When negotiations over new public transit lines began in late 2010, it was Rob Ford who seemed to be entering from a position of strength.
The Toronto mayor, still enjoying his honeymoon with voters, had political capital to burn. And he wanted $8.15-billion in provincial funding previously committed to his predecessor's light-rail transit plans to be redirected toward subways, starting with the expansion of the existing Sheppard Avenue line. The odds were that, in an election year, Dalton McGuinty's Liberals would see fit to buy peace.
But for all his other about-faces lately, it was Mr. McGuinty who held strong on this one. And it looks like he's emerged with an unexpected win.
Provincial officials were quick to caution on Wednesday that they need to have a careful read of Mr. Ford's latest proposal before passing judgment on it. That they had not had a chance to do so before Mr. Ford's staff started speaking publicly about it was a bit of a sore point.
But unless a big catch is buried in the fine print, it's hard to see how Mr. McGuinty could turn this deal down.
With the city proposing to use private funds for the Sheppard expansion, the Liberals seem to be mostly off the hook for a development they plainly thought was a bad idea – and which would have forced them to break from their preferred accounting plan, which relies on provincial ownership of new lines (as opposed to pre-existing ones). As it appears, provincial dollars will go to Sheppard only if some money is left over after spending on other lines.
The bulk of that spending would be on the new Eglinton Avenue LRT – the line that the province was most set on, partly because it can be cast as part of a broader regional network. The city's plan to put almost the entire thing underground, to appease Mr. Ford's preference for subways, would drive up the cost. But the Liberals could surely live with that if they didn't have to pay for Sheppard.
Whether it would be a good deal for the city, of course, is a different matter. Residents of the Jane-Finch area in particular have cause to mourn the death of the Finch Avenue LRT promised in the pre-Ford plans. And there is much uncertainty around whether there would be enough development along Sheppard to support the mayor's private-funding scheme; if not, it could create havoc for the city's finances.
That Mr. Ford is foregoing a protracted public-relations battle with Mr. McGuinty suggests that he, at least, genuinely believes he can make that funding model work. He'd been hoping for both provincial and private dollars for Sheppard; now, he might give it a go with only the latter.
Give Mr. Ford credit for taking on risk for a project he believes in. But give Mr. McGuinty credit for standing by his own belief that the project is not worth spending provincial dollars on when it would have been politically easier just to foot the bill.