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Marcus Gee

Backtracking on transit, Ford seeks a handout Add to ...

Earlier this year, Rob Ford threatened to sic “Ford Nation” on Dalton McGuinty unless he came through with millions for roads, child care and public transit. On Wednesday, he was back at the Liberal Premier again, asking him for help with the proposed Sheppard subway extension.

It is an odd tack for a guy who once scolded city leaders for going to Queen’s Park with a rattling tin cup every time they had money trouble. It is even odder from a mayor who said as recently as March that the taxpayer whom he claims to respect so deeply would not be left on the hook for the Sheppard line.

“I’m not quite sure where taxpayers’ money is coming in when we’re raising money from the private sector,” he said then. “All the details will have to come out, but it will be built with private money.” Wednesday, after meeting with Mr. McGuinty, he said that “We’re going to obviously need help from all three levels” of government to build the subway.

That should come as no surprise. It was always fanciful to think that private companies would rush in merrily with billions for an extended Sheppard line. The idea of luring them with the promise of a share of future tax revenues from development around the line is untried on this scale in Canada. Most experts who have looked at it are highly skeptical.

As it becomes clear how hard it will be to secure private funding, Mr. Ford is looking for other sources. Thus his trip to Queen’s Park. The mayor wants the provincial government to expedite the payment of $650-million in provincial money mentioned in a transit deal struck by the city and province in March. Unless that money starts flowing, city hall says, it could lose a linked payment of $333-million that Ottawa had pledged for transit.

Mr. McGuinty says he is happy to lean on the feds to come through with the $333-million, but the $650-million is another matter. The memorandum of understanding between the city and the province is quite clear. Queen’s Park will help pay for Sheppard only if it has money left over from its own priority project: the crosstown light-rail transit line running along Eglinton and into Scarborough.

Mr. McGuinty quite sensibly argues that, with construction yet to begin, he can’t hope to know whether there will be money left over. Giant projects like this usually come in over budget, not under.

Not to worry, says the Ford team. We’re sure that Eglinton will cost less than the $8-billion budgeted. Same for Sheppard: certain to be less than $4-billion. Well, easy for them to say, but very hard to know for sure. Mr. McGuinty is well within his rights to say no, we can’t start paying for Sheppard until we know we’re actually going to have the money. Isn’t it Mr. Ford who is always saying governments should not spend money they don’t have?

The Premier made it crystal clear to Mr. Ford back in March that the Sheppard line was solely the city’s responsibility. The Eglinton line is our project, he said. Sheppard is all yours.

Remember that as soon as he took office on Dec. 1, Mr. Ford insisted on cancelling Transit City, former mayor David Miller’s multibillion-dollar plan to build a network of suburban rapid-transit lines. Mr. Ford would have liked Mr. McGuinty simply to hand over the Transit City money so he could use it for Sheppard.

Mr. McGuinty declined. He prefers the Eglinton project, which reaches more people. So Mr. Ford, bullying heedlessly ahead, insisted he would build Sheppard on his own, using private money. It’s a bit rich for him to come nosing around the Premier’s office now, even if he is only looking for an early taste of that possible $650-million.

It was his own insistence on putting all future rail transit underground that added billions to the cost of the Eglinton line, which was originally to be part under ground, half above. As a result there is almost nothing left in the finite transit kitty for Sheppard.

The mayor has made his bed of rails. Now he has to lie in it.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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