Councillors have voted to enter into discussions with Premier Doug Ford’s government about the province’s plan to take ownership of the TTC subway system, even though they registered their opposition to the plan.
At a meeting Thursday, council voted 24 to 1 to approve recommendations in a report from City Manager Chris Murray to start talks with the province on a potential “upload” of the subway to Queen’s Park.
But they also voted 23 to 2 to in favour of an amendment from Mayor John Tory to “reaffirm (council’s) support for keeping ownership of the Toronto Transit Commission in the City of Toronto.”
Council passed a similar motion in May, after the Ontario PCs floated the upload in their election platform.
In a speech to council, Tory expressed skepticism about the upload, saying the Ontario PCs have never fleshed out the plan in detail and suggesting the proposal was “a solution in search of a problem.”
The province has said it is only interested in taking ownership of the subway, and would allow the TTC to continue operating the lines and collecting fares.
The PCs say the city has a poor track record of building new lines, and the province is better positioned financially to create an efficient regional transit network.
But city staff were unable to answer questions raised by councillors Thursday about what the plan would mean for TTC service or the city’s ability to co-ordinate transit with land use planning.
“I think, in the end, the best way to protect the transit system … is to go to the table and get answers to the questions,” said Tory.
Staunch opponents of the upload agreed it was best to talk with Queen’s Park, given the legislative authority the province has over the city.
“As the largest city in this country, as the economic engine of this province and country, our ability to own and operate the transit system is central to our success,” said Councillor Joe Cressy (Ward 10 Spadina-Fort York). He said he saw “zero benefit” to Ford’s government taking over the subway.
“I believe we should use absolutely every tool that we have, every tool at our disposal, to fight this. And that includes, based on our legislative framework, being at the table.”
The recommendations approved by council authorize the city manager to enter into an agreement with the province under which the city would share information about the subway system that could help facilitate the upload.
Staff are expected to report back to council early next year with an update.
In a letter to Tory last month, Ontario Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek said he wanted the city’s written commitment by no later than Thursday that it would participate in the information-sharing agreement.
The minister said the goal of the exercise is to assess the value of the subway assets, the maintenance backlog, and the operating costs of the network.
A confidential legal opinion attached to the city report warned council effectively has no legal power to prevent the upload.
The legal opinion, which was obtained by the Star, said Queen’s Park could unilaterally take ownership of the network without compensating the city financially, and even leave the municipality on the hook for the billions of dollars of debt it has accrued funding the system.
Although the city manager’s recommendations passed with almost unanimous support, some councillors vowed fierce pushback if the province actually takes concrete steps to upload the subway. Yurek has said the Ontario PC’s could introduce enabling legislation early next year.
Councillor Krystin Wong-Tam (Ward 13 Toronto Centre) called the subway the “heart and the spine” of Toronto and argued it has to remain integrated with the bus and streetcar network in order to provide quality service. She urged council to block Ford’s plans.
“I think we’re about to get into the biggest fight in this term if (Ford) is successful in taking this away from us” she said.
In a statement released Thursday evening, Yurek said he was pleased with council’s decision.
“Our government was elected to get the people of Ontario moving and we are working towards that goal,” he said. Yurek claimed that the city “is not good at planning or building subways.”
He promised to carry out talks with the city “in good faith.”
In another significant transit decision Thursday, council voted 19 to 3 to extend the King St. streetcar pilot project until July 31, 2019. City transportation staff said they needed more time to collect and report on data from the pilot, which was set to expire on December 31. Their final report is expected by March, after which council will decide whether to make the project permanent.
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr