When Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced $660-million in new funding for a Scarborough subway, Mayor Rob Ford was understandably exultant. Coming just 13 months before he runs for a second term, it gives a big boost to the man who has made "subways, subways, subways" his personal mantra.
If a solid deal comes together over the next weeks and months, Mr. Ford will enter the starting gate of the long mayoral campaign in January with something real to boast about. In the minds of many voters, that achievement could overshadow all the reports of sketchy behaviour that have made him a figure of fun across the country.
But if this is a win for Mr. Ford, it is a win with a big asterisk. The mayor failed to mention that this subway was not, in fact, his idea. Toronto Transit Commission chair Karen Stintz and her ally, Scarborough councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, first proposed scrapping a plan to replace the Scarborough RT and using the money to build a subway instead. Mr. Ford had pushed for a much different subway – an extension of the existing Sheppard line. That plan collapsed at city council.
What the mayor also failed to point out in his triumphant remarks on Monday was that Toronto has to come up with hundreds of millions of dollars of its own to give a final green light to the Scarborough subway project. City council voted to increase property taxes to raise the money, and Mr. Ford, the avowed tax fighter, reluctantly went along. Now, he will have to run on the very thing he lambasted Premier Kathleen Wynne for even considering: a transit tax.
A report from city staff this summer said that "if the city decides to undertake the subway project, it will place pressure on the city's ability to maintain debt-service ratios below guidelines. Furthermore, it will directly reduce budget flexibility to address ongoing operational and service-levels issues now and in the future."
In other words, it will strain the city's already strained finances. An avowed fiscal conservative will be committing the city to raising taxes and taking on a lot more debt.
It may be worth it in the end. Toronto is decades behind other world cities in building out its rapid transit network. A deal for a Scarborough subway, with all three levels of government kicking in, would be an encouraging new start.
The subway project that the federal government is supporting with its grant is much better than the two rival proposals for rapid transit to Scarborough: a replacement for the existing Scarborough RT with light rail, and a new subway line along the RT route. The project would extend the Bloor-Danforth subway all the way to Sheppard Avenue, linking up with the planned Sheppard LRT line and achieving what transit planners and commuters like best: a complete loop. Its route would take it into the heart of Scarborough and give tens of thousands of commuters access to rapid transit.
Unlike the other proposals, it would go underground. Unlike the LRT proposal, it would provide a seamless one-stop ride, eliminating the need for a time-consuming transfer. TTC chief executive Andy Byford calls it a clearly "superior" option.
Still, it is worth remembering that this project is quite different from what Mr. Ford has talked about before, when he said a subway to Scarborough could be built with the help of higher governments and the private sector without causing any pain to the Toronto taxpayer.
"That's another promise made and another promise kept," he said at the subway-funding announcement on Monday. Well, not quite.