A majority of Toronto councillors will challenge Rob Ford on the future of transit, setting up a showdown that will be the greatest test of the mayor’s authority since he was elected.
Monday morning, moments before councillors took their seats for a regular council meeting, TTC chair Karen Stintz approached the city clerk and handed her a petition with signatures from 24 councillors requesting a special meeting on transit.
At that meeting, to be held Wednesday, Ms. Stintz said she will present a motion for council to reaffirm its 2009 agreement for light rail lines on Eglinton, Sheppard Ave. East, Finch Ave. West and replace the existing Scarborough Rapid Transit line.
At stake is $8.4-billion in provincial transit spending – money initially designated for the 2009 plan, but now earmarked at the mayor’s direction to one underground route, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. Mr. Ford also has promised to extend the Sheppard subway with private financing.
The move comes one day after a huge win for the Ford administration, who managed to negotiate a tentative deal with the city’s 6,000 outside workers and avoid a labour disruption. The mayor and his allies will have little time to savour that victory – the call for a special meeting, which requires the backing of 23 councillors and two days notice, will pit Toronto’s subway-loving mayor against those who say light rail gives the city more bang for its buck. They also will argue it is the only plan that has ever received council’s endorsement.
If the group holds together to vote against the mayor, it will mean a stunning defeat for Mr. Ford on a central plank of his administration. On his first day in office, the new mayor was so confident of his mandate to build subways that he unilaterally declared dead the Transit City light rail plan of former mayor David Miller. He later struck a deal with Premier Dalton McGuinty that directed $8.4-billion in provincial funding to a completely underground Crosstown line, with any remaining funds up to $650-million going to the Sheppard subway.
Since then, Mr. Ford has insisted Toronto taxpayers want subways and nothing less, and has rallied the support of Scarborough councillors and some provincial politicians for his plan to bury the Crosstown’s eastern section. He repeated the mantra last week, after an opposition councillor released a legal opinion that found the mayor had no authority to impose his subway plan without council approval.
Councillor Stintz said the transit debate has been simmering in the backrooms of city hall for months. “It is my belief we need to bring this to a conclusion one way or another.” she told The Globe and Mail. “In fairness, the mayor has had a year to pull together a subway plan and it hasn’t happened. There is no funding for a Sheppard subway and the city can’t afford it.”
Both sides realized the provincial deal needed the approval of council, but the mayor’s office has delayed the matter, she said.
“I knew for some time this day was coming. I just didn’t know when,” Councillor Stintz said. “There will be some consequences for this, I am sure, but the will of council is supreme.”
Councillor Stintz, who was defeated on a key vote by Ford loyalists at the last TTC meeting, expects to be removed as transit chair. The Ford administration also has been critical of TTC management, including its head Gary Webster. The mayor’s brother, Councillor Doug Ford, said last week the TTC needs “a complete enema.”
Councillor Stintz said she felt she ran out of options after the mayor spoke against a compromise that would have seen the Crosstown run at street level east of the Don Valley as first planned, with the savings used to extend the Sheppard subway to Victoria Park and improve transit on Finch Ave. Calls from the province for the city to stop dithering prompted her to take action.
“We need to spend the money wisely and we need to make sure the most people benefit,” Ms. Stintz said. “We need a sustainable plan that goes beyond election cycles.”
Time also is running out on the original light rail agreement with the province, endorsed by council in the fall of 2009 and set to expire next month, she said.
Councillor Stintz will need the support of at least 23 councillors to have her plan pass, but even then it is unclear how the province will respond to a transit policy that does not have the support of the mayor.
The Premier and Rob Prichard, chair of Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency building the Crosstown line, have made it clear they want the mayor, the TTC and council to agree on a plan.
“Anything can happen,” Councillor Stintz said. “My expectation is that Metrolinx and the province will honour council’s decision.”