CITY HALL BUREAU CHIEF
When Rocco Rossi vowed to banish bike lanes from major streets, the suit-and-tie crowd at the Empire Club event erupted into its most enthusiastic applause yet for the first real speech of the 2010 mayor's race.
The line demonstrated that Mr. Rossi knows whom he's after: right-leaning suburban voters fed up with David Miller's city hall.
Mr. Rossi is promising to halt all but one of the city's planned light-rail lines until he can review the project's finances; to replace the Toronto Transit Commission's board of councillors with private-sector experts; to create a region-wide economic development corporation; to sell assets, including Toronto Hydro; and to outsource city work in a bid to decrease the power of unions.
"Make no mistake, last summer's city workers strike showed just how weak the city has become in the face of its major unions and how utterly without a plan we are to correct this imbalance," the former Liberal fundraiser and businessman told a packed room at the Royal York hotel. "As mayor I will bring us back into balance by pursuing outsourcing and managed competition for certain city services."
Mr. Rossi's speech was unusual for making concrete commitments early in the marathon campaign, leaving his competitors 10 months to savage his proposals. They didn't waste time.
"I'm glad to see he's throwing out 1,000 ideas and seeing what sticks," scoffed Joe Pantalone, the deputy mayor who is running to replace his boss. "But this is not a carnival we're talking about here. This is a city that's complicated."
Mr. Rossi drew the most fire for suggesting he might halt the Transit City plan, even temporarily.
In his speech, Mr. Rossi lamented the delays and cost overruns that plagued the construction of a streetcar right-of-way on St. Clair West, but it wasn't until afterward that he expressed his concerns about Toronto's plan to lay 120 kilometres of light rail on dedicated lanes.
"I think there's some real problems that have been shown by what's happened at St. Clair and I think we'd be foolish not to have a deep and long look at that," he told reporters.
Asked whether that constituted a moratorium, he replied: "On anything that we can stop right now, yes." Only one Transit City line, Sheppard East, has broken ground so far.
"Mr. Rossi's suggestion that he would freeze all new transit projects until he has reviewed the city budget would not only put countless constructions jobs at risk, it reflects a troubling lack of understanding of the city's finances," a senior member of George Smitherman's campaign said. "These projects are funded almost entirely by the province, sometimes with federal help." Mr. Smitherman, the former deputy premier, is the race's early front-runner.
The centre-right voters Mr. Rossi is hoping to attract likely would have voted for former Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory.
But Mr. Rossi will have to run a campaign vastly different from Mr. Smitherman's if he hopes to make the leap from virtual unknown to mayor. For now, he's casting his lack of elected experience as an advantage.
"It's been over a hundred years since we elected a mayor who wasn't already in elected politics," he told the crowd. "Maybe, just maybe, that's part of the problem."
What would Rossi do?
- Ban future bike lanes on major arterial roads, and "look at" removing existing bike lanes on those major thoroughfares
- Put private-sector experts on the TTC's board, replacing councillors
- Freeze all but one planned light-rail line until he reviews the project's finances
- Create a GTA-wide economic development corporation
- Prepare long-term operating budgets
- Sell Toronto Hydro and put the proceeds into debt reduction; examine selling other city assets
- Look at outsourcing more city services
- Distribute the extra money developers often pay for exemptions from zoning rules - known as section 37 funds - to 13 poor neighbourhoods in the inner suburbs through a "city builders" fund.