Mayor Rob Ford is so intent on building subways he is putting all the options on the table, gathering prominent developers to talk about new tolls and fees and even daring to discuss a rebirth of the despised vehicle-registration tax as a way to pay for transit expansion.
With two weeks to go before a key council vote on the future of transit on Sheppard Avenue, the mayor is going full out to keep his campaign commitment to extend the subway east to Scarborough Town Centre. To bolster that stand Wednesday, he took the unusual step of inviting about 20 leading developers to meet over sandwiches in his office. The closed-door meeting included a who's who of real-estate executives, as well as councillors loyal to the mayor, city managers, the leader of the board of trade and Gordon Chong, the former councillor appointed by Mr. Ford to study his subway plan. While developers were escorted out the back door away from the press, the mayor emerged with his supporters to declare the talks a success.
"Like we've always been saying, this is very, very doable and affordable to build the Sheppard subway" Mr. Ford said, describing the hour and a half power lunch as a "great discussion."
When asked for a show of support for subways, the mayor said the powerful group gave their unanimous backing "They said, 'Let's do it,' " he reported. "Not one person, not one developer, said, 'We're against it.' As a united group they came out and said, 'We want subways in the city, you are on the right path and we can afford it.' "
The meeting came on the same day as news that the mayor had acquiesced on another front, backing a deal with TTC chair Karen Stintz on restructuring the transit board. The agreement, which keeps the board intact until June, will add citizens to the commission but keep the balance of power with councillors. With that battle settled, all eyes are now on March 15, when council will decide on light rail or subways on Sheppard Avenue East.
It remains unclear how Mr. Ford intends to finance his subway plan without relying on road tolls and other new sources of revenue that he has adamantly opposed in the past. Several councillors confirmed that in private meetings the mayor has even floated the option of bringing back the vehicle-registration tax – and jacking up the annual fee to between $80 and $100 from the $60 charge that was killed last year.
Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon said Mr. Ford mentioned a VRT of between $80 and $100 as he ticked off a list of possible revenue tools, including road tolls and parking levies, during a meeting last week with her and fellow centrist councillor Ana Bailao.
"It [the VRT]was one of the items on the list," Ms. McMahon said in an interview, stressing the mayor is loath to revive a car tax he campaigned on scrapping.
"These are things that need to be discussed, not that he's in favour of," she said. "It's not his first choice by far. In fact, I think he's just thinking he would just need one item from that list [of revenue tools]"
Councillor John Parker also said the VRT came up during a two-hour meeting he and Ms. Stintz had with the mayor on Tuesday but stressed the tax was by no means a major topic or something the mayor wants. As one of the revenue options included in Mr. Chong's report and in a study by KPMG on subway financing options, he said the car tax is bound to come up in discussions.
"It shouldn't surprise anyone that when we discuss these things we go into deep, dark areas that scare us," Mr. Parker said.
Such talk is exactly why the mayor needs to come to the special March 15 council meeting with a clear plan for how he intends to pay for subways, Ms. Stintz said, confirming a VRT of $80 to $100 was "broached" by Mr. Ford.
Taxes and levies were also a topic of Wednesday's lunchtime discussions.
Toronto Board of Trade president Carol Wilding said she told the group no revenue tool should be excluded. Ms. Wilding indicated support for subways wasn't unanimous, as the mayor suggested. The Toronto Board of Trade isn't taking a position in the debate over light rail versus subways.
Mr. Chong told reporters the group endorsed burying new transit – so long as the city is willing to implement new taxes or fees to pay for it.
"They support subways in principle as long as all the revenue tools are going to be considered for financing the subways," he said.
Mr. Chong's report found subway expansion could be funded with a mix of government money, private dollars and new taxes or fees, including development charges.
The developers in the meeting weren't keen on that idea, according to Councillor Peter Milczyn, who sat in on the talks. Asked if the developers supported higher development fees to pay for subways, Mr. Milczyn replied, "No."
Mr. Chong was more circumspect. One person raised the issue of development charges in the meeting, but Mr. Chong said it was not a crucial part of the discussion.