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Ford sets tone with bold moves on first day as mayor

by Kelly Grant
City Hall Bureau Chief

Rob Ford came out swinging on his first day as mayor of Toronto, making a surprise pledge to freeze property taxes and delivering a seemingly fatal blow to a light-rail network paid for entirely by senior levels of government.

“There will be no tax increases next year. There will be no major service cuts next year,” Mr. Ford declared.

If his first day on the job is any guide, Mr. Ford is preparing for a pugilistic first year as mayor of Canada’s largest city.

He picked a mammoth fight with Queen’s Park and with council’s centrists and left-wingers by unilaterally declaring that Transit City, the $8.15-billion light-rail program, “is over.”

“It’s devastating in that it takes people’s hard-earned money and throws it away,” said Councillor Shelley Carroll, the former budget chief. “This isn’t a choice between LRTs and subways, it’s a choice between LRTs and fairy dust.”

The province has already spent $130-million in preliminary work on four LRT routes and signed another $1.3-billion in contracts, all of which could be lost if the plan is killed in favour of a Scarborough subway extension. TTC staff say the extension would cost $4-billion more than the Sheppard East LRT line that has already broken ground.

Mr. Ford also vowed to ban strikes at the TTC, abolish the despised $60 car-registration fee by Jan. 1 and put an end to the “war on the car.”

Despite some expected criticism, Mr. Ford’s first day demonstrated the strength of his bully pulpit, especially coming off his commanding election victory.

The new chief magistrate strode into City Hall before dawn.

He found David Miller’s old office nearly empty, save for prank packages of powdered gravy stuffed in drawers.

By the time he gave his first formal news conference around 1:15 p.m., Mr. Ford had secured the TTC chief general manager’s promise that he would produce a revised plan for subways by the third week of January, while the Premier said he was open to altering Transit City.

“The war on the car stops today,” Mr. Ford said. “We will refocus our public-transit plans on subways, not streetcars. We will not build any more rail tracks down the middle of our streets.”

Mr. Ford promised during the election campaign to scrap the planned 12-kilometre Sheppard East light rail.

In its place, he advocates an eight-kilometre extension of the Sheppard subway from its terminus at Don Mills to the Scarborough Town Centre.

He prefers replacing the deteriorating Scarborough RT with a subway instead of a surface light-rail line as planned.

In a 7 a.m. meeting with Gary Webster, the TTC’s top unelected official, Mr. Ford reiterated that he wants a Scarborough subway completed virtually at warp speed - in time for the 2015 Pan Am Games.

“Clearly, that’s challenging,” Mr. Webster said. “I don’t know how to do that at this point in time.”

Ontario Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne said that although the province is seeking a compromise with the new administration, Mr. Ford’s plan will have financial consequences.

“Make no mistake: The decisions that appear to be being started today will cost money … in terms of broken contracts. People need to be clear about that. City council members need to understand what the ramifications of these decisions will be.”

Along with his promises on taxes and transportation, Mr. Ford promised to put a resolution urging the province to make the TTC an essential service on the agenda of the new council’s first business meeting Dec. 16.

He said he would establish a task force of the executive committee to lead a customer-service revival.

He charged Councillor Paul Ainslie, the new chair of the government management committee, with making city hall more transparent and accountable.

Mr. Ford did not say where he intends to find the money to replace the vehicle-registration tax - he said for the first time Wednesday it would be abolished effective Jan. 1 - which rakes in between $40-million and $50-million per year.

Nor did he say how he would replace the revenue he would forgo by holding the line on residential and business property taxes.

The property-tax pledge is a departure from Mr. Ford’s election campaign, when he called a freeze “impossible.” At the time, he promised to keep tax increases to the equivalent of the rate of inflation.

Toronto last froze property taxes in 2000, the third year of 0-per-cent increases under the mega-city’s first mayor, Mel Lastman.

Since then, taxes have gone up between 3 per cent and 5 per cent per year.

Forgoing a 3-per-cent increase to residential taxes and a 1-per-cent increase to nonresidential taxes would cost about $64.2-million, based on the current assessment base.

However, Mr. Ford’s predecessor, Mr. Miller, has said that this year’s surplus is forecast at around $275-million.

City staff predicted earlier this year that the projected budget shortfall for 2011 would be $503-million. The 2010 surplus would help the new mayor meet his targets if he used it all in one year. But even in that case, the city would be at least $225-million shy of balancing its books for 2011 before Mr. Ford’s tax cuts.

Looming over all of Mr. Ford’s first-day promises is the question of whether he can win the support he’ll need from his 44 fellow council members.

“The city’s not run by one person,” Councillor Janet Davis said. “A unilateral declaration of ‘I will stop Transit City’ was an indication of a very naive view of how council works.”

With a report from Karen Howlett