Ontario’s transportation minister says his government’s plan to take ownership of the TTC subway system won’t be executed in secret, despite acknowledging that much of the advice provided by the province’s special adviser on the proposal will be kept from public view.
In an interview Thursday, Jeff Yurek reiterated his intention to move forward with the controversial subway upload, and asserted that “there’s no secrets going on here.”
Yurek said Michael Lindsay, who was appointed by the province in August as its special adviser on the plan, has already provided some advice to Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government, but it has not been made public.
Yurek said Lindsay will continue to advise the government on an ongoing basis, adding that information provided by Lindsay that is considered advice to cabinet or may be commercially sensitive won’t be made public. He noted it’s routine for governments to keep advice to cabinet confidential.
According to Yurek, the provincial government will release some information about the upload plan, but he wouldn’t provide details. Yurek said the city will also likely release information it receives through reports to council.
Council expects to receive an update on upload discussions with the province in the first quarter of this year.
“Hopefully at the end of the day it’s a joint release of information between the city and the province, and that will show that we’re working together on this project in a collaborative fashion,” he said.
“We need to show the people of Toronto the reasons why this upload is important, how it’s going to affect the daily commute and improve the commuters’ lives, and that information will be out in the public domain.”
Asked what aspects of Lindsay’s advice could be considered commercially sensitive, the minister said it could be information related to the valuation of subway maintenance costs or future purchases such as new subway cars.
“Anything that would affect somebody getting a leg up on potential sales or building of subway or inventory,” he said.
Earlier reports that Lindsay’s full advice wouldn’t become public have sparked concern among some city councillors and critics of the upload proposal, who say citizens and transit users should be fully informed about such a major change to Toronto’s transit system.
Last month, after receiving confidential legal advice that the city has no legislative ability to prevent the province from taking ownership of the subway, council voted to enter into talks with Queen’s Park about the upload. But councillors overwhelmingly voted to state their position that the subway should remain under the city’s control.
Council also signalled that any upload process should be transparent and include a public consultation.
Councillor Gord Perks, who has described the upload proposal as “theft,” said Thursday that unless the province provides more information the city shouldn’t take part in discussions.
“We told them in December we’re only going to participate if you adhere to the best principles of transparency and openness, and since they’ve decided not to adhere to those principles, we should walk away,” he said.
“They should provide to the public what their intention is, what the purpose of that intention is, and how they want to go about achieving it. Without that in front of us, nobody can give an informed response.”
Mayor John Tory played down concerns about secrecy at the provincial level Thursday.
“They’ve said very clearly — uploading is not going to take place in private, it can’t take place in private, it shouldn’t take place in private, and I’m optimistic that it won’t,” he said, when asked about the issue at an unrelated media appearance.
“We’re already working in close collaboration with them to discuss what this process is going to be and what uploading means and all the unanswered questions that exist.”
Councillor Jaye Robinson, who was sworn in as the new TTC board chair Thursday, called for transparency in the process.
“I think the citizens want to know. This is a very important piece of infrastructure in our city, it’s critical to the livability, and I think everybody wants to be fully informed,” she said.
Yurek said the province is considering doing a public consultation about the upload online as early as this month, but hasn’t made a final decision to do so. He said the city is also free to carry out its own consultation.
He said the province’s plan is still to introduce legislation by this spring to execute the upload, but suggested the plan could be carried out in phases, with the province and city reaching agreements on future subway projects first, and then transferring existing parts of the network to Queen’s Park later.
“I think you could go one route where you start the upload process where we’re able to find some partnerships in getting the new lines built … the assets could follow at a later date,” he said.
The PCs assert that taking ownership of the subway would allow the province, which has greater financial powers than the city, to more efficiently fund the expansion of the network. Yurek has said the TTC would continue to operate the subway and collect fare revenue.
Critics of the proposal say splitting ownership of the TTC’s highly integrated bus, streetcar and subway systems between two levels of government is impractical, could worsen service and lessen local control over public transit.
Lindsay and Deputy Transportation Minister Scott Thompson are scheduled to have their first formal meeting about the upload with TTC CEO Rick Leary and city manager Chris Murray Friday.
With files from David Rider
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr