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marcus gee

A series of photos posted by a City Hall staffer show Toronto Mayor Rob Ford riding Scarborough rapid transit and engaging a fellow passenger in discussion on Feb. 9, 2012.

After Mayor Rob Ford lost a big vote on transit at city council Wednesday night, he went for a long ride on the subway. He found that (wait for it) people riding the subway want more subways. "The proof is in the pudding," crowed the mayor to CP24 broadcaster Stephen LeDrew. "Every single person said, 'I want underground transit.' "

Well, of course they do. Everyone agrees that subways are a superior form of public transit. They're faster. They carry more people. They don't muck up traffic on the surface.

I'm a subway nut myself. I've explored subways from Stockholm to Seoul to Mexico City. I keep a book called Transit Maps of the World on my coffee table. I think Toronto's failure to build its rapid transit network is the city's biggest failure.

But let's be realistic. There simply isn't enough money on the table for the ambitious subway build-out that Mr. Ford is promising. I wish desperately that there were, but we have to live in the world as it is. The provincial government is strapped. So is Ottawa. Both are in the midst of wrenching cutbacks.

Mr. Ford, of all people, should understand that. It is a delicious irony to see a mayor who insists that governments must live within their means telling deficit-ridden higher governments to cough up for his subway fantasies. To pretend that they are going to shower Toronto with billions for subways is to perpetrate a hoax on weary commuters. Yet that is just what the mayor is doing.

When council threw out a vastly expensive plan to run most of the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown line underground, he said he was "very confident" that Premier Dalton McGuinty would proceed with the underground plan regardless. Mr. McGuinty flatly contradicted him. He says he talked with Mr. Ford last week and told him the province would have no choice but to consider council's decision.

Yet Mr. Ford persists. "The Premier will do what's right, and that's build subways." If he doesn't, he says, dropping a standard Fordian threat, "he's going to have to face the voters."

Mr. Ford is equally upbeat about getting federal cash. A budget is coming down soon, he notes, and he is again "very confident" there will be more money for subways. "Once people told them loud and clear they want subways, like they have, I'm sure they will fund it."

Where he gets that confidence is unclear. The feds have so far promised just $333-million for Toronto transit and even that has not been nailed down. As for the province, it has said over and over that its transit commitment stands at $8.4-billion, not a penny more. So when the mayor says he wants to build all-underground rapid transit not just on Eglinton but on Sheppard and Finch, he is living in subway dreamland.

His brother, Etobicoke councillor Doug Ford, told CP24's Mr. LeDrew that the mayor has a "solid plan" for Sheppard, laid out in a report by former city councillor Gordon Chong. He has nothing of the sort.

Even Dr. Chong, a subway enthusiast, concedes that his report is only a preliminary look at what kind of financing tools the city could use to raise the billions needed to extend the Sheppard "stubway" to Scarborough city centre. Many of those tools, like road tolls, are things that Mr. Ford abhors.

As for a subway on Finch, that is so far little more than a notion, with no money committed by other levels of government and no hint of how Toronto would pay for it on its own. To dangle it in front of the poor souls who ride the packed Finch bus is downright mean.

Mr. Ford is right: People want subways. What they don't want, surely, is empty promises about subway projects in the sky.