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With the curved towers and council chamber in the background, Toronto mayor Rob Ford poses for a portrait at Nathan Phillips Square on Dec 21, 2010. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
With the curved towers and council chamber in the background, Toronto mayor Rob Ford poses for a portrait at Nathan Phillips Square on Dec 21, 2010. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Rob Ford ready to let transit projects hold in favour of Sheppard subway Add to ...

For Mayor Rob Ford, a Sheppard subway line is Toronto's top transit priority. And if that means putting all other transit projects on hold to make that a reality, so be it.

"I'm just focusing on doing the Sheppard subway underground. And then we'll cross the next bridge when we get to it," he said in an interview with The Globe Tuesday.

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"Sheppard's the first one I want to do. I've talked to the premier about it, talked to Metrolinx about it. They know where I stand and they've said it can be done."

Mr. Ford took office Dec. 1 with the unequivocal promise of ending the existing Transit City plan's European-style light rail in favour of subways. And, he said, everything is going underground - even if the inflated price will mean the city's other plans for rapid transit won't materialize.

"Eventually, I'm sure we can build the subways. It's more expensive, but that's what the people want. People in North York and Scarborough, they want that line connected to the Scarborough Town Centre. If I heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times."

Even if that means cancelling or postponing indefinitely rapid transit in his own former ward of Etobicoke North?

"They have transit," he laughed. "It sounds like we're - we have transit. People get to the slots, they get to Woodbine racetrack, people get to Humber College. There are buses that run up there.

"Eventually, I'd like to have subways running through the whole city. But what we can afford realistically, right now, is just Sheppard, right?"

Transit City was meant to be a provincially funded series of four light-rail projects running along Eglinton, Sheppard, Finch and replacing existing Scarborough rapid transit.

With Sheppard as a priority, Mr. Ford suggested, the other projects may just have to wait.

Mr. Ford has criticized light-rail transit as too similar to the streetcars he believes causes congestion in Toronto's gridlocked roadways. He scoffed at the idea that monorails or a similar above-grade technology, which in theory would allow cars to continue unimpeded, could replace light rail. Similar projects have been tried in Vancouver's Canada Line, which opened this year.

"There's no more above ground," he said. "No, everything's going underground. I want to do subways. Every poll you see, over 80 per cent of people in the city want subways compared to LRT or streetcars. So I'm going to do what I campaigned on."

And Mr. Ford said he's confident that can be accomplished. The Toronto Transit Commission has put a hold on new hires and new consulting work while transit staff try to come up with alternatives by 2011.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has said he's waiting to see what new options the city comes up with. Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne, too, has said the province is open to reallocating the existing funds toward an alternative transit project, provided it has the approval of council. But both have said the $8.15-billion total the province has pledged is a final figure: The $130-million already spent on Transit City, and any fees resulting from cancelling the $1.3-billion in contracts already signed, will come out of that allocation.

Mr. Ford also defended council's decision last week to declare the TTC an essential service, curbing workers' right to strike.

But many people, including TTC general manager Gary Webster and even deputy mayor Doug Holyday, who ended up voting with the mayor, have warned that essential-service designation may cost the city more than it's worth.

"I think that's what people want. For them to go on strike costs the city $50-million dollars a day," he said. "We can't afford that. So I think it's essential that we make it an essential service."

Mr. Ford added that despite threats from ATU local president Bob Kinnear, he doesn't see there being a strike over the proposal, which the province would have to sign off on.

"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it. But I expect people to show up for work every day, and if they don't show up for work, well, I've got to do what I have to do."

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