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Going all in on his first hand

Rob Ford’s newly declared War on the Streetcar is a pure political play, and how the cards fall now will tell us a lot about what will happen
in the next four years

by Edward Keenan

On his first official day as mayor of Toronto—before he was sworn in, before he’d appointed anyone, a full week before the council he’ll answer to would even meet for the first time—Rob Ford called TTC General Manager Gary Webster into his office, gave him his marching orders and promptly held a press conference to declare an armistice in the so-called War on the Car. “Transit City is dead,” Ford said. From here on in, all our transit construction would be subways, underground where subways belong, he said.

And, as if the mayor of Toronto were entitled to set regional transit priorities by fiat, everyone seemed to assume immediately his word was deed. Our newspapers were filled with obituaries for David Miller’s stillborn transportation agenda and admiration for Mayor Ford’s taking-care-of-business approach to government. With that, Scene One of the mayor’s first Act in office ended. Note that the metaphor is carefully chosen: this was a display of political theatre, which has always been and remains Ford’s specialty.

As policy, the mayor’s actions have been almost crazy. Alternatives for transit building have been considered by our best minds over the past decade. The consensus—at city hall, at the TTC, at the province’s Metrolinx agency, in the halls of academia—is that light rail is the best way to serve the most people, given the money at hand. The mayor’s subway-building scheme would serve a small area of Scarborough and cost vastly more than the entire Transit City network, which would span the whole city. For a moment, forget capital costs and consider only the year-over-year expense of running Ford’s proposed Sheppard subway. According to the back of my napkin, it would create a shortfall of at least $50 million a year for the next two to three decades.

“People prefer subways,” the mayor says, a phrase that acts as the introduction, thesis, proof and conclusion of his policy argument. Which is fine: I prefer to eat at Canoe, the famously luxurious restaurant atop the TD Centre. But if I pursued a policy of only eating at Canoe, my family would starve.

Still, even if money were not a factor, the mayor simply does not have the authority to dictate transit policy. Building subways, or streetcar lines, is a complicated business, and one that is the primary responsibility of the Toronto Transit Commission, Metrolinx (the regional transit coordination body), and the provincial government.

Of course, it isn’t just the transit players involved. The mayor has no authority to accomplish anything, really, by proclamation. If he wants to set transit policy (or even appoint the transit commissioners who set policy), he needs the approval of city council, which he may or may not get. Ford claims he didn’t get a vote on Transit City in the first place, so he sees no need to hold a vote on killing it. But the Toronto Transit Commission certainly formulated Transit City, and council records show that on July 16, 2007, Rob Ford joined the rest of city council in unanimously approving the initiation of it. He voted for light rail. Now that he’s changed his mind, he’ll need to put that to a vote, too.

So far, this move is all about politics. Ford had the option of starting small and building consensus on council—pursuing gimmes like repealing the vehicle-registration tax and cutting council expenses. With that strategy, he could slowly demonstrate that he’s not a bull in a china shop—that he’s capable of negotiating with council to get things done. Instead, Ford has taken an issue that’s one of the most ambitious and contentious in his platform and made it Job One. He’s gone all-in on his first hand and challenged council to call his bluff.

It’s a brassy move. By making bold declarations, he sets the agenda and forces his opponents to act quickly from a position of defensiveness. If he loses on Transit City, it could spell real trouble for his ability to get anything done as mayor.

But if Ford does manage to succeed in his newly declared War on the Streetcar—facing down the leftists and centrists on council, the premier and virtually every transit expert employed in Canada—then it’s hard to imagine what he won’t be able to push down council’s throat.

Now it’s his opponents’ turn to bet. Let’s hope they’re holding the right cards.

LICENSED TO RIDE Rob Ford can declare Transit City dead and people will listen, but his proclamation doesn’t make it reality—the mayor doesn’t govern regional transportation policy by fiat, after all. Here are some of the other people who will need to get on board to turn Ford’s anti-light rail shouting into action

PREMIER DALTON McGUINTY It’s the provincial government that put up the dollars for Transit City. It will be the provincial government that foots the bill for any subway tunneling Ford achieves, too

THE TORONTO TRANSIT COMMISSIONERS Officially, it is not city council that directs our transit policy, but the Transit Commission itself, to be led by Ford-friendly councillor Karen Stintz

TORONTO TRANSIT COMMISSION STAFF TTC GM Gary Webster is playing it deferential for the time being, but any plan that gets implemented will come from the only people who know what they’re talking about—the TTC staff who’ve spent years trying to get Transit City funded and built

METROLINX The regional body tasked by the government with overseeing the GTA’s transit construction will be directly involved in whatever gets built, or doesn’t, and Chair Bruce McCuaig has indicated a preference for light rail

CITY COUNCIL No matter what the mayor wants to do—on transit or anything else—he’ll need to answer to our elected representatives in council. Miller-era transit gurus like Gord Perks and Joe Mihevc are unlikely to submit to scrapping a decade’s work without a fight