The debate over the future of Toronto transit has reached a boiling point with the head of the TTC storming out of a commission meeting, councillors accusing colleagues of suppressing information and the province demanding the city stop dithering on the country’s most costly transit file.
TTC chair Karen Stintz was out-voted Tuesday by other allies of Mayor Rob Ford on a request that transit staff report on the controversial $8.4-billion Eglinton Crosstown light rail line, including the pros and cons of burying the portion east of the Don Valley. Mayor Ford is unequivocal that the entire line must run underground, as outlined in a deal he struck last March with the McGuinty government. That deal has yet to get the required approval of city council and there are questions about whether the mayor has the support he needs to get his deal done.
Ms. Stintz was one of a small group working on a compromise that included street-level trains on the eastern leg of the route, with the money saved directed to the mayor’s promised Sheppard subway extension and improving service on Finch Avenue West.
This week the mayor dug in his heels, saying a “subway” was what the taxpayers of Scarborough wanted, claiming his success at the ballot box gave him the mandate to push forward. Tuesday’s vote at the TTC meeting was taken by the mayor’s critics as further evidence of his determination to fight rather than compromise, with some painting it as a political manoeuvre designed to end-run council.
Following the commission meeting, a visibly flustered Ms. Stintz quickly left the room, returning later to speak to reporters. By refusing to ask for the report, she said, commissioners were denying members of council key information required for an informed decision on the future of the line.
That information, she confirmed, would have supported her compromise option for street-level tracks on the eastern leg – the original designed under David Miller’s Transit City plan. Ms. Stintz also confirmed that she believed she had the mayor’s backing for her compromise based on discussions she had with his brother, Councillor Doug Ford.
“Effectively what the commission voted is they don’t want any more information,” Ms. Stintz said, vowing to explore other ways to get the information to councillors.
At the centre of the debate, Ms. Stintz said, is the $700-million spent on rail cars ordered for the line that were specifically designed to run at street level. “We made the investment in the vehicles so we wouldn’t have to spend the money digging the tunnels,” she said. Despite that investment, the plan is to spend even more money to bury the line in a section of the city where there is room to run it above ground, she said.
“There will come a time and that time is now when council will have to make a decision whether or not they want to invest $8.4-billion across the city or whether we want to spend it all on one line – which is not a subway,” she said.
TTC vice-chair, Peter Milczyn, one of six allies of the mayor to vote against the chair, denied that the move would mean information would be missing at the commission’s February meeting.. “It’s about asking staff to lay out what the issues are and seeking direction from the commission about what direction to take as opposed to staff having their positions,” he said.
Support for the underground option also is building among Scarborough councillors who plan to hold a press conference Wednesday near a busy intersection on the proposed line.
Councillor Gord Perks characterized Tuesday’s vote as a delaying tactic by the mayor’s supporters. “It’s a very small group of people who are blocking transit progress in the City of Toronto,” he said. “It’s time Torontonians spoke up. It’s time council spoke up.”
It is critical, he said, to move the debate to council, either at the regular meeting in March, or if needed by getting 23 councillors to agree to a special session.
Adding to the urgency of the debate is a letter sent Tuesday to the mayor and Ms. Stintz from the chair of Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency responsible for building the Crosstown line. In it Rob Prichard urges them to “confirm the city’s position at the earliest possible date.”
Without council’s endorsement of the deal reached between the mayor and the province, the letter states it is “increasingly difficult for Metrolinx” to implement the plan.