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James: Transit betrayal calls for response

By Royson James
City columnist

Call your MPP in protest! Bombard her with emails. Blast Premier Dalton McGuinty on Twitter. Take out your anger on Finance Minister Dwight Duncan with pointed Facebook posts.

Maybe, a viral uprising might be able to overturn the province’s stunning budget decision to stall Toronto’s fledgling Transit City plan.

The budget decision even fuels the desire of some who advocate secession from Ontario and the creation of the Province of Toronto — a city-state that would make its own decisions about its future.

Mayor David Miller’s bout of bitterness and indignation is entirely justified. For years — and at least four times, Miller says — the premier has stood beside municipal leaders and promised huge investments in urban transit to check sprawl, gridlock and environmental degradation, and boost the economy with jobs. Now, just as the $10 billion Transit City plan is getting underway, McGuinty wants deferrals amounting to $4 billion.

Miller was speaking for the majority of transit lovers when he said the decision is “beyond disappointing. It’s an astonishing betrayal of the commitments this government made to the people of this city.”

We’ve never quite understood the relationship between Miller and McGuinty. The two leaders profess enormous respect for each other. They seem to get along famously — able to forge fiscal agreements even as their respective colleagues fret that consensus is near-impossible.

So, for Miller to say he’s been betrayed is instructive. And it begs the question: Will the province deliver hundreds of millions in operating funds for transit come December, as Miller has suggested? Is McGuinty creating political, and fiscal, room for him to shower some more cash on the TTC to finance its stressed operating budget?

That is the brightest face possible on a bleak landscape.

In reality, the entire transit plan is now in jeopardy. It appears certain that three projects will go ahead, two of them heavily backed by the federal government. The two are the rail link to the airport and the University-Spadina subway line extension beyond York University. The Sheppard Ave. streetcar line, from Don Mills to the Scarborough Town Centre, also seems safe as initial work has started. Beyond that, who knows.

Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne and Duncan have both said the projects needed for the 2015 Pan Am Games will get priority. Does that include the replacement of the Scarborough RT with a streetcar line to at least the Scarborough Town Centre, where it now ends; and beyond to Malvern as planned? Or will the Sheppard extension be considered as enough for the Pan Am Games?

And if the Scarborough RT replacement doesn’t proceed quickly, what happens to the aging link that the TTC is ready to mothball?

Transit City is not a beloved plan. At best, it is a stop-gap measure, sold as “the best we can do, under the circumstances,” meaning, Toronto doesn’t have the cash — not to mention the passengers — to justify the costs of a subway plan.

Proponents call it rapid transit, but many residents are not fooled. They don’t see anything “rapid” in a streetcar line, even if you call it LRT.

But stalling it does no one any good.

Understand that the transit link to the airport has been talked about for decades. Most everyone agrees it should be built. Money is promised. All governments are onside. And it will be 2015 before we ever see it — and that is certain only because of the Pan Am Games.

Transit building is ridiculously difficult. The McGuinty government, progressive and excellent on so many matters pertaining to Toronto, has lost its way with this decision.