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Mayor John Tory speaks to the media following a speech at the Empire Club in Toronto, Ontario Monday June 8/2015. (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)
Mayor John Tory speaks to the media following a speech at the Empire Club in Toronto, Ontario Monday June 8/2015. (Kevin Van Paassen For The Globe and Mail)

ANALYSIS

Mayor Tory and the week that shook our transit future – again Add to ...

When John Tory marked his first anniversary in office last month, he could legitimately boast that he had returned sanity to city hall after the mad years of Rob Ford. Unknown to most of the city, though, trouble was brewing for his young administration.

Mr. Tory ran for office on a promise to get the city moving. But serious political headaches and roadblocks were mounting. And this week, when he embarked on the biggest flurry of action in his mayoralty, he was moving to stave off possible defeats on some of the biggest parts of his agenda.

Experts had concluded that SmartTrack, the 22-stop “surface subway” he campaigned on, would be prohibitively expensive. As critics have been warning for almost two years, a promised western spur of the line was not feasible without billions of dollars in tunnelling.

Some developers and downtown councillors were unhappy with a council decision to keep the eastern end of the Gardiner Expressway standing, blocking plans to redevelop part of waterfront. And councillors were threatening to reopen the bitter debate over a subway extension in Scarborough.

To sidestep these troubles, Mr. Tory executed a series of retreats, course changes and compromises designed to keep peace on council while preserving key elements of his top projects.

The mayor argues that his willingness to adjust shows he can bridge divides and listen to expert advice, rather than bulling ahead like his predecessor. “The civil war is over,” he told a press conference, referring to the endless wrangling over transit for Scarborough. Later, in his office overlooking Nathan Phillips Square, he seemed relieved and satisfied at how the week’s big pivot had gone.

But as even the mayor was ready to admit, many of the shifts were forced on him by looming political trouble and the cold reality of the facts. This week the chickens of his campaign came home to roost.

Consider SmartTrack. His critics said all along that running GO-type trains along Eglinton Avenue West was a cockeyed idea.

Unlike the rest of his proposal, which would run along existing GO rail lines, this part needed new track. And it seemed obvious that much of it would have to be tunnelled, a disruptive and hugely expensive process.

Mr. Tory pushed back hard, suggesting that his critics were just nervous Nellies. While he admitted that some tunnelling might be needed, he insisted sheer determination would get the project done. But once Mr. Tory was in office, council voted to approve analysis that made it clear his critics were right.

A preliminary report in November showed that substantial tunnelling would be needed to put SmartTrack along Eglinton. The final report, released this week, pegged the cost for that part of the plan at up to $7.7-billion.

The mayor had little choice but to back down. On Tuesday morning he voiced support for light rail along Eglinton. Making the reversal more palatable, he touted projections showing that SmartTrack could still attract a lot of riders, provided it runs frequently enough and the fare is kept low enough.

His turnabout on the spur line had been coming for some time. The publicly available portion of the November report did not include costs and the mayor said then, and reiterated this week, that he had neither seen them nor been briefed.

However, around that time, observers started to notice a shift of tone. When asked about Eglinton late last year, the mayor’s answers were vague enough to give him room to manoeuvre. He repeatedly said he would listen to expert advice.

The next challenge for the mayor was the Gardiner Expressway. Wounds were still festering after the bitterly fought battle over the eastern portion of the road, when a narrow majority on council voted not to tear it down. City staff and consultants were tasked with improving the design for a rebuilt section of expressway.

This week three possibilities were unveiled, and staff telegraphed that they would recommend the most expensive. This would raise the long-term price past $1-billion, but the adaptation is a sort of compromise finding some support among those who want the highway gone.

The final, and perhaps biggest, problem the mayor had to tackle was the Scarborough subway extension.

In 2013 council voted narrowly to scrap a planned light-rail line and instead build three new stops on the Bloor-Danforth subway line. While campaigning, Mr. Tory ruled out revisiting this decision. The deal was done, with all three levels of government on board, he kept saying, even once elected.

Mr. Tory said this week, though, that he had actually been trying since early in his term to find a way to mollify all sides by fiddling with the plan. He said he broached the idea of changing the plan with a key Scarborough MPP, who politely declined.

But the issue wouldn’t die and some city councillors hoped to go back to light rail. Midtown councillor Josh Matlow, one of the leading voices for LRT, said support has been coalescing. “The three-stop subway was not a sure thing, I can tell you that,” he said this week.

For his part, Mr. Tory acknowledges that the pro-LRT side could have won the vote. He needed a way out.

Fortunately for him, a solution would come from an influential figure around city hall: Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat. After putting Scarborough’s situation through some tough analysis, her team crafted plans for a major revamp of transit in the area.

Armed with her plan, Mr. Tory started talking to city councillors about a big shift. The proposal emerged this week and involves retaining a stretch of subway – the existence of which has become a sacred cow for some Scarborough politicians – but shortening it and plowing the savings into an extension of the Eglinton Crosstown light-rail plan.

Although both SmartTrack and the Scarborough transit plans are almost certainly improved by the changes, it’s also true that the shifts were probably required to keep them alive.

Those on council still unhappy with the Scarborough subway plan were gathering their forces. And the staggering bill for building SmartTrack in the west end could have pushed the price far beyond what council would have accepted. The moves on all three issues seem to have bought time and, as Mr. Matlow put it, “peace in the valley.” But Tory’s troubles are not over yet.

SmartTrack has other flaws. City staff presenting the ridership projections acknowledged they have no idea if it is possible to run trains as often as was assumed for the best scenarios, or how much it could cost. Ongoing negotiations with the regional transit agency Metrolinx will determine the number of stations and the fare passengers will have to pay, the other key determinant for ridership.

The Scarborough deal looks pretty solid, but you never know with Toronto transit, which has gone through endless permutations, delays and reversals.

Councillors are already talking about changing elements of the plan. Mr. Matlow, for one, wants to think about running the subway above ground, along the route of the present Scarborough RT line. Mr. Ford, meanwhile, is already fulminating against the new deal.

For Mayor Tory, the peace in the valley could be fleeting.

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