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Scarborough RT on the ropes as transit spending slows

On the brink of a $1.4 billion makeover, Scarborough’s popular little train is back in limbo

By Tess Kalinowski
Transportation Reporter

Better than a bus but not quite a subway, the Scarborough Rapid Transit line has struggled with its image almost since it opened 25 years ago.

Branded as unreliable in snow, it nevertheless has carried 13 million riders annually. In the morning rush, up to 4,500 commuters an hour cram, Tokyo-style, aboard the little four-car trains.

Until Thursday, an extreme makeover was in sight. Metrolinx had approved a $1.4 billion extension, from McCowan to Sheppard Ave., and conversion to sleek light-rail vehicles.

But in the wake of the provincial budget, TTC officials are digging out the duct tape, preparing to keep the tottering system running a little longer.

Premier Dalton McGuinty’s $4 billion cut to the $9.5 billion Metrolinx transit plan pushes the SRT back into limbo, where it’s likely to stay until May, when the agency’s board reconvenes.

Councillor Michael Thompson, who represents Scarborough Centre, regards the very idea it might not be revamped as a betrayal.

“We’re not talking about a frill or luxury. We’re talking about a system that has essentially come to its apex, and there’s a need to address that for safety as well as its capacity to move people,” he said Friday.

Meanwhile, McGuinty was downplaying suggestions the budget-slashing spells disaster for transit. “We’re not saying we’re killing a single one of these projects,” he told reporters. “What we’re saying is we’re going to take a bit more time to make these investments given our financial circumstances.”

As to David Miller’s scornful reaction, he said, “I completely understand Mayor Miller’s commitment (and) passion when it comes to public transit, and he’s worked so hard and so long to put into place a new infrastructure that will serve the people of Toronto long into the future.

“But I can’t be there as quickly as he would like us to.”

Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne pointed out that it wasn’t going to be finished by the next election (in October 2011) in any case. “Another government could have come in and cancelled the whole thing. We’re slowing down the cash flow but there’s $4 billion still flowing to these projects,” she said Friday.

But those assurances haven’t curbed speculation that plans for the SRT renovation and a Finch LRT are in trouble. Both would serve riders from some of the city’s poorest, most transit-starved neighbourhoods, some of whom deal with three-hour commutes.

One shocked Metrolinx insider said it makes sense to get the most bang for the agency’s remaining bucks — and the Eglinton LRT, which includes a 10-kilometre tunnel, will serve the most residents. The Sheppard LRT is probably safe because it’s already being built.

But even before the budget, Metrolinx was wavering on the SRT, saying that if the fix couldn’t be finished by the Pan Am Games in 2015, the project might be on hold.

A Metrolinx statement issued Friday suggested there are other ways to ferry athletes and visitors to a new aquatic centre planned at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

Thompson has already been calling local MPPs in protest, including Infrastructure Minister Brad Duguid, who represents Scarborough Centre.

“We are about to embark on a fight, and I’m going to lead that fight if that’s what it takes,” said Thompson. “We’re not going to take this laying down.”

With files from Robert Benzie