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Union Station sale seen as key move to ease gridlock

Redevelopment proposes GO, TTC services and new bus terminal for commuters

Toronto Bureau Chief; With a report from James Rusk
Wednesday, April 19, 2000

The long-awaited sale of Union Station — a key first step to easing traffic gridlock in the Toronto region — is expected shortly, federal Transport minister David Collenette said yesterday.

A final sign-off on the deal is set for April 28, but the minister warned that settling the few remaining issues could slip past that deadline. But he said the closing date, delayed twice already, is expected in weeks, not months.

“I don’t think we should get wedded to a date,” the minister said in an interview yesterday. “We agree with the mayor [Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman] that this matter should be dealt with as quickly as possible.”

Under the deal, valued at $85-million, the city would own the building and GO Transit would own a three-kilometre rail corridor at the station, the largest in the country. However, the federal government is expected to be an important minority participant with the city, possibly putting up as much as $25-million for its share.

GO Transit managing director Gary McNeil — one of the parties in the negotiations — said he remains hopeful that the April 28 closing date will be met. But he added that “it would not be surprising” to see another delay because of the complexity of the negotiations.

Unleashing the potential of long-neglected Union Station is crucial for city and suburban commuters.

“For us, it’s the heart of our system,” Mr. McNeil said. “Unless you have a strong heart, you cannot do anything else.” About 96 per cent of GO Transit riders, equivalent to 115,000 passengers a day, use Union Station, also a major station for the Toronto Transit Commission.

For his part, Mr. Collenette described Union Station “as the transportation linchpin in the region, along with the airport.”

In addition to expansion of GO and TTC services expected after the deal is completed, the proposed redevelopment is likely to add a bus terminal on site.

Mr. Collenette is also a leading advocate of creating a rapid-transit rail link between Union Station and Pearson Airport.

Yesterday, Mr. Collenette refused to discuss financial specifics of the Union Station negotiations now being carried out by representatives for the city, GO Transit, Ottawa and the Toronto Terminals Railway Co., a partnership of Canadian National and Canadian Pacific. TTR now owns the building and the rail lines around the station, while the city already owns the land on which the building is situated.

However, he said that the two major issues left, compared with about 100 at the start of the negotiations last year, both relate to federal concerns — heritage and VIA Rail.

As one of Toronto’s architectural landmarks, Union Station is protected under the federal Heritage Railway Stations Protection Act.

Any deal would need heritage safeguards over the anticipated, major redevelopment of the terminal as a hub for different kinds of transit and as a commercial centre.

“Torontonians have a great affection for the building and they want to know that whatever is done in its redevelopment … the architectural heritage of the building remains intact,” said Mr. Collenette, who is the minister responsible for Toronto region issues in the federal cabinet.

The other key federal issue is Via Rail, which accounts for 10 per cent of traffic through Union Station, and its continuing role as a major tenant in a building that serves as key link for rail passengers between eastern and western Canada.

Mr. Collenette said the federal government must retain its current transportation regulatory authority over Union Station. But Via’s needs must be recognized for the future, he said.

“We must have the flexibility that Via can operate in a way that makes sense efficiently and economically,” the minister said.

Ottawa recently earmarked $402-million for Via, part of which is expected to go on refurbishments at the station.

Beyond Union Station’s current role as a transportation hub, its future potential is as an attractive commercial and retail mecca that could create an important source of revenue for its expected new owners — the city and the federal government.