Transit battle lines drawn

After igniting a political firestorm at city hall over the fate of transit, midtown councillors say they’re confident the province will put the final rubber stamp on expanding light rail after council reconvenes to talk transit on March 21.

Council is to hold a special meeting following up on a heated Feb. 6 council meeting where councillors reaffirmed a plan to bring the Eglinton Crosstown to the surface east of Laird Drive, as originally proposed under the now-defunct Transit City plan. Councillors also approved light rail for Finch Avenue West, and the replacement of the Scarborough RT.

Councillor Josh Matlow, one of the architects of the motion to resurrect — in altered form — the Transit City plan for light rail, says he’s been getting a favourable response from colleagues and friends within the province and provincial transit agency Metrolinx.

“There’s a consensus between a majority of councillors as to how to move forward, there’s already been positive response from the province that they’re going to respect the will of council,” said Matlow. “With those two realities, I think we are moving forward.”

But one key figure, Mayor Rob Ford, is not on board with the plan.

The vote for light rail on Eglinton and Finch came in direct conflict with his vision for a fully underground rail line on Eglinton.

In March 2011 Ford inked a non-binding memorandum of understanding confirming $8.4 billion earmarked by Metrolinx go toward fully burying the Eglinton rail underground, with any potential remaining funds going to a Sheppard subway extension.

At the March council meeting, councillors are to hear findings from a panel of experts on how to bring rapid transit to Sheppard Avenue.

While a question mark remains around the future of transit on Sheppard, TTC Chair Karen Stintz says the decision has been made for the fully funded Eglinton light rail.

“The reality is, we just made Eglinton cheaper,” she said of the council vote. “Although the minister (of transportation) said they need us to make a decision on Sheppard, the reality is the non-binding memorandum of understanding didn’t have a decision on Sheppard, it just said the city was going to take it over.”

Don Valley West MPP Kathleen Wynne, who was transportation minister at the time the memorandum of understanding was signed, said a clause was included in the document that the decision on the $8.4 billion would be put to a council vote.

Council’s decisions at the March 21 meeting will be scrutinized by provincial cabinet, and according to Wynne, cabinet has every intention of respecting the will of council.

Meanwhile, Mayor Ford, who called the Feb. 6 vote at council “irrelevant”, continues to campaign for a fully underground Eglinton light rail, insisting underground rail is the longer term solution to gridlock.

On Feb. 21, Premier Dalton McGuinty expressed dissatisfaction with the turmoil surrounding Toronto transit by acknowledging the province is once again being asked to reconsider a sweeping transit plan.

“I can say that we’re running out of patience, I think the people of Toronto are running out of patience,” he said.

His comments came the same day the transit commission voted 5-4 to terminate their longtime TTC chief general manager, Gary Webster, which was seen by some as a spiteful move by pro-Ford councillors in light of Webster’s recommendations for light rail at the council transit meeting.

Stintz said this and conflicting views at city hall were likely lending to the tension in the public eye.

“I think it’s just been a very noisy transit file and the mayor is not accepting the position of council and advocating another position,” she said.

“There’s the termination of Gary Webster without cause and I think there’s just a lot of instability and I think the premier would like it all to be resolved.”

St. Paul’s councillor Josh Matlow downplayed the notion of instability as perceived.

“There’s more drama than instability,” he said.

“Council approved a transit plan for Toronto, we appointed a panel to give us recommendations by the end of March on a plan for Sheppard, and I think it’s very clear to the objective eye, that there are a strong majority of councillors who are committed to this plan.”