"This is a great day for the taxpayers of Toronto," Mayor Rob Ford said on Thursday. Well, it depends on how you define great. If you think it is a great day for taxpayers when the mayor proposes building a $4-billion subway with no firm idea of how to pay for it, then this was a great day indeed.
Under the transit plan announced by Mr. Ford and Premier Dalton McGuinty, the provincial government will spend virtually all of the $8.4-billion dedicated to the now-defunct Transit City plan on a new midtown light-rail line. Much of it will travel underground, at Mr. Ford's insistence, adding enormously to its expense.
That leaves no money for rapid transit on the busy Finch Avenue corridor, which was supposed to get a light-rail line under Transit City but will now have to make do with buses for at least a decade. More important, it leaves the city of Toronto on its own to pay for Mr. Ford's favoured project: a $4-billion extension of the Sheppard Avenue subway.
The province will contribute only if it has money left over from the midtown line. Ottawa might contribute the $333-million it had earmarked for the cancelled Sheppard light-rail line. Otherwise, the cost of this, the most expensive capital project Toronto has contemplated in decades, will rest entirely on the city and its taxpayers.
Where is the money going to come from? On this vital question, our businessman mayor is frighteningly vague. "Under our plan," says Mr. Ford with his usual bland confidence, "the private sector will pay for the construction of the subway and the city will own and operate it when it is finished." Now, doesn't that sound grand? They pay for it, we own it! Sadly, it is more complicated than that.
Behind closed doors, the mayor's people are cooking up a plan to get private companies to build the subway in return for a slice of the higher fees and taxes that are supposed to materialize when developers flock to build condos and offices around the new subway stations. But to persuade any private firm to foot the cost of a $4-billion subway, the city will almost certainly have to make a big financial contribution of some kind.
As Mr. Ford knows well, Toronto doesn't have $4-billion in its back pocket. In fact, the mayor's decision to kill Transit City has left the city even more skint than before. As Thursday's transit agreement makes crystal clear, Toronto will be forced to repay the province the tens of millions spent on wasted design work and broken contracts for the abandoned project.
Glenn De Baeremaeker of Ward 38, Scarborough Centre, points out that "not one single penny" was put on the table on Thursday to pay for the subway Mr. Ford so grandly announced. Mr. De Baeremaeker said it would take the fees and taxes from at least 1,000 new 40-storey condo buildings to underwrite the cost. If Mr. Ford really thinks he can get the private sector to build a $4-billion subway, added Anthony Perruzza of Ward 8, York West, then "show me the magic beans."
The troubling thing is that the mayor does not even seem to grasp the risk in what he is proposing. Asked by reporters where he was going to find that $4-billion without tapping his treasured taxpayers, he repeated the words "private sector" over and over like a mantra. "I'm not quite sure where taxpayers' money is coming in when we're raising money from the private sector," he said. "All the details will have to come out, but it will be built with private money."
When an especially persistent reporter suggested to Mr. Ford that the city would be forced to borrow the $4-billion for his subway - quite a leap for a guy who once raged about the city's $3-billion debt - the mayor took the opportunity to boast about all the money he has saved taxpayers since becoming mayor. When the reporter asked again, the $4-billion mayor replied: "Thank you. Next question."