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Mayor Rob Ford reacts to the vote on TTC Chair and Councillor, Karen Stintz's motion to return to the Transit City plan of the previous council at City Hall, Feb. 8, 2012. (J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail/J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)
Mayor Rob Ford reacts to the vote on TTC Chair and Councillor, Karen Stintz's motion to return to the Transit City plan of the previous council at City Hall, Feb. 8, 2012. (J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail/J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

Ford pays price of obstinacy in council's rebuke of his transit vision Add to ...

He almost got away with it. For more than a year, Mayor Rob Ford has been pushing his simplistic vision for transit expansion, hoping to prevail through sheer bluster and force of will.

He ignored the host of transit experts who called his vision nonsense. He refused to take his plans to city council, bypassing the city’s supreme democratic body. He spurned the TTC manager and TTC chair who dared to question him. But on Wednesday, council struck back, handing the mayor his worst defeat and rubbishing his transit blueprint.

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City hall veterans are struggling to remember a time when a mayor of Toronto suffered such a humiliating and public setback. Mel Lastman eventually lost a bid to ship Toronto garbage to the Adams Mine. David Miller failed in his first try at passing the land transfer tax. But this – this was on a whole other scale of magnitude.

More than $8-billion in funding was at stake. The shape of Toronto transit for decades to come was on the line. It is one of the biggest files on any mayor’s desk, and Mr. Ford is no longer in control of it. He called the council vote “technically speaking ... irrelevant,” a breath-taking statement for a mayor to make after a full day of sincere and passionate debate on an issue about which everyone cares. But it is his own leadership, not city council’s legitimacy, that is now in doubt.

Transit City, the light-rail network that Mr. Ford declared dead, is suddenly alive and breathing again, having emerged like Lazarus from its underground tomb. Karen Stintz, the estimable TTC chair whom Mr. Ford was foolish enough to underestimate, is the hero of the hour, talked about as a contender for mayor in 2014.

It is hard to imagine a more galling outcome for Mr. Ford, who has said over and over that “people want subways” and that he would never stand for more “streetcars” (his sneering shorthand for light-rail) on city roads. It undermines one of his central campaign promises: to deliver subways and only subways. It hurts his strategy for re-election, which relies in part on delivering a subway to vote-rich Scarborough.

While Ms. Stintz took the high road, calling the vote a “common-sense compromise” instead of a defeat for the mayor, the Ford brothers were clearly displeased. A bitter Doug Ford blamed downtown interests, saying they have created a “two-tier city” in which the downtown enjoys subway travel and people are “freezing their backsides off up on Eglinton.” He warned, “This fight is not over. We need to bring it to the streets.”

It was a sign of the Fords’ frustration that instead of dominating council, as they did through much of their first year, they are now threatening to go around it. It is pure populism, an appeal to go over the head of city councillors straight to the subway-loving people.

Yet the mayor has only himself to blame. He killed Transit City on his very first day in office, upending a plan that was negotiated, approved, funded and under construction. He took it on himself to cook up a new one with the provincial government that would have wasted nearly $2-billion by burying a light-rail line designed for surface travel. He promised to build a vastly expensive Sheppard subway without any real idea of how to pay for it.

When Ms. Stintz tried to throw him a lifeline, suggesting that he could start building his Sheppard subway with money saved by running Eglinton above ground on its wide eastern stretches, the mayor refused to grab it. Now council has adopted a plan that could put surface light-rail not only on Eglinton but on Finch and parts of Sheppard.

It’s not a bad result for commuters. Conceivably, they could see Sheppard subway extended to Victoria Park. They could get some rapid transit on busy Finch Avenue West. The Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown line, in a tunnel in the central city and above ground to the east, is still a valuable project.

The tragedy for Mr. Ford is that he could have grabbed Ms. Stintz’s compromise and claimed a win. Now, a new transit plan has been rammed down his throat at an open meeting of city council as the whole city watched. Such is the price of obstinacy.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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