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Can Rob Ford do all that?

by Natalie Alcoba

Mayor Rob Ford appears unfazed. He is nestled in the corner of an aubergine love-seat — foot on the knee, arm along the shoulder of the couch — in the office that is, gradually, transforming into a reflection of him. Boxes of football memorabilia huddle around the doorway. A mounted newspaper cartoon depicting the scrappier side of His Worship is leaning up against the wall inside, along with a collage of his late father, the MPP Douglas Ford Sr.

This is Day Two of 1,460 in the conservative politician’s mandate. Day One was a doozy. He pledged to freeze property taxes next year. He declared the light-rail plan called Transit City “over,” and a crusade for subways just begun.

Away from a hungry press corps straining to calculate the ramifications — can he do that? — the Mayor was steadfast in his resolve during a sit-down interview with the National Post. Even if questions focus on whether he can, in fact, do all that. Various quarters agree that city council has final say on Toronto’s transportation future. And despite his commitment to the subway cause, even the Mayor admits Toronto doesn’t have the cash to spend on it.

Indeed, finances are among Mr. Ford’s top priorities. He reiterated a pledge to slay the city’s debt, approaching $3-billion, while also taking in less money from Toronto taxpayers. His vow to cancel the vehicle registration tax seems like a winner at council; it usually brings in $40-million to $50-million a year. Freezing property taxes will forsake more money — he estimates $15-million to $20-million for every percentage point that the city does not increase. During the election, he lambasted an identical promise by a rival as “impossible.”

“I’ve reviewed the numbers and it is possible,” Mr. Ford said this week. “When you start out hearing you’re $500-million in the hole, you think it is [impossible]. But then staff comes up with found money, and I think it’s achievable,” he said. “Why not give people a tax break if you could?”

Mr. Ford maintains that his target of shaving 2.5% off the bottom line next year, or about $230-million, is “very doable,” although he can’t say for sure what the exact cost reductions will be. “I’m going to take it year by year. I talked to staff this year and they seem to think we can come up with a 0% tax increase and not have any major service cuts,” he said.

What are major service cuts in his eyes? Rest assured that Toronto won’t see bus or garbage routes “cut out.” Any move to close libraries on Sundays is similarly not on.

The TTC has been told to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new transit map that includes subways instead of surface light-rail. The current plan by Metrolinx, the regional transportation agency, would see light rail on Finch, Eglinton, Sheppard and the Scarborough RT.

“I campaigned on subways. I was very clear in my message. I never deviated from my message. I said after what happened with St. Clair, which I call Transit City 101, we’re not going to have 102 or 103. I said we’re going to build subways and we are going to build subways,” said Mr. Ford. “Whatever terminology you would use, streetcars, LRTs, Sheppard Avenue, Eglinton, it’s all going underground. I’m trying to be as clear as possible,” said Mr. Ford. He campaigned to extend the Sheppard subway and turn the RT into a subway.

His $3-billion price tag to tunnel along Sheppard alone appears, by preliminary TTC estimates, to be conservative. Either way, the province has made it clear that there is less than $3.1-billion available for transit expansion in Toronto, because some of the money has already been spent. During a stop in Toronto on Friday, the federal Conservatives dampened expectations of financial help from Ottawa. “Is there going to be new money for infrastructure in the next federal budget? I don’t think so,” said Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney.

Mr. Ford said he is not prepared to put city money into building subways now. “If we’re $3-billion in debt, we’re not going to go $4-billion in debt to build subways. It’s not going to happen. I want to get our financial house in order and then we’ll take it from there,” he said. During the campaign, he touted development rights as a way to offset the cost of subway construction.

Funding questions aside, he is also counting on his colleagues—including a vocal crowd of councillors who dismiss the subway plan as “fairy dust” — to come on side. Mr. Ford shrugs off the opposition. “It’s not a vote against me, it’s a vote against the taxpayer. It’s a vote against the people who are saying they want subways,” said Mr. Ford.