The federal Liberals are prepared to back Toronto’s new Ontario Line with billions in transit funding, the Star has learned.
If re-elected on Monday, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals will support the line that Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford announced in April.
It would run 15.5 kilometres from the Ontario Science Centre in Don Mills to the Exhibition GO station in Liberty Village.
Senior federal Liberal officials, speaking confidentially in order to discuss internal deliberations, said Tuesday that a Trudeau government would abide by the wishes of city council if it votes for the line.
The Liberals said they are awaiting a city hall staff report that is expected to endorse the Ontario Line on Wednesday, before publicly backing the plan.
“John Tory has been very persuasive,” said a high-ranking federal official, privy to talks with the Toronto mayor and Queen’s Park.
“This is something that is up to the city. It is not for the federal government to be deciding where transit should be built,” said the insider.
“Mayor Tory deserves a lot of credit for moving this forward.”
But the Liberals’ decision is also good news for Ford, despite his serving as Trudeau’s political whipping boy throughout the federal campaign.
Trudeau has targeted the polarizing Progressive Conservative premier — who holds his first news conference in a month on Wednesday in Kenora, Ont. — with hopes of hurting federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.
As first disclosed by the Star, Ford is willing to abandon his push to take ownership of the existing TTC subway in exchange for council’s support for the Ontario Line.
The federal share of funding for the Ontario Line would come out of $4.9 billion in transit spending the Liberal government allocated to Toronto in its 2017 federal budget.
City council had voted to earmark $3.2 billion of that money to the downtown relief line subway, but councillors were forced to rethink that after Ford unveiled a revised provincial transportation plan in April that didn’t include the key project.
The premier proposed building the Ontario Line instead, which, like the relief line, was designed to divert passengers off the overburdened Line 1 subway.
But the Ontario Line, which is estimated to cost about $11 billion, would be about twice as long as the first phase of the relief line, use smaller vehicles than the subway, and be built above ground in some sections.
A week after Ford unveiled his transit plans, council voted to “consider” endorsing the Ontario Line and reallocating the $3.2 billion in federal funding toward it instead of the relief line, subject to an assessment of the provincial proposal by city and TTC staff.
The results of that assessment will be published in the report expected Wednesday morning.
Although as of late Tuesday the report’s conclusions weren’t yet public, there have been signs in recent weeks the city believes the Ontario Line could be worth pursuing.
Get The Lead newsletter
Start getting your whip-smart guide to Canada’s 2019 federal election in your inbox.
At a recent TTC board meeting, transit agency CEO Rick Leary described the project as “a viable option” that could help reduce crowding on Line 1.
But he also expressed doubt the Ontario Line’s smaller trains could serve ridership demand for 50 years as the Progressive Conservatives have claimed.
Leary said that according to a TTC assessment, the Ontario Line would only meet demand for about 35 years, after which additional new lines would be required.
Although reallocating money to the Ontario Line would be consistent with the federal Liberals’ pledge to allow municipalities to decide which projects receive funding, some of the party’s MPs have openly mocked the project described by the premier as the “crown jewel” of provincial transit plans.
At a transportation-themed election debate last month, Liberal Adam Vaughan (Spadina-Fort York), who frequently clashed with Ford when both politicians were Toronto city councillors, described the Ontario Line as “a joke” that would be impractical to build.
In June, as Ford’s ministers pressed Ottawa to fund Ontario’s transit plans, the federal Liberals balked, saying the province hadn’t provided enough details about the Ontario Line and other projects to meet requirements for federal funding.
At the time, a spokesperson for federal Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagne said agreeing to fund the project without additional documentation would amount to “writing blank cheques with public funds.”
Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, has since completed an initial business case for the Ontario Line that provides more details of the proposal, which is still at the early design stage. A spokesperson for Ontario Minister of Transportation Caroline Mulroney said Tuesday the province had sent the business case to the federal government.
Progressive Conservative sources at Queen’s Park said they were encouraged by Trudeau’s move.
More study will be required to determine detailed cost and schedule estimates for the Ontario Line, but experts have cast grave doubts on Ford’s claim it could be built by 2027.
Planning for the relief line subway is much more advanced, and the project was set to go to procurement as early as next year with a tentative completion date of 2029. It was estimated to cost at least $7.2 billion.
Last week, Scheer, who accused Trudeau of failing to follow through on transit funding commitments, pledged to back the Ontario Line if elected.