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Selley: Ford's jarring bravado on transit

by Chris Selley

Anyone who followed the mayoral campaign would have instantly recognized the Rob Ford who sat down with the National Post on Thursday in his office. He’s the same guy — not that anyone should have expected otherwise. This is not a politician who campaigns in one gear and governs in a lower one. If anything, he’s gotten bolder. His suite of election promises remains intact, and he’s systematically re-promising them from the Mayor’s office — in effect doubling down on his own credibility, even as he’s asking city staff to assess the feasibility of his plans.

And he’s added another promise: a property tax freeze in 2011, at a cost of perhaps $50-million to the bottom line — made possible, he says, by David Miller’s last magic surplus of $275-million. No one would have blamed him if he hadn’t. A more cautious politician might have been relieved that his cost reduction plan — eliminating the fair wage policy ($80-million in savings), 3% staff attrition ($67-million), 2.5% in efficiencies ($230-million) — now had a better chance of making up the $228-million budget shortfall that remains. Instead, on Day One of his administration, Mr. Ford hiked the shortfall to something like $278-million.

Mr. Ford’s bravado is most jarring when it comes to transit. On Day One of his mayoralty, he promised Torontonians they’ll never see another metre of railway tracks at grade and recommitted to building out the Sheppard and Danforth subways to meet at Scarborough Town Centre.

“We’re not going to have any more surface rail. We’re not going to have any tracks above ground,” he told the Post. “Whatever terminology you want to use — streetcars, LRTs — it’s going underground. Sheppard Avenue, Eglinton. It’s all going underground.”

Clear enough — though there’s no money left for Eglinton, of course. But again, nobody doubted his sincerity on these fronts. Nobody would have minded if he’d asked TTC staff to cost the plan, booked an appointment with Premier Dalton McGuinty — who holds the purse strings — and asked us to stay tuned for the results.

Mr. Ford’s campaign costed his subway plan at $4-billion, $3.7-billion of which was to be repurposed Transit City funding from the province, with the rest to come from air rights and development fees. In fact, only around $3-billion of that was ever available, and at least $130-million of it has already been spent.

How much more taxpayer money is Mr. Ford willing to write off to bring Transit City to an end? “Shouldn’t have to write off any more,” he told the Post. “I told [TTC general manager] Gary [Webster] yesterday, I said, ‘That’s it.’ “

Then, a caveat: “As you know, it wasn’t city money that was spent. I have to sit down with the Premier to see: Is he committed to more money I’m not aware of? I can’t speak on his behalf.”

It’s a giant question mark, in other words, which Mr. Ford has drawn over with a very wide exclamation point. Cancellation penalties for already-signed contracts are an unknown. On The John Oakley Show on Thursday, Mr. Ford suggested Bombardier would be happy to abandon the LRT project to build subway cars instead. And perhaps it might, if it was handed the contract outright — but if it was forced to bid competitively, which Mr. Ford has promised, why wouldn’t Bombardier pursue any reparations owed it?

However much less than $3-billion is in fact available to the city for subways, the province has made it quite clear that’s all there’s going to be. A recent TTC briefing document obtained by Post reporter Natalie Alcoba pegs the cost of the Sheppard subway expansion alone at $3.6-billion, plus up to $500-million for a new maintenance facility — and that doesn’t include Mr. Ford’s promise to extend the line west to Downsview station. The document pegs the cost of converting the Scarborough RT to a subway at an additional $3.1-billion. These plans differ somewhat from Mr. Ford’s, but all told that’s more than $4-billion more than he seems to have at his disposal!

Until staff weigh in on Mr. Ford’s plans, it remains as premature to predict failure as it is for Mr. Ford to promise success. But what happens if the TTC comes back with numbers the city can’t even come close to affording? It’s worth pondering the possible outcomes.

On the one hand, you have Mr. Ford’s considerable ambition and his now-reinforced promises. He’s going to build subways and slash spending, and it won’t hurt a bit. “There will be no major service cuts next year,” he said Wednesday.

Next year? That’s new. Mr. Ford defined “major service cuts” as things like slashing bus routes or garbage pickup, or closing libraries on Sundays — the sorts of things his opponents swore would be necessary to achieve his promised savings. And he won’t promise they won’t be. “We’re going to take it year by year,” he said.

On the other hand, you have what was perhaps Mr. Ford’s most basic election promise: That he won’t undertake any projects the city can’t afford. Can we afford subways? We’ll see. Four years from now, if people are still riding the bus along Sheppard east of Don Mills, with no hope of change in sight, they might see Transit City, and Mr. Ford, in a rather different light. But there’s no chance at all of that happening, says Mr. Ford. Trust him.




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