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Gee: A mayor with a mandate and he's not afraid to use it

by Marcus Gee

Power is, well, empowering, isn’t it? Rob Ford took office as Toronto’s 64th mayor at midnight on Tuesday. Seven hours later, while the streets outside City Hall were still dark, he called the chief general manager of the Toronto Transit Commission on the carpet and ordered an end to a multi-billion-dollar mass-transit scheme that took years to approve and fund.

Early work on one Transit City line is already under way. Rail cars have been ordered. Tough luck, said His Worship. Transit City is dead. Gary Webster promptly scuttled off to prepare a new plan more to the new mayor’s liking.

You can’t say Mr. Ford is shy about wielding power. He knows he has a mandate and he is determined to use it. To those who said he could never achieve half of what he promised in his simplistic, slogan-laden election platform, he is as much as saying: Just watch me.

He and the tough-minded entourage that guided him to victory in the Oct. 25 election have put together a wham-bam to-do list for the first stage of his administration. Kill Transit City. Kill the vehicle-registration tax. Cut back office expenses for the mayor and councillors. Declare transit an essential service.

As if heads were not already spinning at the pace of change, there was a surprise extra yesterday: a freeze on property taxes in his first year, something that even this self-proclaimed tax fighter had not been bold enough to offer before his thumping election victory.

It was a confident, crisp-sounding Mr. Ford who stepped out to meet the press in the packed antechamber of his second-floor office on Wednesday. Standing in the spot occupied by his political opposite David Miller for the past seven years, he offered a four-point program to transform city hall.

One: a new culture of customer-service excellence, in which “every phone call, every e-mail, will be responded to.” Two: a more transparent, more accountable city government. Three: an end to “wasteful spending and automatic tax increases.”

Four: A whole new approach to transit. Throwing aside Mr. Miller’s beloved Transit City light-rail plan as casually as he would dispose of a used gum wrapper, he vowed to bury all new lines far under the pavement - where they won’t get in the way of peeved motorists like him.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he proclaimed, “the war on the car stops today.” You could almost hear the roar of approval from the fuming, traffic-bound commuters on the 401, the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway.

It was all a bit breathtaking in a city hall culture where change tends to come in increments, if at all. “Welcome to the world of hardball politics, day one,” said Joe Mihevc, a city councillor bounced from his job as TTC vice-chair as Mr. Ford packed government committees with councillors after his own heart. After winning with 47 per cent of the vote, Mr. Ford is feeling no need to do follow the example of previous mayors and reach out to those on the other side of the political divide.

Of course sounding bold is easy right after you win. On the first day of the Year of Our Ford anything seems possible. The complications will come soon enough.

How, for example, do you design, approve and build that underground transit line along Sheppard Avenue to Scarborough in time for the Pan Am Games in 2015, as Mr. Ford has promised? Subways take time. It has been 13 years since the northward extension of the Spadina line was conceived and it is only now on the verge of construction.

How, for that matter, do you cover the enormous cost of burying the Sheppard line without using up the money put aside for other projects, such as the long-awaited Eglinton line? Even if, as the TTC’s Mr. Webster suggests, you could use light-rail vehicles instead of subways to run underground, you still have to dig the tunnel and that is where most of the cost lies.

But then, Mr. Ford has never been one to let the facts get in the way of a good slogan, like “people want subways.” He is bulldozing ahead regardless. So far, no one seems ready to stand in his way.

Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty is behind in the polls and facing an election next fall. He has no interest in picking a fight with the popular new mayor over something like Transit City, a half-understood project championed by an ex-mayor and a group of left-leaning councillors who are suddenly on the outs at city hall. It is hardly an accident that Mr. McGuinty and his ministers are sounding more open to a new transit plan, as long as it doesn’t cost them more money.

In the late stages of the campaign for mayor, when Mr. Ford was pulling ahead of his rivals, one pollster said the Etobicoke councillor was like a hockey player with a breakaway on the St. Lawrence River. Winning has put the wind at his back. He is making the most of it.