Rob Ford's transit plans inched closer to a major overhaul Monday, when TTC chair Karen Stintz veered off the party line and suggested the Eglinton Crosstown line shouldn't be built entirely underground.
Stintz, councillor for Eglinton Lawrence, was quoted in both the Toronto Star and Globe and Mail as saying that the 19-km Eglinton light rail line shouldn't be buried outside of its downtown section. Although Stintz later said there was nothing new about her comments, they appear to put her at odds with the mayor, who made burying the Crosstown and building a subway extension on Sheppard Ave. one of his key election promises.
Critics have long said it is a waste of money to bury the LRT line in the suburbs because, unlike the dense downtown core, streets there are wide enough to accommodate both light rail and car traffic.
Stintz did not return a request for comment Monday.
The TTC chair's remarks come as obstacles continue to mount against Ford's transit plans. He has yet to secure $4.2 billion in funding for the Sheppard subway and last month TTC manager Gary Webster revealed canceling the David Miller-era Transit City plan will cost the city $65 million in sunk expenses. Councillor John Parker, a Ford ally and TTC commissioner, has already come out against burying the Eglinton line in the city's east end, saying the money would be better spent on transit in other parts of the city.
Councillor Maria Augimeri, Ford's harshest critic on the TTC board, says Stintz's comments prove that there is serious division in the mayor's administration over the future of transit in Toronto.
"Clearly cracks are showing," she said. "These cracks show me that increasingly, elected councillors want to express the views of the public who elected them. And that's not what Ford's platform is all about."
In its current form, the underground Eglinton line would cost $8.2 billion, making it the most expensive infrastructure project in the country. While Stintz suggested the estimated $2 billion saved by keeping the Eglinton Crosstown above ground in the suburbs could be used to fund the Sheppard subway, Augimeri says that overcrowded Finch Ave. should be the priority. Under Transit City, an LRT line would have been built on Finch west of Yonge.
Cameron MacLeod is one of the co-founders of Code Red TO, a grassroots advocacy group that wants to revive "rational transit" planning in Toronto, and bring back some elements of Transit City. He's hoping Stintz's apparent dissent is a sign that councillors are willing to revisit Ford's transit plans.
"I think it's fairly meaningful," he said. "It really shows that there is an appetite for more rational decision making, and being smart about taxpayers' dollars.
"Really this is a sign for us to continue to do our part as citizens, to keep up the pressure on elected officials to act responsibly on the transit file."
Code Red was initially inspired by the successful campaign to stop Ford's appropriation of the Port Lands development, but last week the group got a boost from the dramatic council meeting on the 2012 budget, at which left wing and centrist councillors united and overturned many of Ford's proposed service cuts.
MacLeod is hoping that similar action is possible on the transit front.
"I absolutely was encouraged by city council, because a large group of city councillors came together, they found a project they collectively could support, and they voted to express that will," he said. "That's exactly what's needed around transit."
Former TTC chair Councillor Joe Mihevc thinkss it's time for the mayor to reconsider burying Eglinton. Mihevc is considering presenting a motion of his own at council to bring back plans for an LRT on Sheppard, instead of a subway.
"When the leader of the TTC says this isn't good, it looks like the heat is on the mayor to either comprise or risk another loss," Mihevc said.
Meanwhile, there remains some confusion over TTC service cuts coming next month. At the council meeting last week, councillors voted to put $5 million back into the TTC to "prevent service reductions," and councillors who voted for the motion said it was their intent that the money be used to preserve current service levels on dozens of bus routes slated for cutbacks in February. But a day later Stintz said she planned to use the money to purchase new streetcars or maintain WheelTrans service for dialysis patients instead.
It now appears she will be unable to put the money towards streetcars. According to an email from city solicitor Anna Kinastowski to Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby, "the TTC must use the money to prevent service reductions, as per council direction."
Kinastowski's interpretation may not preclude the TTC from using the money to preserve WheelTrans service however. The city is set to stop providing the service for dialysis patients in June.