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Smitherman pushes 'affordable' transit

10-Year Expansion

By Natalie Alcoba

Mayoral candidate George Smitherman unveiled a transportation plan to speed up construction of the Spadina subway extension, extend light rail transit and do more tunneling underground, without imposing road tolls.

The ambitious “but affordable” 10-year expansion comes with a $7-billion price tag for the city, which Mr. Smitherman proposes to finance through public-private partnerships in which the city borrows the money, and pays it back once the lines are complete.

His map would connect Downsview and Sheppard stations with a subway, convert the Scarborough RT into an above-ground subway, and extend the Bloor line to Sherway Gardens, in Etobicoke, by 2020.

Mr. Smitherman wants to speed up the Spadina subway extension so that it’s complete in time for the PanAM games in 2015, and extend the Sheppard LRT to the new Aquatics Centre and U of T Scarborough campus. He would complete the Queen’s Quay Waterfront LRT by 2015, and push the Eglinton Crosstown LRT slightly further west, so it meets the proposed Air Rail Link station in Weston. He would also extend the Finch LRT, which is supposed to be complete by 2020, to Woodbine.

The Smitherman plan modifies the so-called “Transit City” routes, bringing the total cost to about $17.4-billion. He said more than $10-billion has already been committed by the province, the federal government and the city.

“You can’t shrink your way to greatness,” Mr. Smitherman told reporters during a fund-raising luncheon at the Metro Toronto Convention. He proposed earmarking the gas tax, dividends from Toronto Hydro, the parking authority and fees generated through “transit-enabled development” in order to pay off debt incurred to build the transit.

“The reality is that we are in the last gasps, living out a circumstance on the backbone of an infrastructure built when I was an itty bitty baby, and it’s time to take bold steps forward to get the city moving again,” he said.

Mr. Smitherman promised to reduce the vehicle registration tax, physically separate existing bike lanes with curbs, and better organize roadwork. He also proposed letting seniors ride the subway for free from Monday to Friday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Rival candidates tore into the numbers behind the plan, saying Mr. Smitherman either doesn’t have a plan, or appears to be spending money twice.

Rocco Rossi, who has proposed selling off Toronto Hydro to reduce the city’s debt and free up money to build two kilometres of subway a year, dismissed his rival’s plan as a dream.

“Mr. Smitherman is asking you, in essence, to trust him with a $7-billion mortgage,” he said. “Torontonians don’t want the kind of continuous dreaming that has led to the kind of problems that we currently have: a $3-billion debt at the city, and serious structural deficit problems,” he said. The city spends about $450-million to service its debt.

“We all know that debt is an issue in Toronto,” said Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone. Mr. Pantalone said all of the money Mr. Smitherman wants to tap to pay for more transit is already being spent on other things. The gas tax goes to the TTC and roads, and the dividends from the Toronto Parking Authority goes to general city coffers.

Rob Ford, who was the only candidate mentioned by name in Mr. Smitherman’s speech, attacked a plan that preserved much of the “Transit City” lines. “People want subways, not streetcars. This proposal won’t make any real impact on the transit needs of anyone not living near an existing subway line,” he said in a statement.

Mr. Smitherman said he will present a fiscal plan by the fall that details how the math adds up.