisions that appear to be being started today will cost money … in terms of broken contracts.”

Ms. Wynne and other provincial officials have stressed on several occasions that while they want to work with the city, they will be looking for a council decision to signal the fate of the first tranche of Transit City projects.

Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, which invested $333-million in the Sheppard East LRT, is treading cautiously. “We have not received a formal request from Ontario or Toronto to cancel our commitment to the Sheppard East Light Rail Transit Project,” a federal spokesperson said.

TTC general manager Gary Webster also said that city council will have to approve any change in direction, as will Metrolinx, the provincial agency that has been given the responsibility to build the LRT lines along Eglinton, Finch and Sheppard. “Certainly we would seek the approval of our board. Metrolinx has a similar responsibility. They have a board of directors that they report to.”

Several councillors expressed concerns about the potential penalties associated with cancelling existing contracts for equipment and light-rail vehicles purchases. “I need to have more information” about the financial impact, said Gary Crawford, a new Scarborough councillor, who said he favours subways.

But incoming budget chair Mike Del Grande (Scarborough Agincourt) said it’s “premature” to speculate on the financial impact of Mr. Ford’s move. “I’m going to wait until the mayor speaks to the premier and then I’ll be in a better position to answer.”

Some observers fear that sound transportation and land-use planning principles will once again be sacrificed as local politicians use competing transit visions as political footballs. “The bottom line is that politics, not transportation planning, will determine the future of transit development in Toronto, and maybe ever has it been thus,” Ryerson University political scientist Myer Siemiatycki said.

John Lorinc is Special to The Globe and Mail