Mayor Rob Ford of Toronto should think again about rejecting a motion on public-transit plans passed by a majority of City Council as "technically speaking, ... irrelevant." On this issue, Councillor Karen Stintz, the chair of the Toronto Transit Commission, who introduced the motion, is acting more like a fiscal conservative than Mr. Ford.

The matter in dispute is whether a light rail transit line should be entirely underground or partly on the surface. The cost of burying the whole line would be $1.9-billion. Mr. Ford is a great advocate of subways – rightly – but he is disproportionately disdainful of streetcars, and is determined not to deprive automobiles of any of the space they now have on the city's roads.

Mr. Ford insists that the overall $8.4-billion plan is a provincial project, so that the council is not the relevant decision-maker. In fact, Dalton McGuinty, the Premier of Ontario, consented to the fully underground line – a change from the plan agreed to in 2009 – in order to accommodate Mr. Ford when his election mandate was fresh. This is not a case of the Ontario government insisting on the more expensive option. On the contrary, Mr. McGuinty made clear on Thursday that the council's approval is required for the whole project to proceed.

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The mayor's preference for subways is well founded and widely shared. And the underlying, long-term wealth of Toronto is more than sufficient for a steady program of subway building, but the fiscal relationships – past and present – among the various levels of government have got in the way of wise transportation policy.

This is no time for the quixotic Mr. Ford to attempt an ideal transit system. Both the Harper and the McGuinty governments are evidently preparing strenuously deficit-reducing budgets. And in any case, the treasuries of upper-level governments should be treated respectfully; after all, federal, provincial and municipal taxpayers are not separate groups of people.

Mr. Ford has had a recent success in the city's tentative agreement with a CUPE local. He should stay in touch with his fiscal conservatism, set aside his anger at Ms. Stintz, accept the verdict of the council and save $1.9-billion.