Mayor Rob Ford is making a last-minute bid to salvage his Sheppard subway plans, working behind the scenes to forge a compromise, but it doesn't appear he'll be able to win over enough councillors before a crucial vote March 15.
"The sense I get is the mayor is prepared to take a compromise," said Councillor John Parker, a TTC commissioner who met with the mayor Tuesday to discuss the fate of the line.
Mr. Parker said he was prepared to look seriously at extending the Sheppard subway one or two more stations, with an "elegant" transfer to a light-rail line. But he said that's not what the mayor is talking about.
"What the mayor is talking about is taking the subway as far as he can take it with a view that when the money is available he'll take it further," Mr. Parker said after attending a packed town hall meeting on transit in midtown Toronto Tuesday night.
Mr. Ford also met Tuesday with at least two other councillors – former ally and TTC chair Karen Stintz and centrist Councillor Josh Colle. Those meetings came less than a week after the mayor invited two key swing voters, Ana Bailao and Mary-Margaret McMahon, into his office to see if they would consider new levies such as a parking tax or road tolls to help pay for a subway.
"I was kind of surprised he was throwing those things out there," Ms. McMahon said. "But I was glad he was considering them."
Despite the mayor's apparent appetite for a compromise, Mr. Parker said he doubted there would be a deal to extend the Sheppard subway for as many stops as city council could pay for with a combination of previously committed provincial and federal funds, future development fees and new levies such as a parking tax.
Another challenge for the mayor is a special advisory panel, which is leaning heavily toward recommending light rail, sources say.
Council struck the Sheppard panel during an extraordinary special meeting Feb. 8, when a majority of councillors voted to revive much of Transit City, the light-rail network Mr. Ford declared dead on his first day in office.
The light-rail backers intended the Sheppard panel as an olive branch to the mayor, who campaigned on extending the Sheppard subway and remains fiercely committed to that vow. However, most panel members are on record backing light rail for Sheppard, meaning it will be a surprise if they side with Mr. Ford.
The panel, which includes former mayor David Crombie, transit expert Eric Miller and former councillor Gordon Chong, met Feb. 17 and Feb. 24. Toward the end of the second meeting, the members were asked which way they were leaning.
"I think it would be fair to characterize the discussion in that the majority of people seemed most comfortable with the LRT option," said Jamie Kirkpatrick, an LRT advocate who is representing Social Planning Toronto on the panel. "There's not a final decision that's been made, it was just, based on what we've done for the past two meetings, this is where we stand."
Others corroborated that account.
City staff are working on a draft report, which will be presented at the council meeting March 15, said Prof. Miller, director of the Cities Centre at the University of Toronto. He would not discuss the report's contents, but said panel members will likely be on hand to answer questions and present their recommendations to council.
Councillor Stintz said the special meeting also offers the mayor a chance to explain how he will pay for subways. "If the mayor has a plan for a subway on Sheppard, the 15th is the time for him to bring that to council," she said. "It is no longer sufficient to say, 'The people want subways. I want a subway.' "
The city needs about $300-million annually for a decade to finance a Sheppard extension, Ms. Stintz said. While the mayor has identified parking levies as a possible source of revenue, she said they would not generate enough cash. "At the end of the day, if you are going to build a subway you are going to have to raise taxes," she argued. "I haven't heard Mayor Rob Ford bring forward a plan that would reasonably provide council with a way to move forward."
Councillor Josh Matlow said the time for brokering compromises on the transit file has passed. "It's too late," he said.