Mayor Rob Ford's hand-picked transit adviser is backing away from the touchy topic of road tolls, saying they are an option but are not required to make the Sheppard subway a reality.
Gordon Chong, a former city councillor selected last year to study options for financing the mayor's promised subway extension, said Thursday his long-anticipated report examines tolls as one of many revenue-generating ideas.
"Road tolls are one tool in the toolkit," he said. "The revenue financing tools that are there can cover the cost even without road tolls."
The backtracking comes just one day after Dr. Chong told The Globe and Mail that tolls would play a key role in any subway financing plans, and that the mayor and his brother – who have long declared tolls a no-go zone – would come around to accepting them.
By Thursday, Dr. Chong was declining to talk on the topic, calling it "unmentionable" until his findings are out, preferring to talk about the gap between parking fees charged in private and city lots. "I think jacking up the charges there is quite reasonable," he said.
The report, called "Toronto Transit: Back on Track," will go to the mayor's executive committee on Feb. 13 and to council in March. Its release comes at a time when the mayor's subway vision for transit is about to be tested on the floor of council, and its critics are threatening to reverse the deal he brokered with the province for an underground Eglinton light rail line.
The report's main message is that the expanded line along Sheppard is doable and will attract enough private investment to cover between 50 and 60 per cent of costs. The total cost would be much lower than the $4.2-billion that the TTC has predicted. One estimate for a line extending from Downsview to Scarborough Town Centre totals $3.7-billion.
Councillor Doug Ford was quick to slam the toll option Thursday, describing it as "just another tax grab."
While Dr. Chong said he favours building the extension in two legs, first to the east and then the west, Councillor Ford said he would favour an approach that goes one stop at a time. "My theory is get the shovels in the ground," he said. "You just need a bit of seed money to get it going and then once you get drilling machines in the ground, you don't pull them out."
Claims being made by the mayor's opponents that the subway plan would bankrupt the city "just show their sheer ignorance and lack of any business skills whatsoever," he said.
One of those critics, Councillor Adam Vaughan, said the subway project would require huge increases in density along the line to generate enough revenue through development charges. "You would require 40-storey buildings in everyone's backyard," Mr. Vaughan said, noting the outcry even mid-size condominium projects are generating along the existing Sheppard line.
In addition to the report, Mr. Vaughan called on the mayor's office to release all the supporting research that informed the study so residents can see the kind of development pressure that would be required to finance the mayor's subway plan.
Dr. Chong – who last year said he doubted private funding would cover more than 30 per cent of the project – urged councillors to keep an open mind on the Sheppard plan.
"What I am hoping is that the shenanigans and the hard feelings that have been created in the last few days will sort of be put aside for the time being," he said. "If people are really interested in helping the underserved areas, people who are vulnerable, as well as helping to get people out of their cars, why not give it a fair airing."