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Just who wants an airport rail link?

By Royson James
The Cities

“BEGGARS CAN’T BE choosers.”

“He who pays the piper calls the tune.”

We could call out a string of pithy sayings to reflect on Wednesday’s announcement the federal government is keen on proceeding with a direct and rapid train link to the airport.

After all, this is not a Toronto project. It is not one called for in the Robert Fung waterfront task force report.

It is not a priority for the TTC. In fact, TTC chair Howard Moscoe is positively hostile toward the idea, savaging it as a “pipe dream, an urban legend, mythology.”

GO Transit doesn’t have it in its 10-year, $1 billion capital plan. It doesn’t appear in preliminary plans for a GTA-wide transportation network.

This is David Collenette’s baby. The oft-criticized federal minister responsible for the GTA is convinced this is what Toronto needs.

And for all you critics who say he does nothing for Toronto, take the train and get on board.

“In my wildest dreams” this will be ready by 2003, Collenette says; at the latest 2006, two years before visitors begin arriving for the Toronto Olympics.

It’s not an Olympic requirement, either, but what’s the fuss.

The federal transport minister believes this is an essential piece of infrastructure for the Toronto region. He’s delivered the goods.

The idea does have its supporters - among them Mayor Mel Lastman and some city councillors. But there are as many detractors, including Mel’s deputy, Case Ootes.

The project has merit. In principle, it is an environmentally friendly, clean, rapid way to get out to the airport - if you are one of the 17 per cent of people who go from the airport to downtown Toronto or the other way.

One transit figure who’s been thinking hard about it is Al Leach, the former chief general manager of GO Transit, and then TTC.

Leach was at the announcement at Union Station last Wednesday. He had more than a passing interest for old time’s sake. He’s a consultant with SNC Lavalin, a multi-national company that has expressed an interest in operating the line.

But Leach says the company, along with partners such as construction giant PCL and the Larry Tanenbaum group, are interested in more than just the rail link to the airport.

And, here is the rub, he says the project will take a marrying of the transit link and the development rights to Union Station to make the project economically viable.

“It can’t work on its own. We’ve crunched the numbers every which way,” Leach said.

He hopes the federal government and the city link the projects, or at least issue the proposal calls in lock step. That way, one consortium can make the improvements to Union Station, put in the rail link, grab the passenger revenues, and pocket the retail and office lease revenues for the revitalized Union Station.

By itself, the cost of the proposed line and the anticipated revenues it can generate doesn’t make the project viable.

Collenette’s price tag is $250 million to $300 million of private sector money, but the private sector folks are saying it will cost more.

A major cost factor will be the cost of the right of way, owned by CN.

“The railways don’t give things away for nothing,” Leach said. “How much is CN going to sock them for, that’s the question.”

Unless, Collenette has a secret deal with the railway that will provide the corridor for a song. For some other benefits, CN could relinquish the rights and everyone could claim it cost nobody nothing.

You understand how that works, don’t you?

Lastman exhibited that quite clearly at the Wednesday news conference.

In return for the rights to turn Union Station into the world’s greatest rail terminal, taxpayers paid nothing. Not a penny, Lastman said.

Oh, taxpayers own the land the station sits on. The railways were supposed to pay rent for the past many years but haven’t because of a dispute over the amount.

So Lastman’s deal is to forgive the back rent, pretend the money wasn’t owed. Then, in exchange for the asset owned by the railway, the station itself, GO Transit will pay rent to the railways, about $55 million.

But GO Transit is now half-owned by the city and totally owned by Greater Toronto taxpayers. So it is taxpayers who are paying the lease costs.

And it’s taxpayers who, in the end, never saw a penny of the $25 million in back rent owed by the railways.

But it didn’t cost us a penny.

We own Union Station now.

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”