Experts praise province’s possible subway upload reversal but caution city on backing Ontario Line

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Experts praise province’s possible subway upload reversal but caution city on backing Ontario Line


Toronto will be better off if the provincial government drops plans to upload the TTC subway network, but Queen’s Park needs to address unanswered questions about the transit line it’s asking the city to endorse, according to experts and members of council.

As the Star reported Tuesday, sources say provincial and municipal officials are negotiating a deal that would include Premier Doug Ford’s government abandoning its proposal to take ownership of Toronto’s subway network, while the city would endorse the province’s contentious Ontario Line plan.

The rail line Ford announced in April would run between the Ontario Science Centre and Exhibition GO station, and replace the council-approved relief line subway.

Finance Minister Rod Phillips acknowledged Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney and Associate Transportation Minister Kinga Surma are in the midst of talks with the city about a change in upload plans. He praised Mayor John Tory for rejecting calls primarily from left-wing councillors opposed to the upload to break off transit talks with the province.

“I will wait to see the results of those negotiations, but let’s just say we’re optimistic with those discussions that have been going, and I commend the mayor for taking that step — not listening to some of the naysayers on council — and continuing to have those discussions … about getting the job done, getting shovels in the ground,” Phillips told reporters at Queen’s Park on Wednesday.

Mulroney had little to say Wednesday about the potential deal, which the Star understands has not been finalized, as she barrelled past reporters on her way into a cabinet meeting at Queen’s Park.

“We’ve always been very clear that we’re committed to building better public transit options for the people of Ontario and we are working closely with … city officials. I’m confident our conversations are going well,” she said.

Steven Farber, a transportation geographer and assisstant professor at the University of Toronto, said the subway upload as proposed by the Progressive Conservatives “was lousy to begin with” and “I’m glad to see the government walking back.”

Farber — who has done an assessment of the Ontario Line for provincial transit agency Metrolinx and also sat on the city’s upload advisory panel — said he opposed the provincial takeover of the rail network because while the TTC would have continued to operate the lines it would have given ownership of Toronto’s subway to the province with “no structure in place” to ensure city representatives had a say in what happened with the system.

While the new proposed deal would involve the province scuttling its plans to take over existing subway infrastructure, the government passed legislation in June allowing it to take control of new transit projects, clearing the way for it to advance the Ontario Line.

The 16-kilometre line would serve the same purpose as the relief line subway of diverting passengers off of the crowded Line 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina), but be about twice as long and use smaller trains that would run more frequently.

Farber said the line is at a very early stage of design and requires more study, and city council will have to push for clarification to some aspects, including how Metrolinx plans to build a large section of it above ground through an already crowded GO rail corridor east of the Don River.

But he said there are “a lot of fantastic aspects” to the plan, including the fact that unlike the first phase of the relief line it would extend north of Danforth Ave. and serve the lower-income neighbourhoods of Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park.

“I think they should be supportive of the Ontario Line in principle” while advocating for required changes, he said of the city.

Tricia Wood, a professor of geography at York University and adviser to the CodeRedTO transit advocacy group, said the province hasn’t given the city enough information about the Ontario Line for council to make a firm commitment.

“That lack of transparency is not a positive thing for transportation planning,” she said.

Coun. Gord Perks (Ward 4, Parkdale-High Park), who has been vocally opposed to the idea of the province uploading any part of the existing TTC system, said he is happy to hear it appears to be off the table. But he’s not yet satisfied with council supporting allocating funding to the Ontario Line plan.

“The upload was always a banana-pants idea and it’s nice that it’s gone away,” he said.

When asked whether council should endorse the Ontario Line without a full business case from Metrolinx, Perks said: “It would be the height of irresponsibility for anyone on council to vote away billions of dollars in Toronto’s future without real information about what we’re getting, what the impacts will be and how it compares to other options.”

That sentiment was echoed by Ontario NDP transit critic Jessica Bell. The province has said it can build the Ontario Line at a cost of about $11 billion by 2027, but Bell said it’s impossible to know whether that’s true without further study.

“It is hard to see how the city or the public can support a line that at this point is still just lines on a map,” she said.

Coun. Stephen Holyday (Ward 2, Etobicoke Centre), one of only two council members to vote against a motion in December stating the subway should remain in the city’s hands, said he retains an “open mind” about the merits of an upload.

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He said he feared some on council wouldn’t support the Ontario Line merely because they oppose the Ford government.

“There will be some members of council that will fight it just for the sake of fighting the government. And that’s a shame because we should all be focused on getting something built as fast as possible,” he said.

A city and TTC report staff report on the Ontario Line and the rest of the province’s transit plans is expected to go to the mayor’s executive committee on Oct. 23, and then onto council the following week.

With files from Jennifer Pagliaro, Kris Rushowy, and Rob Ferguson.

Ben Spurr

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

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