After a special council meeting that lasted all day, Toronto City Council voted yesterday to restore proposed LRT lines to Finch Avenue and part of Eglington, and convert the aging Scarborough line to an LRT. As Marcus Gee at The Globe and Mail writes, “City hall veterans are struggling to remember a time when a mayor of Toronto suffered such a humiliating and public setback.” Oft-maligned TTC chair Councillor Karen Stintz emerged with a major victory: she petitioned for the council vote, mobilized a group of supporters, and even proposed an option that would have allowed the mayor to save face (the Sheppard line could still be a subway if an outside panel of experts approves). She needed 22 votes: the motion passed 25-18. Council also voted 28:15 to strike an advisory panel to report back on the best solution for Sheppard.

Mayor Rob Ford, his brother Councillor Doug Ford, and other supporters like Councillor George Mammoliti have been saying for a year that “people want subways.” But consider the momentum on this issue in the past year, from shock and confusion when Ford cancelled Transit City on his first day in office, to hope this January 29th when Councillor Joe Mihevc produced a lawyers’ report saying Ford overstepped his legal rights and council would have to vote on the issue. Last Sunday 120 prominent academics, transportation planners and civic leaders sent a letter to city councillors urging them to overturn the Mayor’s transportation plan or risk impeding transit initiatives in Toronto for the next century. Cities Centre director Eric Miller, planning consultant Ken Greenberg, former Toronto chief planner Paul Bedford and former Mayor David Crombie, among others, called for an end to “the war on common sense.” The Pembina Institute weighed in on the issue, also in favour of LRT construction. And yesterday, while councillors debated and decided the issue, The Toronto Star conducted a [statistically questionable] public opinion poll asking what they thought council should do: 87 voted for “build more subways”, 332 for “build a Light Rapid Transit system”, 2 for “don’t do anything” and 15 had other ideas.

Just over a week ago, I intimated that most of us needed to learn more about municipal governance, and that without this ignorance Ford could never have cancelled transit city or signed an MOU with the province based on his own Sheppard subway strategy. I assumed that Ford knew exactly what his legal rights were, but was banking on councillors and the public being unsure that the Transit City issue had been approved by council and therefore had to be voted on. But last night at the end of the council meeting, Ford expressed his frustration with the results, saying, “Technically speaking, that whole meeting was irrelevant. The premier, I’m very confident, is going to continue building subways.” While it is true that the Transit City plan (like any major transit infrastructure in Canada) hinges upon provincial funding, the MOU that Ford and Premier McGuinty signed was only an agreement in principle until council voted on the issue. Indeed, the Premier confirmed this today: “I’ve also been very clear with the mayor from day one. At the time the memorandum of understanding was entered into, there was a specific provision that he’s got to seek the support of the council.” (“Premier Dalton McGuinty says he is obligated to consider council’s transit decision”, The Toronto Star, February 9, 2012). McGuinty said he reiterated this to Ford last week.

It is telling that it was the legal argument, not the transit experts’ advice or the cost projections, that allowed Transit City’s resurrection. Kudos to Stintz for putting her job on the line: she went public with her opposition to Ford’s transit plan two weeks ago and could easily be unseated a few months from now by the Mayor’s allies on the TTC board, along with TTC chief general manager Gary Webster. And to those who fought the legal battle, including Mihevc and the legal firm of Cavalluzzo, Hayes, Shilton, McIntyre & Cornish. That is one legal report that will go down in history.

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