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Not much juice in Liberal plums


Tuesday, May 29, 2001

If Transportation Minister David Collenette goes off to become High Commmissioner to the Court of St. James as the Ottawa punditocracy insists he must, does poor Toronto lose its rail link to the airport?

One might better ask: Does it have a rail link to the airport to lose? Thus rephrased, the question focuses revealingly on the leave-taking minister’s record in the important matter of deliverables, as in, what have you done for us lately?

Mr. Collenette, the designated leader of the Liberal government’s impressively large caucus of Toronto-area MPs, loves to talk about his train. But literally years after he first began the feel-good patter, we still know next to nothing about the thing.

How much will it cost to build? Who will pay to build it? Who will operate it? What will the fare be? Will it even go to the airport, or stop one kilometre short?

Imagine you’re building a house. It’s going to be really magnificent and miraculously cheap, and you’re dead keen on getting under way. But somehow, it has taken you five years to schedule a meeting with your architect to discuss how many bedrooms you want.

We applaud the ascension of the mighty “GTA Czar.” With him out of the way, we get a fresh chance to examine the actual contents of this poke he has left behind… . Could the lack of any concrete progress on the rail link have anything to do with the fact that, as many transportation experts say, it makes no sense economically or functionally?

A recent study by University of Toronto engineering professor Murtaza Haider concludes that a single rail line running to the airport from Union Station will do little to promote transit use because only a small percentage of Pearson trips originate downtown.

Less than 5 per cent of trips to and from Pearson are by transit: Just try it, and you’ll understand why. But building a single rail line won’t make it any easier, according to Prof. Haider.

“Several rail transit services from numerous locations to Pearson Airport are needed to achieve high transit mode splits,” he concludes. “This proposition would cost billions of dollars.”

Nice to know. While we’re dealing with such bothersome technicalities, it would also be nice to know what a single line would cost.

But perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. When it comes to federal initiatives hereabouts, the watchword is process. Many consultants manage elaborate work plans on behalf of mysterious stakeholders, and only the most naive observers expect results.

Consider that other juicy “plum” Prime Minister Jean Chr�tien has lavished on his loyal Torontonians, a park on the grounds of decommissioned CFB Downsview. I believe he first did so way back in his first mandate, but his party has reannounced Downsview park since then, in so many creative ways, it somehow still seems fresh.

I should call it by its official name — Parc Downsview Park — if only to acknowledge that half a decade of earnest meeting, studious planning and serious spending has produced one result: a name. Otherwise, this thing’s a joke.

The Liberals could have served the city better by selling the base to the highest bidder and using the proceeds to grant each of John Nunziata’s constituents a $1,000 honorarium. (Mr. Nunziata, a former Independent MP for York South-Weston and a thorn in Mr. Chr�tien’s side until unseated in the last federal election, was kicked out of the Liberal Party in 1996.) At least then we’d have a nice park with some decent housing.

Now, according to one source, the blue-chip board that masterminds Downsview non-activity is planning to keep its many lucrative plans alive by selling off chunks of land for development — just like the old Toronto Harbour Commissioners, who regularly dealt off prime pieces of public land to keep their fine wine flowing freely.

In the meantime, the federal government wants us to get all excited by the fact that it has appointed MP Judy Sgro, who ran unsuccessfully against Mr. Nunziata in 1997, to head a task force to study cities.

Reliable sources say that Ms. Sgro is developing a plan. In view of the fact that her group is not expected to share its momentous insights for another two years, she will need something to keep it busy.