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(Fred Lum)
(Fred Lum)

TRANSIT COSTS

Subway dream achievable with tax plan to pay for it Add to ...

Mayor Rob Ford is set to suffer yet another big defeat when city council holds a special meeting on transit Wednesday. Now that an advisory panel has come out for light-rail transit instead of subways in Scarborough, council seems likely to reject his all-subways-all-the-time approach and go with light rail on Sheppard Avenue East – the very place he most wants a subway.

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The result will be a plan that looks much like Transit City, the light-rail network that Mr. Ford tried to kill before council finally rebelled this winter. The provincial government, which has made it clear that council’s voice is supreme, will have little choice but to approve the new – that is to say, the old – plan over the mayor’s vehement objections. That would leave him severely isolated on this most important of civic files, howling into the wind that “people want subways,” holding rag-tag pro-subway demonstrations in suburban parkettes and essentially getting nowhere.

Mr. Ford has one last chance to snatch something – if not victory, then at least progress – from the jaws of defeat. He could propose a serious plan to build a network of new rapid transit in this city over the next quarter-century, complete with the new revenue tools – in other words, taxes – to pay for it. To back up his plan, he could recommend a citywide referendum to approve it. It would be a startling proposal from a tax-fighting mayor, but Mr. Ford needs to seize back the momentum if he is to have any chance of influencing the city’s transit future.

With provincial and federal governments fighting big deficits, and city hall still struggling to get its finances in shape, special levies for transit offer the only realistic hope of building it. An array of expert reports in the last couple of months have recommended looking at them.

Mr. Ford’s point man on the subways campaign, Gordon Chong, thinks the city needs to consider road tolls and other measures. The mayor’s subways advocate on council, Scarborough’s Norm Kelly, wants a 0.5-per-cent sales tax, raising $250-million a year. The mayor himself has toyed with the idea of a special levy on parking fees to pay for transit.

The advisory panel sets out what could be the easiest expedient: raising the property tax. The city would not need provincial approval to do it, and an increase of 0.6 to 0.9 per cent a year for seven years would support the debt the city would have to take on for a Sheppard subway extension.

How likely is Mr. Ford to make such a radical pitch? On past behaviour, the chances are low. Mr. Kelly says he is going to use all his powers of persuasion to get the mayor to come up with a serious business case for subways before Wednesday’s council meeting. But asked about the likelihood the mayor would embrace new transit taxes or levies, Mr. Chong conceded with a laugh: “I would say the mayor has a stubborn side to him.”

That is putting it mildly. The mayor has always refused to grapple seriously with the enormous cost of subways. The private sector will build it, he says (it will, but only if someone else pays). Or: We can get the money from other governments (we might, but only enough to build a third of the Sheppard subway extension at best).

When a reporter asked Mr. Ford Friday about holding a referendum on transit taxes, he said that “absolutely” he would support it – but that voters were bound to reject the idea. “I’ve talked to a lot of people about this and I know what they want. They want subways. We can afford it, let’s do it. They don’t want to have an extra tax to pay for it.”

The day before, he spoke at a “Subways Are For Everyone” rally at Sheppard and Victoria Park where people waved “Honk 4 Subways” signs. Asked how Toronto would pay for those wonderful subways, he said, “Get a shovel in the ground and I guess the money will flow.”

Mr. Ford doesn’t need a magic shovel to build subways. He needs a realistic plan to pay for them. He has only days left to show that he has one.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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