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Marcus Gee: Transit debate descends into debacle

It was supposed to be a sober debate about the most pressing issue facing the city: how to pay for better transit. Instead, Wednesday's session at city hall turned into a scattered, chaotic, downright embarrassing affair, with councillors seizing the moment to push their political agendas and pet transit projects.

One group of councillors from Scarborough tried to revive the idea of a new subway to, you guessed it, Scarborough.

One North York councillor, James Pasternak, dropped by the media table to hand out his motion pushing a subway on Sheppard Avenue West, coincidentally passing right through his ward. He calls it the North York Relief line. More like the Pasternak Relief line, joked one of his colleagues.

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Another councillor, Giorgio Mammoliti, said that, while you are at it, friends, couldn't you build me a subway on Finch? Yet another, Sarah Doucette, talked up a light-rail line on Jane Street, in her west-end part of town. Still another, Ron Moeser, wanted a vote extending the proposed Sheppard light-rail line to Meadowvale and the Toronto Zoo, in his neck of the woods.

On the left, Councillor Maria Augimeri seized the spotlight to take a shot at that old meany Mike Harris. You may remember the fellow. He left office in 2002. She said his tax cuts put Ontario in the same league with Pacific Island nations for corporate taxation. She called on Queen's Park to raise taxes on companies and use the money to pay for transit.

Anyone walking into the chamber unawares would have gone away thoroughly confused. Here was Glenn De Baeremaeker – environmentalist, cyclist, transit fan – refusing to support any new transit tax unless the people of his part of town, Scarborough, got their subway. "No taxation without transportation," he thundered.

North Toronto's Josh Matlow could scarcely believe it. He demanded, in as many words: Are you really saying that, unless you get your subway, you won't vote for the taxes that will support new transit for millions of people? Mr. De Baeremaeker, perhaps blushing a little, replied; "Yes."

The Ford brothers conducted themselves much as usual. Mayor Rob Ford showed up late and wandered in and out of the chamber in his blue Leafs jersey, looking bored. At lunch he shook hands with the McDonald's Hamburglar at a charity event.

On his own lunch break, Doug Ford went on TV to say that Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency that has spent years putting together a detailed blueprint for transit expansion, had no "solid plan" for transit and that any new money it raised would go straight "down the toilet."

This was not how it was supposed to happen. When, last month, Mayor Ford tried to put off a debate on transit taxes until after Metrolinx had made its decision on which to recommend, councillors stood on their hind legs, called it an outrage and arranged, against the mayor's will, to have a debate on taxes put on this week's council agenda. They were right to do so. Queen's Park is moving toward a decision that could cost households hundreds of dollars a year and shape the transportation system for years to come.

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As the council got under way Wednesday morning, city manager Joe Pennachetti practically begged councillors to focus on what taxes or tolls, if any, they preferred, so that Toronto would have a say in provincial decision-making on this critical issue. He presented a city report carefully laying out the case for new revenue sources for transit and giving the best advice of staff on which taxes would be best for the city. He told them, respectfully, not to get sidetracked on what transit lines should go where.

What a hope. In hours of deliberations that went well into the evening, council barely touched on the staff report and managed to avoid any real discussion of the proposed taxes. In its place, we had politics, point-scoring and parochialism.

The debate continues on Thursday. Let's hope for better.

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