February 8, 2012
A fierce battle for Toronto’s transit direction reached a dramatic climax on Wednesday, with city council endorsing a light rail vision championed by the TTC chairwoman — and a defeated Mayor Rob Ford dismissing the vote as irrelevant.
By a margin of 25 to 18, council rejected the Mayor’s tunnel-only edict and backed parts of a plan, once known as Transit City, to construct a light rail line on Finch Avenue and one along Eglinton Avenue that is both underground and at street level and to revamp the Scarborough RT. Councillors put off making a decision on Sheppard Avenue, leaving the door open to the subway that Mayor Ford so fervently wants to build.
Following a standing ovation, TTC Chairwoman Karen Stintz lauded the “common sense compromise” that “sent a strong message to the province” about how the city wants to spend $8.4-billion earmarked for transit expansion.
“It’s been a long two weeks,” said the chairwoman, who broke ranks with the Mayor and headed a coalition of councillors convinced that the best way to build transit in Toronto is to opt for the more affordable surface LRTs and spread provincial funding around.
Moments later, a defiant Mayor lamented a decision he maintains ignores taxpayers. He was unable to convince council to put off the vote for a month so that a panel of experts could weigh in. “I’m very confident the Premier is going to build subways,” Mr. Ford said. “Technically speaking, that whole meeting was irrelevant because it’s a provincial project.”
Ontario Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli sent a strong signal otherwise, however, issuing a statement following the decision that said he has always “respected the will of council.” Mr. Chiarelli has asked Metrolinx, the agency spearheading transit expansion, to report back as quickly as possible on whether council’s position meets the agency’s objectives. The lines were to be built by 2020.
“Now is the time to move forward. What matters most to Torontonians is that we get shovels in the ground and deliver transit in Toronto,” the Minister said.
But the Mayor’s comments incensed his opponents, and sent his allies into damage control.
“It is remarkable to me to hear our Mayor say that council’s decision is irrelevant. He needs to better understand the governance model of the city of Toronto,” said Councillor Josh Matlow.
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong suggested the Mayor was speaking emotionally, because he so passionately believes that voters gave him a mandate to build subways.
“If there’s a vote of council, it’s the law. I don’t know how people would defy that law,” said Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday.
It all capped off a wild day in the council chambers, with Scarborough Councillor Raymond Cho likening Mr. Ford to “a dictator”, North York Councillor Maria Augimeri calling the Premier a “deadbeat” on operational transit funding, while the Mayor’s brother and the TTC chief general manager debated if the St. Clair right-of-way was a “disaster” or a “success.” Buttons emblazoned with “Karen Stintz Fan Club” and “I heart Gary Webster” [the TTC chief general manager] were circulated.
What became a messy fight began when Mayor Ford declared Transit City dead his first day in office in the fall of 2010. The Mayor later struck a deal, that required council approval, with the province that diverted funding for four LRT lines into tunnelling the Eglinton Crosstown and revamping the Scarborough RT, while the city sought funding to build an extension to the Sheppard subway. About two weeks ago, Ms. Stintz went public with her opposition. When the Mayor refused to abandon his pursuit of underground transit, Ms. Stintz began promoting the Transit City plan, which originally envisioned light rail on Sheppard. An attempt by Ford allies Michael Thompson and Peter Milczyn to strike a compromise with the other side that the Mayor would support fizzled Tuesday evening.
On Wednesday, Mayor Ford argued that councillors were making a decision without enough information. Ms. Stintz referred to a battery of studies and technical reports that have been done for the light rail plan.
Council voted 28 to 15 to strike an advisory panel, including representatives from Metrolinx, the TTC, the Toronto Board of Trade, former mayor David Crombie, University of Toronto professor Eric Miller, and Dr. Gordon Chong, the Mayor’s subway advisor, to report back by March 21 on how best to move forward on Sheppard. Ms. Stintz said it will give the Mayor more time to find funding for the Sheppard subway extension he campaigned on. Deciding not to bury all of Eglinton also frees up money that could help the construction.
Still, Ford allies voiced serious concerns with Wednesday’s decision.
“I can assure you this fight is not over, we will stand up for the people in the suburbs, they deserve better than a two-tier system, they deserve better than a trolley system,” Councillor Doug Ford thundered during his speech.
Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti said his residents were being forced to accept an LRT along Finch that they didn’t want. He had wanted to give up the funding so that he could continue to lobby for a subway on Finch.
Similarly, Scarborough councillors said their residents have been short-changed. “They do get a transit line, but I don’t think it’s the best transit line for the needs of the residents,” said Councillor Gary Crawford, who represents Scarborough Southwest. He said he will respect the decision made by council.
Ms Stintz said she believes the province will listen. “We had some pretty solid legal advice to make sure the motion was clear and gave the province direction so that we can continue to get these projects built on time,” she said.
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