Rob Ford is willing to surrender control of his city's subways.
Representatives of the Toronto mayor, including members of his transition team and more recently his senior staff, have been raising the idea of uploading the Toronto Transit Commission – or at least large chunks of it – during meetings with provincial officials.
That Mr. Ford is open to the idea, let alone supportive of it, marks a major shift from his predecessor David Miller. It could have a profound impact on future transit planning, providing the TTC with a more stable funding model and allowing for a more integrated system across the Greater Toronto Area.
Negotiations for any significant change in transit control would be enormously complex, and officials in Dalton McGuinty's government made clear on Monday that they have no intention of entering into them before next October's provincial election. But they did not shut the door on discussions after that, if Mr. McGuinty remains Premier.
A spokesperson for Mr. Ford neither confirmed nor denied the mayor's interest in uploading, saying there have been "discussions on a number of options" and that they "have been positive and are ongoing." But multiples sources familiar with the talks said that, while no detailed proposal has yet been put forward, the mayor's officials have repeatedly floated the idea of transferring either subway lines or the entire TTC to Metrolinx, the regional transit agency established by Mr. McGuinty's government.
Bringing the subways under Metrolinx would make it easier for Queen's Park to fund the extensions to existing lines that Mr. Ford promised in last year's municipal election campaign, and is now demanding in place of the light-rail lines that were planned when Mr. Miller was in office. For accounting purposes, ownership would allow the deficit-plagued province to spread the billions of dollars in construction costs over a long period, rather than effectively cutting the city a cheque up front.
Putting subways and surface lines under different control, however, could prove unwieldy – leading some transit insiders to speculate that uploading must be an all-or-nothing proposition.
For Mr. Ford, who has promised to cut costs and does not appear to share his predecessor's passion for managing public transit, the advantages of uploading would go beyond getting his subways built. The TTC is both a consistent drain on city finances and a political liability, with frequent bursts of public anger over everything from service interruptions to fare increases to the inadequacy of existing routes.
Those same considerations are behind the province's reluctance to take it on. Mr. McGuinty, who has plenty of headaches already, is not eager to add a money-losing transit corporation to his government's books – nor to be blamed for all the system's shortcomings, which will take a long time to remedy.
There are other complications, too, that would need to be worked out – among them how to avoid Toronto's transit dwarfing all of Metrolinx's other responsibilities, how to keep the TTC's generous union contracts from spiking wages across the region, and issues arising from land-use planning remaining under municipal control.
But it would also put an end to the untenable situation in which Toronto is forced to rely only on municipal property taxes to fund its public transit, which is virtually unheard of for a city of its size.
More importantly, from Mr. McGuinty's, perspective, it would help meet a key provincial policy goal: a more seamless regional network, considered a prerequisite to solving the congestion problems that extend throughout the GTA.
At present, Metrolinx runs suburban transit lines, but in Toronto largely plays an intermediary role between the province and the city. With control over the TTC, it would become more of a legitimate authority, able to implement a regional policy vision without getting as caught up in intergovernmental squabbling.
All of this would take years to sort out, and provincial officials expressed surprise at the casual manner in which the mayor's representatives have raised it at meetings. But by the estimation of some transit insiders, it's inevitable that within a couple of decades the TTC will be integrated into a regional system. Mr. Ford may yet help speed that process up.