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Link to Airport Inches Forward

By John Cotter

Toronto won’t host the 2008 Olympic Games, but one Olympic project appears to be on track.

Transport Canada says it’s closer to building a rail link between downtown Toronto and Lester B. Pearson International Airport with the receipt of eight “expressions of interest” from private developers who want to design, build, operate and finance the new service.

“Expressions of interest” may be encouraging, but key issues such as ticket prices, operating subsidies, capacity on the CN rail line lhat will likely be used and potential conflicts with GO Transit service remain unresolved.

Guylaine Roy, director general of surface transportation policy with Transport Canada, emphasizes that an expression of interest is not the same thing as a firm proposal. All eight private developers could drop out, leaving the project in limbo. “We hope to complete an assessment of these expressions of interest this summer. Then we will know more,” she says.

When governments follow this procedure, the next step is normally a request for proposals. In this case, much depends on the issues raised by the respondents and whether they believe the project can be done.

“It is too early to say what the next step will be,” said Roy. “The whole idea is to identify what the issues will be with a private project.”

GO Transit opposes the idea of a new line serving the airport alone because it would duplicate the cost of new tracks, platforms, switches and other equipment needed on GO’s Georgetown route.

“If there is money available to build a connection between Union Station and the airport, it would be great to kill two birds with one stone,” GO Transit chairman Eldred King said in an interview. “It is more appropriate to expand the GO service,” than build a short link to the airport from a future Woodbine station. “A dedicated link will probably cost a lot more because we will still have to expand the infrastructure to expand GO.”

According to a staff report prepared in April, a plan combining the existing service with the proposed airport service “would bring airport customers to an integrated GO service at Woodbine station to serve the entire airport market, and would benefit the more significant transit market in the Georgetown corridor.”

On the other hand, a dedicated airport service would require double-tracking the CN Weston corridor, and “triple tracking would likely be necessary just to preserve existing GO service and/or provide for future capacity.”

The real issue, of course, is money. King estimates the cost of a dedicated service at about $400 million. “We would need approximately the same to expand our service on that line.” And GO simply doesn’t have the money. That’s why a new Woodbine station isn’t on the drawing board yet, and airport service is not included in the $1.8 billion GO has requested from the towns it serves in order to pay for capital expenditures over the next 10 years. Transport Canada’s plan depends entirely on a private developer to come up with the necessary capital. Roy says the ministry’s only financial commitment is $20 million earmarked for facilities at the airport end of the line, and it has not offered to provide an operating subsidy.

Transit systems generally require government money to operate — usually a lot of money. Even GO Transit receives about 15 cents on the dollar. At that, “GO has one of the best ratios of any transit system in the world,” said King. It also has much greater efficiencies of scale than a private operator would enjoy on a single line.