Toronto City Council is backing a Scarborough subway extension, a move heralded by Mayor Rob Ford as a “historic” moment in a 30-year battle to expand underground transit.
The 28-16 vote is a badly needed victory for Toronto’s beleaguered mayor, but it by no means guarantees that the three-stop extension of the Bloor-Danforth line east of Kennedy station will be built. Much of that decision now rests with the province and the federal government.
“Folks, there’s no turning back, but the fight is not over, it is far from over,” Mr. Ford said after the vote, flanked by most of the city’s Scarborough councillors and TTC chair Karen Stintz. “To succeed we need all three levels of government at the table and fully committed.”
The subway vote – which came Wednesday after two days of, at times, dramatic debate – is the latest chapter in the saga that is transit planning in Toronto. Since Mr. Ford took office with a promise to build subways, council has returned again and again to the transit topic, this time reversing a decision it made a little over a year ago to replace the aging Scarborough Rapid Transit line with light rail.
That decision – opposed by the mayor – also was welcomed as a victory by some of the same councillors who voted for subways Wednesday.
“Today is truly an historic day for Toronto,” Mr. Ford said. “Scarborough will finally be served by the transit they deserve, transit they have been waiting for for over 30 years.”
What happens next depends on how willing the provincial and federal governments are to come to the table in the coming weeks and whether the city can follow through with its plan to create dedicated funds for the subway project through property taxes.
In approving the plan, council put a Sept. 30 deadline on commitments from the province and Ottawa. Mr. Ford said his recent meetings with federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty and Ontario Transportation Minister Glen Murray have led him to believe they will be “willing to work” with the city.
Mr. Ford’s brother, Councillor Doug Ford, vowed to camp out in Ottawa to make sure the federal government pays up. “I’ll be pulling out my sleeping bag and lying outside the Prime Minister’s door or the Finance Minister’s door,” he promised.
The mayor was clear about what will happen if the province and the federal government do not provide funding. “There’s no subway.”
The council decision capped several weeks of talks between Toronto and Queen’s Park about reopening the light-rail deal.
Wednesday’s vote also is a victory for Premier Kathleen Wynne. Scarborough Liberal MPPs have been clamouring behind the scenes for the LRT to be upgraded for years. In recent weeks, Ms. Wynne’s office was in talks with Mayor Ford’s staff on the subway issue.
The switch also allows the Liberals to campaign on the subway in an Aug. 1 by-election in Scarborough-Guildwood. It takes the issue away from the Progressive Conservatives, who have attacked the Liberals for previously pushing an LRT in Scarborough.
On Wednesday, the PCs were clearly rattled by the prospect of losing one of their key wedge issues and attacked Ms. Wynne for her about-face. “The real issue is that the Liberals will do anything to buy seats,” Tory transportation critic Frank Klees said in an interview.
While the mayor won his fight for subways, he was unsuccessful in his efforts to cap annual tax increases to pay for it at 0.25 per cent. Council voted instead for a staff recommendation that calls for a residential property tax hike of between 1.1 and 2.4 per cent over three years, beginning with a 0.5-per-cent increase in 2014.
And although council endorsed subways, it put some serious strings on the plan. One in particular requires the federal government to supply half the additional funding needed for the subway beyond what the province has agreed to pay. Building a subway is expected to cost the city about $1.1-billion more than an LRT line, which was fully funded by the province.
“It’s not over yet,” predicted Councillor Josh Matlow, who opposed the subway plan. The city is starting 2014 budget talks with a tax hike and a proposal that would increase its debt burden, he said.
There also are questions about the level of federal and provincial funding. The provincial Transportation Minister said Wednesday that the only “real money” on the table for the line is $1.4-billion from the province, not the $1.8-billion the city is counting on. The minister said the province has kicked in its fair share and that the full additional cost for replacing a proposed light-rail line with a subway would have to be borne by other levels of government.
There also is confusion about Ottawa’s potential contribution, with Mr. Ford suggesting at one point Tuesday that federal money pegged for a Sheppard LRT could be used for a Scarborough subway. He later reversed that stand, but a representative in Mr. Flaherty’s office confirmed that the mayor had been correct – the money is up for grabs.
Mr. Murray insisted there is no way that $333-million in federal funding will be redirected to a Scarborough subway.
With files from Kaleigh Rogers