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James: Transit deal possible with Ford, Metrolinx

by Royson James
City Columnist

This one should be easy for Mayor Rob Ford.

As one who campaigned on a platform of “respect for taxpayers” and “transparency and accountability” at city hall, Ford should present his new transportation vision to Toronto council, not attempt an end-run around local politicians.

Ford’s plan would focus more on subways and less on light rail. But the new roadmap is one that a confident new mayor, armed with a strong mandate, would want council to embrace. In doing so, he’d blunt the criticism he will surely get from proponents of Transit City, the light rail plan that is funded and under construction — the plan he’s vowed to halt.

Such an open approach will be messy and sometimes embarrassing. Council’s left wing will orchestrate a strike force for a heated debate. In other words, democracy will break out, and that is hardly a bad thing.

One wonders, though, if there are two sides in this debate, how come, over the past three years, there was no — as my grandmother would say — no bang-a-rang or jangaroo at council over the Transit City plan?

Because it was carefully orchestrated, stealthily introduced, woven into the fabric of city policy bit by bit, approved in pieces, and finally became a fait accompli, attracting dissent from none but the most ardent opponent.

Some call the approach too clever by half. It would have been successful had one of the main opponents not become mayor. Now, the tail that tried to wag the transit dog is the top dog. And, instead of adopting the openness he says was sorely missing, he’s musing about repeating the sins of the past, keeping the debate at the TTC, away from council.

Ford appears correct in stating that, technically, city council did not adopt the Transit City plan. Council voted on doing environmental assessments on various lines. And there were other votes that, steps removed, gave support to the Transit City approach. But the light rail advocates had no motivation to stage a full, open debate that would lead to a clear vote that Toronto had abandoned its dreams for subways and opted for the more affordable and workable and sensible light-rail option.

That type of unequivocal vote comes when city council is on the hook, financially, for a project. Transit City is funded almost entirely by the provincial government. City council, because it is not responsible for its funding, has paid little attention to the projects.

Most of the debate has taken place at the Toronto Transit Commission, an arm’s-length body populated by city councillors. Their decisions come to council only if council has to fund the policies.

Council is similarly disconnected from the Spadina subway extension to York Region; and the rail link from Union Station to Pearson. No pay, little say, little interest.

If Ford can get the province to shift its funding to subways from light rail, council, in theory, doesn’t have to approve it. That will involve difficult negotiations. And Queen’s Park will probably listen to Metrolink, the agency set up to administer transportation across the region.

Metrolink wants a compromise with Ford — and they’ll want council’s backing.

Pointing out that the province has committed $8.15 billion to build four new transit lines into Toronto as part of a provincial commitment to relieving congestion and mange growth across the GTA and Hamilton, Metrolinx chair Rob Prichard says:

“The province is committed to building more transit, just as the city is. Therefore, the city and province and TTC and Metrolinx need to find common ground that meets the needs of the city and the region and spends tax dollars prudently.”

And can they?

“The case for finding common ground is compelling and in the interest of all Torontonians” and all the region, he says. “We will work intensely to achieve this.”