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Toronto's TTC subway system

DARRYL JAMES/Darryl James/ The Globe and Mail

Dismayed by the dramatic dismissal of TTC general manager Gary Webster, opponents of Rob Ford are building a new coalition of council votes to derail the mayor's subway plans.

The showdown, which will play out on the floor of city council, is turning into a game of numbers and procedure, with the mayor's opponents working to gather enough support to control the agenda and poring over bylaws to plan their attack – which could include an attempt to take over the transit commission.

The province continues to express its frustration with the city's infighting. On Wednesday, a senior provincial official said more delays in deciding how best to spend $8.4-billion in transit funding could put that funding at risk.

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Discussions at city hall are focusing on how to break the transit impasse. On one side is a majority of councillors, including TTC chair Karen Stintz, who have backed a plan for surface light rail lines on Finch Avenue, the eastern stretch of Eglinton and to replace the aging Scarborough rapid transit line. The same group gave support for an expert panel to study the merits of light rail versus subways on Sheppard Avenue. It will report to council before the end of March.

On the other side is the mayor, who continues to push for subways, backed by a majority of TTC commissioners – the five councillors who voted to fire without cause Mr. Webster at a special meeting Tuesday.

"Certainly what happened yesterday, tragic to my mind as it was, is not the last chapter," said Councillor Joe Mihevc, a strong advocate for light-rail transit. "Obviously, people are strategizing. Clearly, the mayor is strategizing."

Mayor Ford, for his part, continues to seek public support for his vision of subway expansion. "I believe we should start building subways now. And we shouldn't stop," the mayor says in a guest column in The Globe and Mail. He argues new revenue tools could fill any funding gap and quotes a KPMG study that finds a "modest" parking levy could generate more than $90-million annually.

The mayor also defends the change in management at the TTC, saying "real improvement requires top-down leadership."

Both the mayor and his opponents also are focused on changing the composition of the transit board. While Ms. Stintz can only be replaced by council, a report to the next council meeting in two weeks calls for the appointment of five citizens and four councillors.

The report, endorsed by the mayor's executive, could also be used to launch a debate on the commission's membership by the mayor's opponents. Councillors point to a motion passed by council last April that sets the minimum membership of all city commissions at 11 – two more than are presently on the commission. This measure, they say, could be used to change the balance of power on the commission.

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Councillor Adam Vaughan says a bigger issue is whether critics of the mayor's plan can get the two-thirds of council necessary – 30 votes – to control the agenda.

"If that 30 votes materializes, all bets are off," said Mr. Vaughan, a vocal critic of the mayor. "It goes way beyond transit. It is a game changer."

Mr. Vaughan said the very public firing of Mr. Webster, who two weeks ago outlined the merits of surface light rail during questioning by council, has helped to move numbers closer to the 30 mark.

One way or another, he said a majority of councillors are working to bring consistency to the transit file as demanded by the province.

A day after Premier Dalton McGuinty said he's "running out of patience" with the back-and-forth, his officials reiterated their growing frustration with the city's infighting. Provincial sources indicated that the government is committed to building the Eglinton line, one way or another. But a senior official conceded that "one of the options that would have to be discussed," if the dysfunction at City Hall persists, is diverting some of the money previously earmarked for the Sheppard or Finch lines to other transit projects in the Greater Toronto Area.

Relations between the province and the city appear to be badly strained, with little direct contact between Mr. McGuinty and Mr. Ford. The province, according to one senior official, is instead attempting "soft diplomacy" by maintaining contact between their respective staffs.

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The Liberals are said to have a better relationship with Ms. Stintz, crediting her as someone with whom they've been able to have more constructive dialogue. While government MPPs from Scarborough are uneasy with the possibility of a surface line on Eglinton's eastern stretch, other members of Mr. McGuinty's caucus have expressed their admiration for Ms. Stintz's willingness to stand up to Mr. Ford.

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