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Last spike in station deal 'just days away'

Sale of Union will pave way for facility to become major transit hub, minister says

Toronto Bureau Chief
Friday, August 18, 2000

The formal purchase of Union Station by Ottawa and Toronto — a big locomotive for the Olympics, waterfront redevelopment and the battle against traffic gridlock — is only days away, federal Transport Minister David Collenette said yesterday.

That legal move puts the finishing touches on an $80-million deal announced in June by the city and the federal government. Once legally complete, the deal sets off a train of events that could transform the historic building and transit options for the Toronto region.

“We will have the best intermodal transit facility in North America when Union Station is completely refurbished,” Mr. Collenette pledged in a wide-ranging interview.

He estimates that all the transportation elements of the planned facelift of the historic station should be in place by 2008 — in time for the Olympic games should Toronto be selected as the host.

Already linked to the city’s transit system, GO Transit’s suburban rail service and VIA Rail, Union Station will get a new bus station and a rail link to Pearson Airport.

Beyond the public-sector commitments, the private sector will be invited to bid on proposals for $200-million in retail, hotel and office space in the train station and the $300-million link to the airport.

However, any requests for proposals from the private sector cannot proceed until the deal, now down to legal niceties over real estate, is officially signed — as early as next week. Meanwhile, the city and the federal government still have to settle on how they will share in managing the operations of the station.

While the deal means the city will own the building outright (it already owns the land itself), the federal government has an interest in Union Station not only as an historic landmark dating from the 1920s but also as the central station for its national passenger-rail network.

Mr. Collenette said he expects a new entity, to be set up to manage the operations of Union Station, will have joint participation by the city and the federal government on a two-thirds, one-third basis respectively.

Those arrangements, currently under discussion among city and federal officials, will need to be approved by Toronto council, though not likely in time for its next meeting in October, the last before municipal elections on Nov. 13.

To those who fret about whether Ottawa will actually come up with the financial backing for Toronto’s bid for the Olympics as well as its proposed $12-billion revitalization of the waterfront, Mr. Collenette says his government’s support for Union Station signals “a tangible commitment.”

Of the $80-million purchase price, Ottawa put up $35-million. “That is a plus for Toronto and the Olympics,” he said.

Meanwhile, he noted, the current major expansion of Pearson Airport, with its first phase to be done by 2003, is supposed to be fully completed by 2008.

Mr. Collenette is a sometimes lonely voice of enthusiasm for a rapid-rail link to Pearson, because local politicians cite other, higher transit needs.

However, the minister reiterated his hope that the rail link could be built by 2003, when the first phase of airport expansion is to be done.

Meanwhile, others are anxious to nail down Ottawa’s financial commitment to the waterfront project, to which Prime Minister Jean Chr�tien, Ontario Premier Mike Harris and Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman pledged their support in November.

The waterfront and the Olympic bid are linked: elements of the waterfront, such as redevelopment of the portlands, are vital to staging key Olympic events on the harbour.

Meanwhile, the Toronto bid organization is about to move its sales pitch into high gear, with city, provincial and federal officials travelling to Sydney, Australia, next month. That’s where all the competing cities can make their pitch to members of the International Olympic Committee on the eve of this year’s games.

Yesterday, Mr. Collenette promised that Ottawa will make its detailed position known “in September or October,” before final documents go to the IOC by year-end. The province and the city will also provide materials.

From the federal perspective, said Mr. Collenette, “we want to deal with waterfront issues on a priority basis that are specifically applicable to the Olympics.

“The Olympics is driving the timetable,” he said.