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Airport link targeted for 2003 opening

Private sector to build and operate system, Collenette says

Richard Brennan

Work could begin on a $300 million rail link between Union Station and Pearson airport as early as next year, federal Transportation Minister David Collenette says.

Ideally, a privately run system would becompleted in time for the opening of the new Pearson terminal in 2003, Collenette said yesterday in a speech to the Toronto Board of Trade.

“I do think it is absolutely necessary forthe future transportation needs of the region,” he told the breakfast meeting. “As the downtown core grows and as the roads become congested, then obviously a link to the airport becomes a logical necessity.”

Collenette announced his department will ask firms by month’s end to declare their interest in building and operating the long talked-of commuter system, which he said could carry up to 2.5 million passengers a year.

“We want to explore with the private sector what conditions are needed to encourage them to invest and build and operate this type of service on their own,” he said, adding that national and international companies have already indicated interest.

“We are determined to move this forward and will work with everybody and anybody who has an interest … so that we can make this a reality, if not in time for the new terminal opening in 2003, then shortly thereafter.”

Collenette conceded that pushing aheadwith the proposed commuter corridor will also help in Toronto’s bid for the Olympics, but was quick to tell reporters later it must be completed regardless, given that the airport is expected to become far more busy.

“Imagine going from Pearson to Union Station in 18 to 20 minutes, as opposed to the current average time of 45 minutes to an hour,” he said.

Nearly every major city in the world with a large airport has a downtown rail link or is building one, he said.

The Star has reported that the favoured proposal would offer a fleet of six self-propelled, subway-like cars running at 130 km/h, alone or in pairs. A new set of tracks would run alongside the Canadian National line which extends from downtown up the railway’s Weston subdivision corridor to Woodbine Racetrack. From there passengers would transfer to an airport rail line, probably a monorail.

Last year, the federal government askedconsultants to study the link’s viability, “and what they told us is that the rail link to the airport definitely is a good idea, that a private sector initiative to build, operate and maintain such a service is a viable proposal.”

Collenette said the airport-downtown link would take more than 1 million car trips off the road every year, assuming it gets 2 million riders in the first year.

He said Pearson in 2015 is expected to be as busy as London’s Heathrow, and “you cannot serve it with the existing road network.

“Pearson is going to become one of thegreat airports in North America.”

He emphasized that a redeveloped Union Station will play a “major role” in the future transportation system.

The federal government has put up $35million to get the Union Station project off the ground. Collenette said VIA Rail has already started work on about $10 million worth of improvements to upgrade and modernize facilities at the station.

As for broader help to public transit, Collenette said Queen’s Park must start funding it again before Ottawa will assist Toronto or other any municipality with transit costs.

“I’m hopeful they will reconsider their point of view, and that, I think, would be a good sign,” he said.

Growing pressure has been exerted on senior governments by Mayor Mel Lastman and the Toronto Transit Commission to help pay the staggering cost of public transit, which the Harris government forced municipalities to pick up.

Collenette said he believes the federal government has a greater role to play in funding municipal transit, but doesn’t want to see Ottawa simply filling the funding vacuum left by the provinces.

“If the federal government agrees to any financial assistance to any municipal transit system, it has to be over and above what provincial governments traditionally spent,” he said.

Ottawa’s attitude toward aiding commuter transit is changing slowly, Collenette said, as Canada becomes more urbanized and issues of congestion, the environment and quality of life are raised.