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Toronto's mayoral race gets fractious over transit

Rossi’s proposal to expand subway instead of LRT by selling assets
riles other candidates

By Anna Mehler Paperny

Public transit - what to build, how to build it and how to fund it - is turning into one of the more divisive issues in the mayoral campaign.

Candidates are trading barbs against a backdrop of intergovernmental wrangling over whether Queen’s Park is backtracking on transit funding promises.

Candidate Rocco Rossi unveiled a proposal Tuesday that would favour an expanded subway network over planned light-rail transit that is now part of the city’s ambitious Transit City program.

He promised $4.5-billion - about two kilometres of track and one subway station a year - over a decade, funded by the sale of Toronto Hydro and the city’s shares in Enwave, an energy provider partly owned by the city. Proceeds from those two, he said in an interview, would be enough to pay down the city’s debt and free up $450-million in annual debt-servicing charges to be spent on transit infrastructure.

“The mayor and council [are] running around and making announcements and saying, ‘Save Transit City! Save the investment in transit!’ I’m saying, ‘Let’s put our money where our mouths are.’ Transit is a critical investment: What are you actually prepared to do?”

Front-runner George Smitherman responded late in the day, using his most strident language yet in what’s been a fairly understated campaign: He slammed a plan he said “kills” expanded public transit.

“This guy [Mr. Rossi] is the self-proclaimed numbers guy but his numbers don’t come close to adding up,” he said in the statement. The province will take about a third of the sale price of Toronto Hydro, estimated at just over $1-billion.

In a statement sent around 11 p.m. Tuesday night, Mr. Rossi’s campaign blasted Mr. Smitherman’s “untruths” and said he’s taken into account the province’s tax deduction.

Mr. Rossi isn’t the first candidate to deride streetcar-heavy plans for Toronto’s transit future: Sarah Thomson said in March she would replace planned LRT lines with subways, paying for them through tolls on the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway - something Mr. Rossi unequivocally ruled out yesterday.

Rob Ford said yesterday he’s been arguing for subways - preferably ones funded through the private sector - over streetcars for years. Although he is dead set against selling Toronto Hydro, he said he’d be open to other asset sales.

Joe Pantalone, a Transit City stalwart, argued Mr. Rossi’s plan would take the city’s public transit backward and get rid of an asset he argues is vital in the city’s fight against climate change. Enwave is the only asset Mr. Pantalone said he’d consider selling.

“It really boggles the mind that his funding of this plan - that will cost us more, delivers less and will take us longer to provide - will be to mortgage Torontonians’ present and future forever more to higher energy bills. … And furthermore, it will mortgage our environmental future.”

The plan comes amid continued political skirmishing over the province’s share of transit funding, which was pushed back in this year’s budget. A Metrolinx plan subject to approval this month would see the projects completed by 2020, rather than 2018 as originally planned.

Provincial NDP Leader Andrea Horwath waded into the debate yesterday, calling on the province to restore the funds previously promised.

Mr. Rossi said he hopes to keep the city’s debt-servicing down by funding new capital projects through other means than debt, including the monetization of other assets and capitalizing on air rights and rising land values.

Good luck, said the city’s budget chief, Shelly Carroll.

“If you think you can build transit without debt, you’re dreaming in Technicolor.”