Rob Ford's slim chances of getting a subway on Sheppard Ave. are about to get even slimmer.
When councillors voted earlier this month to revive most of the Transit City light rail plan Ford opposes, they left a sliver of hope for his subway scheme by convening an expert panel to decide whether underground or surface rail would be best for Sheppard.
But with three weeks remaining before the panel is scheduled to report back to council, a source familiar with the group's deliberations says an overwhelming majority of its members have already tacitly endorsed light rail.
According to the source, after hearing arguments from all sides over two days of meetings, the panel took an informal straw poll last Friday and found there was near consensus on recommending surface light rail for Sheppard. A Sheppard light rail line greenlighted under the previous term of council would run from the Don Mills subway station and extend east towards the Malvern town centre.
Panel members reportedly feel it would be unwise to scrap a surface rail line on Sheppard that the province is willing to fund for a more expensive subway that there are still no solid plans to pay for. Concerns have also been raised that the density of the Sheppard corridor will not warrant a subway any time in the near future.
The expert panel was created at the February 8 special council session at which councillors bucked the mayor's transit agenda and effectively killed off his campaign promise to bury the entire length of the Eglinton Crosstown rail line. Council voted to build the eastern arm of the Crosstown at street level and also construct a light rail line on Finch Ave.
While the vote dealt the mayor his most crushing political defeat to date, convening the panel to decide the best way to deliver rapid transit on Sheppard was seen as a goodwill gesture to Ford because it didn't explicitly rule out the possibility of his coveted subway.
But the panel's makeup suggested it could recommend against the mayor's plans because while Dr. Gordon Chong, Ford's point man on the Sheppard subway project, was included in the advisory group, he was the only member on record supporting underground transit.
Other appointees include former Toronto mayor David Crombie, Eric Miller of the U of T Cities Centre, and representatives from the TTC, Metrolinx, the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance, TTCRiders, and Social Planning Toronto. Members were chosen according to a list that was put forward by TTC chair Karen Stintz and approved by council.
Whatever it recommends, the panel's decision is unlikely to affect the mayor's ongoing campaign for subways. Despite its mandate from council, Ford has refused to endorse the advisory group's work and continues to push for underground transit.
On Sunday he dedicated much of the debut episode of his radio show to discussing subways, and at his Monday morning weigh-in at City Hall he reiterated his belief that it would be "political suicide" for Premier Dalton McGuinty not to build underground rail with some of the $8.4 billion the province has pledged towards expanding Toronto transit.
"[The premier] is the one who's going to lose seats and votes," Ford told reporters. "I listen to the voters. Every poll you see has 70 or 80 per cent, people want subways. If he wants to cater to the 30 per cent, I don't see him winning many seats."
The Sheppard panel is expected to have a draft of its recommendations ready by the end of this week. It has been directed to report back to council no later than March 21. UPDATE: The city clerk has announced the panel will report back at a special council meeting on Thursday, March 15.
Officials from the province, which is reponsible for building all the new rail lines, have said they're waiting for council to make a decision on Sheppard before they move ahead with implementing any plan.