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Bickering getting Eglinton transit nowhere


July 30, 2008

Poor Eglinton! Will its adolescent agony never cease? Will it never grow up into the legitimate avenue its fate decrees, as the latest (and longest) east-west concession road to follow first Queen and then Bloor into urban maturity, with a proper rapid-transit line marking the long-awaited occasion?

Only yesterday, the sad, 35-year story of dashed hopes and false starts for a tunnel under Eglinton seemed like quaint history. The McGuinty government had endorsed the latest plan - centrepiece of the Miller regime’s proposed Transit City light-rail system - with alacrity, then went on to win a second majority. The new line was ready to roll. Then history returned and kicked everything sideways.

This time its chosen agent is a nebulous new agency named Metrolinx, created by the provincial government to implement its bold Toronto-area transit commitments. But instead of tying a bow on the already approved package and passing it to cabinet, the agency is ripping it open and messing with the Eglinton part, delaying gratification while inviting familiar disaster.

In any other circumstances, the dispute might not seem harmful. It seems that various planners and politicians think the Miller regime’s plan is too modest, in particular that Eglinton should be upgraded to the status of a full subway rather than a partly tunnelled light-rail line. That sounds great, but to those with any sense of history it sounds suspiciously like trading a bird in hand for pie in the sky.

That’s why the TTC reacted with actual alarm at the prospect of getting more money to build a bigger railway under Eglinton Avenue. If your institutional memory included a $140-million invoice to destroy a brand-new tunnel you had just paid that much to build - the fate of the last Eglinton subway a dozen years ago - you’d be worried too.

Everybody wants stable, long-term transit funding, but only a fool would presume it. After beginning an Eglinton tunnel under one government and filling it in under another, the TTC turned to light rail as a prudent, doable alternative to the traditional but fragile megaproject. Even before the Harris government cancelled the partly built subway, the agency presided over the collapse of at least two major plans for rapid transit on Eglinton.

The TTC claims it can build its version of the line for $2.2-billion, while anything else would cost two to three times as much. It is desperate to avoid repeating the error that has done such harm to transit in recent decades - spending immensely to build lightly used subway lines while ignoring sensible, relatively affordable upgrades to heavily used surface routes.

In short, the TTC remembers when the word “visionary” was no compliment, but rather a synonym for harebrained, and planned accordingly. Transit City was a triumph of common sense. But now the visionaries are regrouping for another assault, another Eglinton subway their goal.

As with all transit-planning disasters, this one already shows signs of heavy political manipulation, with supporters of potential mayoral candidate George Smitherman leading the rumbling - and in so doing helping to ensure that no decision gets made until after the next election, three years from now.

Then what happens? Presuming the subway forces win out, it could be another decade before anybody actually rides the line - presuming in addition that Premier Runciman and his finance minister du jour share the same views that once inspired the McGuinty government way back when.

The choice is to start digging now or to argue forever about how big the tunnel should be - and risk losing everything.