Handed a chance to fulfill his long-time pledge to build a subway to Scarborough, Mayor Rob Ford put on a truly woeful performance at city council on Tuesday.
Poorly informed at the best of times, he was fathoms out of his depth as city councillors questioned him about a plan to cancel a planned light-rail line and build a subway instead.
The change could cost an extra $1.1-billion, so, understandably, councillors were curious where the money was coming from. Mr. Ford had few answers. At once belligerent and confused, he flailed under questioning about the cost and nature of the subway plan.
At one point, he seemed to suggest that the hoped-for federal money for the subway would come from another project: the Sheppard light-rail line. That horrified many councillors.
Taking away Ottawa’s contribution would probably kill the line, finally approved and funded after years of back-and-forth debate.
So he was forced to backtrack and issue a statement saying he was looking to get new money from the feds, not take money from Sheppard. The feds themselves did not seem so sure.
“They assured me they have the money,” Mr. Ford said of his meeting with federal and provincial officials. Do they? We will see. The mayor admitted that all he has from Ottawa is an invitation to apply for infrastructure funds, which is hardly money in the bank.
Mr. Ford seemed mixed up about Toronto’s contribution, too. He kept saying that Toronto could get a subway for a mere $5 a year in new property taxes for the average household – a bargain, for sure.
But that would bring in only about $20-million over four years, chump change in the transit business. He seemed unable to grasp that the tax increase would be cumulative, adding up over the years and costing taxpayers a lot more than a fiver.
Nor could he explain why he was supporting a tax increase to pay for subway construction, given that he has roasted Premier Kathleen Wynne for even considering new provincial taxes to pay for transit expansion.
“I don’t support revenue tools,” he said. Except, apparently, if they are to build his subway to Scarborough.
When one councillor pointed out that, even with a federal contribution, the subway could cost Toronto nearly $600-million, Mr. Ford said: “You are making up all these fictitious numbers.” The numbers come from city staff.
The mayor even seemed to struggle to understand what he was doing when he proposed to kill the light-rail line, which would travel on a dedicated right-of-way now occupied by the aging Scarborough RT.
“LRTs go down the middle of a road,” he said.
This one would not. An exasperated councillor Josh Matlow wondered aloud whether the mayor he knew what he was saying when he preached the inferiority of LRTs.
It was arguably his lowest point on the council floor as mayor. He started the day looking like a sure winner on the subway issue. Now, the debate will spill over into Wednesday, with the outcome still unclear.
The shame of it is that the Scarborough subway is not a bad idea, giving commuters a fast, transfer-free ride to and from Scarborough. The cost is daunting, but subways last 75 to 100 years, as opposed to about 40 for LRTs, so it might be worth the investment. If Ottawa and Queen’s Park come through, it should be doable.
In one of his coherent moments, Mr. Ford said that, by offering to contribute to the project from its own budget, Toronto has shown higher levels of government that it has “skin in the game” when it comes to transit.
That, at least, is something, but the plan will need better leadership if it is to come to anything.