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Politicians on board for York U. subway line


Most of the debate about the “infrastructure deficit” in Ontario has taken place in the abstract.

There has been lots of talk from the provincial government about “long overdue projects and urgent new initiatives” (both unspecified), about “alternative financing and procurement,” about new agencies and new strategies.

Last month’s budget speech promised a five-year, $30 billion plan to tackle the problem. No details were given. Opposition critics suggested it was all hot air.

Behind the scenes, however, there is a concerted effort under way to get one particular project off the ground — extension of the Spadina subway line to York University and beyond.

In April, a meeting of a high-powered “working group” to promote the subway took place at Queen’s Park.

In attendance were: Finance Minister Greg Sorbara, Infrastructure Minister David Caplan, Toronto Mayor David Miller, York Region Chair Bill Fisch, York University president Lorna Marsden, and TTC Chief General Manager Rick Ducharme, among others.

There was general agreement at the meeting that the subway should be built, with a terminus on the north side of Steeles Ave. on a site owned by York Region and a possible future extension further north to the new Vaughan city centre.

The subway would provide the triple benefit of convenient access to York University from the south for the more than 50,000 students, faculty and workers on campus; vastly improved transit service for the residents of northwest Toronto; and a gateway for commuters from the north heading for the city.

It was one of the four new subway routes approved by Bob Rae’s NDP government before the 1995 provincial election.

However, all but one of them — the Sheppard subway, probably the least economically justifiable of the four — were killed by the penny-wise and pound-foolish Mike Harris government after the election.

Although Harris is long gone, there remain some naysayers on the York U. subway, including, surprisingly, TTC Chair Howard Moscoe and certain environmentalists, who are enamoured of “light rail” alternatives.

But these are not insurmountable obstacles. The TTC itself says the York. U. subway extension is its top priority capital project and the mayor is onside.

Rather, the chief obstacle is, as always, money. The extension would cost up to $1.5 billion.

The province can be counted on to contribute the lion’s share of this cost, especially with the finance minister firmly committed to the project. (The extension would serve the southern end of Sorbara’s riding and he is a York U. alumnus.)

Ottawa might also chip in. Although there was no representative of the federal government at the working group meeting in April, efforts are being made on this front, and Prime Minister Paul Martin is in a giving mood.

York Region has said it is prepared to contribute.

And the working group heard from two British experts in financing projects through the “recapturing” of land values (and, hence, property taxes) inflated by the proximity of new transit lines.

As for the city, its involvement in the York U. extension is conditional on other money being available for what it calls “the state of good repair” of the existing TTC system — that is, the repair and maintenance of the subways, buses and street cars now in use.

Last week’s announcement of new federal money for transit will go part way toward meeting the city’s state-of-good-repair bill, but not all the way.

Offsetting this financial roadblock, however, is an overwhelming political desire at Queen’s Park to get the York U. subway extension built, both to show that the infrastructure plan is more than an abstraction and to add to the list of accomplishments for the Liberals heading into the 2007 provincial election.

In other words, this is a project whose time has come.

Ian Urquhart writes on provincial affairs. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Saturday.