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Transit plan: What about downtown?

Posted: September 24, 2008, 5:40 PM by Rob Roberts

Anyone waiting (and waiting) for an overcrowded Queen or King streetcar while reading this column, take heart: you’ll have a better way to get across downtown. Just wait, oh, another 25 years or so.

That’s the word from Metrolinx. Created two years ago, Metrolinx doesn’t run buses or trains. It has one source of revenue: the Province of Ontario, which pays its budget of $14.7-million per year. Metrolinx employs 50 staff at its offices at 20 Bay Street. Its slogan is “Linking People to Places.” The slogan sounds more hopeful in French: “On y va” (Let’s Go). It has one job: draw up a transportation plan for greater Toronto.

Two years ago I attended the provincial announcement appointing Rob MacIsaac, former mayor of Burlington, to head the Greater Toronto Transportation Authority (now Metrolinx.) The head of the Toronto Transit Commission and the mayor both skipped that event.

Yesterday, Mr. MacIsaac (above) unveiled Metrolinx’s transportation plan, The Big Move. Again, David Miller and the TTC chair, Adam Giambrone, took a pass. Also missing: Toronto Councillor Norm Kelly and Hazel McCallion, the mayor of Mississauga. All four are members of the 11-member Metrolinx board. Mr. Miller didn’t just miss the event, he actually went as far away as he could on a day trip — to Montreal — to avoid it.

“Everybody was invited,” says Jacquie Menezes, spokeswoman for Metrolinx. “Everybody’s very busy, they’ve got a million things going on.”

It’s no surprise they skipped the event. Thinner than the paper on which it’s printed, the Metrolinx plan reheats already-announced projects. Plus, Metrolinx has no power or money to make it happen.

The Metrolinx plan to add 7,400 kilometres of bicycle lanes in greater Toronto warms my heart. Other than that, where are the bold moves? If politicians fear the political fallout of road tolls, why not let Metrolinx push that plan? Mr. MacIsaac doesn’t have to face voters.

The Metrolinx plan focuses on the suburbs. But, as Mr. Miller points out, 80% of transit riders in greater Toronto ride the overcrowded TTC. Where in the Metrolinx plan is the relief for the people who actually use public transit? In particular, where is the Downtown Relief Line?

The Downtown Relief Line, first proposed in 1985, would run from Pape Station, down Pape Avenue to the rail lines and then down through Union Station to Fort York before turning north along the railway through Liberty Village and Parkdale, ending at Dundas West Station.

“Oh yes,” said the helpful Ms. Menezes. “It’s on page 65.”

Indeed, in the category “Years 16-25,” the report suggests, “A new subway service in the King/Queen corridor in downtown Toronto will provide relief to the Bloor subway line and greatly improved service in the downtown core.” In short, we will get this subway 50 years after planners first suggested it. If this is the best Metrolinx can do, let’s scrap them and spend the $14.7-million on buses.

I’m not kidding! This is a scandal. In most big cities, people, rich and poor, ride transit because it’s the fastest way to get around. In Toronto, rich people ride GO trains, but most avoid the TTC, because it is too crowded to be comfortable.

Blame does not rest just with Metrolinx. Mr. Miller was in Montreal yesterday with big city mayors to put municipal infrastructure on the agenda for the current federal election, where it indeed belongs. But the mayor, too, should ask the Wizard of Oz for some courage and institute road tolls at Toronto’s borders. He won’t lose a single vote.

Last year I visited Amsterdam. Most of Centraal Station, in the heart of the city, was blocked off, as workers dug a new subway line through downtown. It is a perilous, outrageously complex job, in a town that’s below sea level.

They are spending the big bucks. Mexico City, impoverished by Toronto standards, has a glorious subway system. Montreal’s subway now links Laval. And we’re still waiting for the streetcar, when we’re not waiting for the bus.