An expert panel on Sheppard Ave. transit has delivered its verdict, but it's unlikely to tone down the highly politicized debate over subways and LRT that has raged since Mayor Ford took office.
At a press conference Friday afternoon to announce the panel's endorsement of LRT, continued division over the issue was clearly on display. The group's spokesperson and the mayor's point man on subways jockeyed for position at the podium, and one of Ford's council allies suggested he would attempt to stall a decision on the issue when it goes to a vote next Wednesday.
As has been widely expected, the panel, appointed by council at a special session February 8, is recommending a surface light rail line on Sheppard from Don Mills subway station to Morningside. Professor Eric Miller, the panel's spokesperson, told reporters at the press conference it was clearly the best option compared to either a complete subway line or a two-stop subway extension that would transition into LRT.
"What this report is saying, is that having looked at all the facts across all the criteria, the LRT came out as the best alternative," he said. "Not as a pre-wired political judgment, but it came out best."
Even before the panel's report was released however, Ford dismissed it, telling reporters Thursday the advisory group was biased and the report was "hogwash."
Miller fired back on Friday, and suggested the mayor read the report before passing judgment.
"The mayor is known for speaking ahead of the facts," he said. "I come from a university where facts are important and we read reports before we reach a conclusion."
The panel judged the three different transit options based on nine criteria, including cost effectiveness, ridership projections, fiscal sustainability, and community impact. The LRT being recommended would be 13 km long and cost $1 billion, as opposed to an 8-km subway line that would cost $2.7 to $3.7 billion, or a hybrid line that would also be 13 km and cost up to $1.8 billion.
Despite assertions to the contrary by Ford's allies, the Sheppard LRT would not take away lanes of traffic from cars. Instead, the street would be widened to accommodate the rail line down the centre of the road.
As Miller spoke to reporters from the podium, Dr. Gordon Chong stood staring at him from the edge of the platform, his hands thrust in his pockets. Chong was hired by Ford last year to build a case for subways, and was also later appointed to the expert panel. He boycotted its final meeting, claiming his pro-subway findings were being repressed, but agreed to attend the press conference.
At one point Chong gestured Miller away from the microphone so he could address the media.
"Eric speaks for the panel, he doesn't speak for the dissenting opinion," he said.
"Yes, I think I made that clear," Miller replied curtly.
Chong argues that while LRTs look good in the short term, over the long-term the cost and ridership projections make subways the better option.
"We should be looking 50 to 100 years out," he said. "Why would you build something that you may rip up in 20 to 30 years?"
Councillor Norm Kelly, a close Ford ally on the transit file, echoed those statements and claimed the panel was biased because most of its members were on record supporting LRT before the advisory board was convened.
"This is like picking a jury whose members have already proclaimed the defendant guilty," he told reporters.
Besides Miller and Chong, participants in the panel included former mayor David Crombie, and representatives from Metrolinx, the TTC, the CivicAction Alliance, Social Planning Toronto, and the Sheppard East BIA.
Kelly said that at next week's council session he could seek a deferral of a decision in order to give the federal government time to respond to a request Chong made for subway funding.
At the last council meeting on transit Ford attempted, unsuccessfully, to defer a decision on light rail lines for Eglinton and Finch Ave.
Besides the LRT recommendation, among the panel's findings was that the subway Ford so desires could be built with a modest annual .9 per cent increase in property tax over a seven year period. Ford is unlikely to back that option however, and has repeatedly vowed not to raise taxes to build transit.
But Miller said even if there was political will to raise taxes, LRT would remain the best option because projected ridership levels on Sheppard aren't high enough to justify a subway in the foreseeable future.
Council will vote on the panel's report at a special council next Wednesday, March 21.