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Commuters ride a TTC subway on Sept. 25, 2013. (KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Commuters ride a TTC subway on Sept. 25, 2013. (KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Scarborough subway extension a much needed investment in future of transit Add to ...

It was a little crazy, as usual. This is Toronto city council, after all. "This whole file has been a big, big, big, big mess," conceded city councillor Ana Bailao.

The debate on a new subway to Scarborough ground on all afternoon and into the evening, with subway backers fighting it out with those who prefer the original plan: replacing the old Scarborough RT with a new light-rail line along the same route.

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The left accused the right of planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to pander to voters in Scarborough. The right accused the left of becoming born-again fiscal conservatives. Both sides had a point.

But forget all that argy-bargy and consider the result. After months -- no, years -- of debate, city council has settled on a plan that will bring a subway extension all the way up to the Scarborough city centre and beyond. It voted to put up a significant share of the money -- more than $900-million -- and get taxpayers to fund it through a special property tax increase.

That gives the city what proponents call "skin in the game." Instead of endlessly mewling about how higher governments are shortchanging Toronto, the city is putting its own money down to help build mass transit.

As TTC chair Karen Stintz expressed it, "We will be the one city that actually says, 'You know what, we need a revenue tool to invest in transit... we know that building transit takes investment, we know it costs money, we know it's expensive and we know it's important.' "

Even true fiscal conservatives such as budget chief, Frank Di Giorgio, defended the decision. "We need to make a very bold statement: We are willing to borrow a billion dollars" to build transit, he said.

That breakthrough is good news for a city that desperately needs more transit investment after years of delay. It is also good news for Premier Kathleen Wynne. Now that Toronto has shown some political courage by imposing a transit tax, she should find it a little easier to sell her own plan to bring in new taxes and tolls to build billions worth of regional transit. If even Rob Ford's Toronto is doing it, she can argue, why not Ontario?

And that is another remarkable result from Tuesday's subway vote. After saying for most his term that he could build subways with the help of the private sector at little cost to the taxpayer, the mayor has finally faced the reality that some form of tax hike is necessary to raise the huge amounts of money required.

In the past few weeks, he even moved away from his untenable position that the Scarborough subway could be financed with a minimal tax increase, instead settling for the hike that city staff said was necessary.

The shift, he said, was a difficult one, and even cost him sleep, but he made it and it would be small-minded to upbraid him now for inconsistency. Rob Ford -- yes, that Rob Ford -- voted for a tax increase. In effect, he acknowledged that city building requires investment and that not all of the money is going to come from cracking down on petty mis-spending or trimming councillors expense accounts.

There is more good news. With Tuesday's vote, all three levels of government are now on board for a Scarborough subway -- municipal, provincial and federal. For admittedly crass political reasons -- it was facing a by-election in Scarborough -- the province came around this summer. Then, better late than never, the feds came through, too. That sends a good signal about the prospects for further cooperation on transit building.

The cost of the project is considerable, and no one likes a tax increase, but remember that replacing the RT was going to be costly in the first place. The subway will cost more, but commuters will get more -- a quick, one-seat ride -- and subway is a sturdier technology that lasts longer.

Many councillors who spoke on the issue called it an investment in the future. So it is -- even if it was a wild ride to get there.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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