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Transit battle looming for the GTA

Jun. 11, 2001. 01:30 AM

Ian Urquhart
PROVINCIAL AFFAIRS COLUMNIST

A FEROCIOUS behind-the-scenes battle is underway at Queen’s Park over control and funding of transit in the Greater Toronto Area.

At stake are the futures of TTC and GO Transit as well as the Greater Toronto Services Board (GTSB) and the four regional governments in the 905 belt around Toronto.

Ultimately, the decisions to be made at Queen’s Park in the coming weeks will determine whether we become a sort of northern Los Angeles or we pursue more controlled growth, serviced by transit.

After years of neglect, the Conservative government at Queen’s Park has finally begun addressing these questions. In a speech in January, Premier Mike Harris first used the phrase “smart growth” to describe the province’s new vision for the GTA.

It sounded good, but so far smart growth is just a slogan with no content, and various interests are lining up at Queen’s Park to fill the policy vacuum.

Currently atop the agenda are the linked questions of whether to create some sort of regional transit authority for the GTA and how to finance expansion of transit lines. Here are some of the competing proposals:

  • The GTSB - It is pushing for a transit authority that would be controlled by GTSB-appointed municipal politicians but financed by the province. Alternatively, the province could give the GTSB authority to tax gasoline or some other commodity (telephones?) to pay for transit.
  • The regions (Peel, York, Durham and Halton) - They see the GTSB as a threat to their existence and want it scrapped or severely curtailed. As for a transit authority, they want it in municipal hands but not if it is dominated by Toronto politicians.
  • The developers - They, too, see a strong GTSB as a threat to their plans and are pushing for a provincially appointed transit authority with minority representation, if any, from the municipalities.
  • The Ontario Chamber of Commerce - It is pushing for a province-wide transportation authority composed of business leaders and others, not municipal politicians.

As is evident, this is a war over turf. It is also about money. Transit is expensive both to build and operate. Where will the money come from?

The province used to pay 75 per cent of the cost of new transit lines and equipment. But as part of the downloading exercise four years ago, the Harris government dumped the responsibility for transit entirely on the municipalities, with the money to be raised from property taxpayers.

The government has since acknowledged that this was a mistake, but it has yet to identify any new sources of revenue. It is hoping for a contribution from the federal government, but Ottawa is not going to come on board until the province itself antes up.

Then there is the private sector.

Lurking in the shadows is a powerful consortium of companies proposing to build transit lines along existing hydro and railway rights-of-way. The consortium includes Borealis Capital, a major infrastructure investment firm; Alstom Canada, a French-based firm that specializes in light rail transit; and Armbro Enterprises, a Brampton-based construction firm with experience in big capital projects.

This is a consortium with strong Tory connections. Take Borealis, for example. Its executive chairman is Steve Hudson, a Tory bagman and confidant of the Premier.

Chairing the consortium is David McFadden, a Toronto lawyer who is a former president of the provincial Conservative party and a former Tory MPP.

Representatives of the consortium have reportedly been lobbying intensively at Queen’s Park. They also briefed the members of the GTSB transportation committee last week.

Meanwhile, the GTSB is getting anxious. Earlier this year, Municipal Affairs Minister Chris Hodgson pressed the GTSB to hurry up its proposal for transit in the GTA.

The GTSB complied back on April 20. Since then, it has not heard back from the province.

“It’s time to act,” says GTSB Chair Gordon Chong. “And I would be extremely disappointed if the province did not support us.”

Both Hodgson and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty were non-committal last week when I approached them on the subject. “We have several proposals before us,” was all Flaherty would say.

My sources say, however, that the two ministers are battling behind the scenes for control of the file. The battle has future leadership overtones, as both men are considered potential successors to Harris, whenever he decides to step down.

Harris will eventually have to wade into the fray and force a decision on this issue.

And at this point, it is anybody’s guess what that decision will be.


Ian Urquhart is The Star’s provincial affairs columnist. His column appears on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.




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