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Toronto councillors look for way to fund subway plan

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford arrives at a news conference with Subways Are For Everyone (SAFE) spokesperson Patrick Sherman on March 15, 2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Rob Ford is proving to be an obstacle to last-ditch attempts to find money for his subway plan.

The mayor's supporters are scrambling in advance of Wednesday's transit vote to keep his promise of a Sheppard subway extension alive, even as he remains uncommitted to their ideas for new taxes or levies to cover transit costs. Five Scarborough councillors in the mayor's inner circle sat down with Mr. Ford on Monday to discuss ways to generate money earmarked for a new transit-infrastructure fund, which they described as a legacy initiative that could pay for future projects for decades to come.

Mike Del Grande, the city's budget chair, said with or without Mr. Ford's support, the Scarborough councillors will put forward their proposal because it is the right thing to do. "This is not just about funding a subway. We are talking transformational. The solution we are looking at goes beyond the Sheppard subway," he said. "I think for the mayor, let's put it this way, he didn't say no and he was deep in thought. He just has to get his head around it."

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Options on the table include a 1-per-cent property-tax increase and a parking levy, Councillor Michael Thompson said. Efforts to get Mr. Ford's support are "a work in progress," he said. "Be ready to be surprised. I think anything is possible."

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Councillors will meet Wednesday to consider transit options for Sheppard Avennue East – the last piece of the former light-rail plan that was revived last month by council. An expert report favours light rail over the mayor's plan to extend the subway to Scarborough Town Centre.

Scarborough Councillor Michelle Berardinetti said the proposed new transit fund would be called Infrastructure Toronto and would fund projects like the Downtown Relief subway line and light rail in the Port Lands. If councillors vote against it, they will have to answer to voters in the next election, she said. The mayor's support is not critical to make it happen, she argued.

"It doesn't matter at this point," she said. "It is going to be up to him. I can't spend my days trying to convince him to do what is right."

While the mayor's supporters worked on rescue efforts, his critics claimed victory after two key councillors – Mary-Margaret McMahon and Ron Moeser – declared support for light rail. Mr. Moeser is too ill to attend the meeting but expressed support for light rail by letter.

"Councillor Moeser's letter really seals the deal," said Councillor Shelley Carroll, an LRT supporter.

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Ana Bailao, a centrist vote the mayor needs to win, said she is waiting for a financial plan. "We are talking about billions of dollars." she said. "I need to know how we are going to pay for it."

While she supports new sources of funding dedicated to transit, Ms. Bailao said there is "too much emotion" to have that larger debate at Wednesday's meeting.

Mr. Ford is advocating putting "shovels in the ground," using $1-billion in provincial and federal funding to extend the existing Sheppard line one or two stops. Ideas for generating revenue to extend it further should be considered after that expansion begins, he told a public meeting this week.

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