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Gee: McGuinty deals blow to Toronto by delaying LRT funds

Province relegates money for Transit City expansion
to what the mayor calls the ‘never, never plan’

By Marcus Gee

His face was red and his voice shaking with anger when Mayor David Miller stood in his office lobby Thursday to denounce the “disgraceful” decision by Premier Dalton McGuinty to delay Toronto transit lines.

This was not the usual manufactured outrage you see from opposition politicians at budget time. Transit City - the multibillion-dollar plan for citywide light rapid transit (LRT) - was his legacy project, the thing he would be remembered for in the years, even decades to come.

Now the whole thing is a question mark, relegated by the provincial budget to what the mayor called the “never, never plan.”

With half the funding put on hold - around $4-billion in all - it’s not clear that the web of transit lines that were to tie central Toronto to its periphery will ever be built. At the very least, the project has been pushed back for a decade.

That is a kick in the teeth both for the mayor and the growing metropolis he leads. It strikes at some of the most important things Mr. Miller has tried to do in seven years at the helm of Canada’s biggest city.

It strikes at his green agenda, which relied heavily on easing gridlock and getting people out of their cars to take transit. It strikes at his economic agenda, which relied on transit construction to create jobs. Most important for Mr. Miller, it strikes at his equity agenda.

As he noted yesterday, the Transit City lines were to go “to our poorest neighbourhoods in the city” - struggling areas like Jane-Finch that the mayor has been striving to pull back into the urban mainstream.

Now, as Mr. Miller sees it, Mr. McGuinty is “saying to people in Scarborough, who stand and wait for two or three buses, and have to take two or three buses to work, that they’ll have to wait another decade for the rapid transit that he promised …”

Indeed, the whole city will have to wait - again. Over and over in recent decades, Toronto has seen its hopes for a major build-out of mass transit crushed. Eglinton Avenue was already half dug up when the government of premier Mike Harris pulled the plug on funding in the 1990s. Of all the subway or light rapid transit lines planned at the time, only one went ahead: a truncated version of the Sheppard line, dubbed the “stubway” by some, that opened in 2002.

Yes, the $2.6-billion extension of the Spadina subway line to York University is proceeding and due to open in 2015. And, yes, the Sheppard LRT line, already under construction, seems to have escaped Mr. McGuinty’s axe. But who knows what will happen now to the rest of the scheme, from the Finch and Eglinton LRT lines to the replacement of the Scarborough rapid transit line?

Momentum on projects of this size is everything. Governments naturally hesitate and agonize about the huge sums involved. At some point, they have to grit their teeth and say go. That was what Mr. Miller thought had happened when Mr. McGuinty stood beside him back in June, 2007, and said that it was time to push ahead with transit expansion - words that a bitter Mr. Miller read out yesterday to remind people of the Premier’s broken promise.

Now, with a sickening hiss, the air has gone of the balloon and transit is stalled once again. As Mr. Miller explained yesterday, the lines put on hold Thursday were only the first part of the Transit City plan. A second phase of additional lines was to be rolled out in future years. The Metrolinx regional transit agency was supposed to come up with a plan to pay for them, perhaps with road tolls or a sales tax. But now that the rug has been pulled from the first stage, how realistic is it to expect that this second, unfunded stage will ever go ahead?

Toronto is already way behind many other cities on transit. For a booming city that is absorbing around 50,000 new immigrants a year, the need for better mass transit is obvious. As Mr. Miller put it, “we can’t let another generation pass before we do what was needed, frankly, 20 years ago. Somehow we’ve lost out way.”

How we’ll get back on track now, nobody can say.