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Special Toronto City Council meeting February 8
to discuss transit plans

Today, in an extraordinary move, the Chair of the Toronto Transit Commission, Councillor Karen Stintz, representing 23 other members of City Council, presented a petition to Toronto’s City Clerk, Ulli S. Watkiss, asking her to convene a special Council meeting to

“decide on a Council position as requested by the Chair of Metrolinx in his January 31, 2012 letter to Mayor Rob Ford and Toronto Transit Commission Chair Karen Stintz.”

The Clerk, in turn, has called the special meeting to take place in the Council Chamber of City Hall, 100 Queen Street West, at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, February 8. The Municipal Act allows for a majority of the members of a municipal council to petition the Clerk for a special meeting and it also requires the Clerk to schedule the meeting within 48 hours of receiving the petition.

What’s extraordinary is that this is the first time since 1998 — when Metropolitan Toronto and its six local municipalities amalgamated into the current City of Toronto — that someone other than the Mayor has requested a special meeting of Council. Usually, the Mayor asks the Clerk to hold such a meeting during unusual circumstances, such as when Mayor David Miller called a special meeting to decide whether to award a contract for new streetcars in June 2009.

(This may also be the only time that this has occurred in City Hall for many, many years, at least since 1977, when I started working there — but other municipal government experts may have to correct me on that.)

What this is all about, to keep it simple, is that in 2011, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and Mayor Rob Ford agreed to direct all of the funds that Metrolinx had reserved for the former Transit City plan of light-rail transit (LRT) lines across the city to just one project, the Eglinton - Scarborough Crosstown LRT line. They also agreed that the transit cars serving the line would operate entirely underground, instead of partially on city streets, as the architects of Transit City had originally envisioned.

In exchange, Mayor Ford agreed that the City would extend the Sheppard subway west to Downsview Station and east to Scarborough Centre station on its own, using funds from the private sector.

Last week, Metrolinx asked Ford and Stintz to confirm the transportation plan and to urge them to make sure council would endorse the plan, so that they could get on with the business of building the Eglinton line.

But, it’s much, much more complicated than that. In fact, it isn’t simple, at all…

To figure out what this is all about, we have to go back a few years.

When Torontonians elected David Miller as mayor they chose a politician who was unabashedly pro-transit. That point-of-view solidified when the Mayor joined TTC officials on March 16, 2007 to announce the Transit City network of LRTs throughout the city. This was an attempt to supply rapid transit to several under-served areas of the city, while also respecting the City’s ongoing budgetary problems by avoiding the large expenses resulting from building subways.

By June 15, 2007, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty got in on the act, announcing his government’s support for a number of transit projects in the Greater Toronto area and committing $6 million to the Transit City Plan specifically.

On September 23, 2008, Metrolinx announced “The Big Move”, its regional transportation plan, committing as much as $25 billion to support major transit infrastructure throughout the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, including Transit City.

On May 15, 2009, Premier McGuinty and Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that they would fund construction of the first of the Transit City lines, the Sheppard East LRT.

By March 25, 2010, however, facing a budget shortfall of his own, Provincial Finance Minister Dwight Duncan announced he was removing $4 billion of funding for the various Transit City projects.

Instead, on May 15, 2010, the Ontario Government proposed the “5 in 10” plan, where Metrolinx would build parts of various projects — including four of the Transit City lines and the Viva bus rapid transit lines in York Region in ten years, instead of five.

On his very first day in office, December 1, 2010, Mayor Rob Ford declared that “Transit City was over” and proposed to build a subway below Sheppard Avenue, instead.

Finally, on March 31, 2011, Mayor Ford and Premier McGuinty announced an agreement in which Metrolinx would build the Eglinton Crosstown completely underground, while the City would arrange to extend the Sheppard subway further west to Downsview Station and further east to Scarborough Centre Station.

More recently, members of council seem to be launching a number of transit schemes into the air to see if they can fly. Last week, Stintz suggested saving money on the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown line, by avoiding tunneling east of Laird Drive and operating the trains on the street, as the original Transit City plan proposed. Stintz wanted the city to use the funds it saved from that plan to extend the Sheppard subway two stops east to Victoria Park Avenue and build some form of rapid transit — either LRT or bus rapid transit — along Finch Avenue West. The members of her own Commission rejected that idea.

This week, Ford’s subway consultant, former GO Transit chair Gordon Chong reported on options for funding construction of the Sheppard subway between Downsview and Scarborough Centre. Chong reports that only through revenue generating tools such as road tolls and by increasing property taxes would the city generate enough funds to afford the subway. He also wrote that the private sector could finance about 60 percent of the cost though extra charges to developers who would build along the new line.

Stinz and colleagues now propose to return to the “5-in-10” plan from 2010, which means that the Province would again fund part of the Transit City network by building:

  • the Etobicoke - Finch LRT between Humber College’s North Campus and the future Finch West Subway Station on the new section of the 1 Yonge - University - Spadina subway. (Future extensions could have seen this line stretching in the west to the Woodbine Live! development at Woodbine Racetrack and, possibly, Toronto Pearson International Airport, and in the east to Finch and Don Mills Stations.)
  • the Eglinton - Crosstown LRT — underground between Laird and Black Creek Drives, but on the surface east of Laird and west of Black Creek — extending between Jane Street and Kennedy Station. (A future extension could have seen this line stretching to Toronto Pearson International Airport). (Metrolinx and the TTC have already started work on the underground part of this line.); and
  • the Sheppard East LRT between Don Mills Station and Morningside Avenue. (Metrolinx and the TTC had already started work on this line before the Mayor cancelled it.)

In this scheme, the province would also support:

  • extending the Scarborough Rapid Transit line north-eastward to Sheppard Avenue to connect with the Sheppard East LRT and converting the line to an LRT.

The Councillors who asked for a special meeting contend that City Council has never had the opportunity to review and approve that plan. Supporters of Mayor Ford argue that Council never approved the Transit City plan, either, but as blogger Matt Elliott points out on “Ford For Toronto”, in fact, councillors approved the City building the Transit City lines at least seven times.

While the move by Stintz and her supporters to ask for a special meeting is, indeed, extraordinary an even more extraordinary aspect of this meeting is that, by the end of it, City Council will have finally decided the shape of rapid transit in Toronto for the next 40 years.

Council will only discuss one issue at this meeting — answering Metrolinx’ request for clarity on the various transit proposals that City politicians are currently developing, so that the the provincial inter-municipal transit agency can quickly get the shovels in the ground and start building transit.

By the end of Wednesday, we all should know where we’re headed and what’s going to be built — and by whom.

Torontoist has posted a great article by Hamutal Dotan, explaining the legalities of calling a special meeting of Council and what that move means, here.

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Welcome to Transit Toronto! This is an information site dedicated to public transportation in Toronto, maintained by transit enthusiasts for transit enthuasiasts. This is NOT the official website of the Toronto Transit Commission, Metrolinx or any other transit provider or government agency. To access the official websites of these agencies, consult this page here.