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Mayor Ford says he will oppose transit fee or tax, but votes for public consultation

In his most straightforward language yet, Mayor Rob Ford has vowed to oppose any new taxes or fees to pay for a massive regional transit expansion.

"People in the city are up to their eyeballs with taxes and they can barely keep their head above water," Mr. Ford said. "I'm not going to implement a new tax or a new user fee."

Mr. Ford made the comments Tuesday before joining his executive committee colleagues in giving the green light to months of public consultations on funding public transit.

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Despite his affirmative vote, the mayor dismissed the process as a "waste of time."

"I think it's a waste of time because the people of the city are taxed to death. They don't want any more new taxes," he said. "I've made it quite clear, I'm not going to support anything unless the taxpayers of the city come out and say they want a new tax or a new user fee. I don't see them saying that."

The city will ask Torontonians for their thoughts nonetheless.

Over the fall and winter, the municipality will hold town hall meetings and use social media to solicit the public's opinions on how best to relieve a gridlock nightmare that is costing the Greater Toronto Area at least $6-billion a year, according to the Toronto Board of Trade.

If the debate at Tuesday's executive meeting is any guide, there will be plenty of disagreement over who should pay, how they should pay and what their money should buy.

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the public works committee, said Torontonians should first be asked whether they want to dig into their wallets at all.

"I want to make sure you're not going to ask them to choose from a menu of taxes because it's like asking 'which poison would you like to drink? Would you like the hemlock, would you like the rat poison?'" Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong said. "We should be asking, 'would you like to take that poison?'"

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A report from the city manager initially recommended asking the public about 10 options to raise the approximately $2-billion per year needed to pay for a $50-billion, 25-year regional transit blueprint known as "The Big Move."

The choices include: Increases to the income tax, sales tax, property tax, land-transfer tax, gas tax or development charges; levying a new payroll tax; implementing highway tolls; and reviving the vehicle-registration tax.

The executive voted to add eight more options to the funding list, including private-public partnerships.

Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor's brother, spoke enthusiastically in favour of relying on such arrangements, known as P3s, to pay for new transit lines.

"Instead of being creative we're sitting on our hands saying, 'well let's go back to the taxpayer,' because that's the only thing we understand is ... tax, tax, tax," he said.

The mayor, in his brief comments to reporters, also extolled the virtues of P3s, which he said are "happening all over the world."

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However, Joe Pennachetti, the city's top civil servant, stressed that P3s can only help reduce the cost of transit projects, not pay for them.

"We will be very clear that it is not a source of funding," he said. "We don't want them to be mixed up."

The province is using a P3 model to design, build, finance and maintain four new light-rail transit lines in Toronto, an approach the Liberal government argues will keep the projects on time and on budget.

But the private sector is not giving away free money – the province has committed $8.4-billion in tax dollars to pay back its partner's investment.

Councillor Michael Thompson said elected officials owe Torontonians the truth about transit.

"We need to tell people: 'You're going to have to pay for a system that you want.' Unless that level of honesty comes forward … we will never get the public onside," he said.

City council is expected to vote this spring on its preferred method of funding.

The city will then forward its recommendation to Metrolinx, the province's transportation agency for the Greater Toronto Area and Hamilton, which is supposed to produce a region-wide funding plan in June.

The ultimate decision resides with Dalton McGuinty's minority government and his opponents in the legislature.

That is, unless Toronto decides to levy its own new taxes and fees and retain control over how that money is spent, as TTC Chair Karen Stintz advocates.

"I think council is being asked to make an investment," she said. "We need to step up and say what we're going to do."

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Health reporter

Kelly Grant is a health reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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