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GO passengers wait for an Eastbound train at the Long Branch GO Station in Etobicoke on July 09, 2013, 2013. Shuttle busses were used because of flooding on the tracks West of Long Branch following a massive rain storm Monday night. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
GO passengers wait for an Eastbound train at the Long Branch GO Station in Etobicoke on July 09, 2013, 2013. Shuttle busses were used because of flooding on the tracks West of Long Branch following a massive rain storm Monday night. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Majority gives Liberals freer hand with public transit Add to ...

After leading her party to a huge victory, Kathleen Wynne, the former transportation minister, can finally start to implement her long-promised plans to get the Toronto area moving better.

The Liberals had pledged to reintroduce the Ontario budget that precipitated this election, which included $15-billion worth of transit infrastructure for Toronto and the surrounding communities, within 20 days.

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Nearly half the 10-year plan remains unfunded, which will mean more borrowing and seeking help from Ottawa.

But with a new mandate and the freedom to manoeuvre that comes from a strengthened position in the legislature, the Liberals will be able to push ahead with their ambitious transportation plan.

“The people of Ontario … want us to get on with building the transit and transportation infrastructure that we know we need,” Ms. Wynne said during her triumphant victory speech late Thursday evening.

At the heart of the Liberal plan – which focuses almost entirely on commuters who live outside central Toronto – is an uncosted proposal to electrify the GO rail system.

This would allow the regional transit network to move to high-frequency service, with trains as often as four times an hour.

Parts of the plan were subsequently adopted by mayoral candidate John Tory, who called it SmartTrack and said it could serve as a downtown relief line.

They have also promised a handful of light-rail lines.

These lines would have been scrapped under a Tory government, and the Liberal victory will be cheered by Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, who endorsed Ms. Wynne and her plan for an LRT line in the community west of Toronto.

Transportation emerged as one of the key political issues since the last election, with citizens voicing increasing frustration with congestion.

Adding to the drumbeat were the concerns of business, with a Toronto Region Board of Trade analysis concluding that congestion was costing the regional economy $6-billion annually.

The economic impact would climb to $15-billion annually by 2030, the board of trade warned, if congestion continued to worsen. And without ambitious transit plans being implemented, the region’s average commute times were projected to hit 109 minutes.

In this climate, Ms. Wynne began to seek support last year for new “revenue tools” – largely taxes, tolls or fees – that would be put into a dedicated fund for transit.

Both the regional transit agency, Metrolinx, and a panel established by the government proposed a series of measures, suggesting that small rises in the sales or gas taxes could generate the bulk of the money needed.

The public reaction was sufficiently negative that, with the opposition promising to build transit without new revenues, the Liberals backed off almost entirely.

Their budget promised $1.7-billion in transit spending next year but included only $33-million in new revenues, including a rise in the tax on aviation fuel. Redirecting part of the current gas tax from other priorities would cover about one-third of the cost, “optimization” of provincial assets and tapping the federal government would raise about as much again, according to the budget documents. One-quarter of the bill would be met through new provincial borrowing.

Asked in the waning days of the campaign about the “adult conversation” on funding transit that had been promised, Ms. Wynne said that she had to put forward a viable plan with a chance of success.

But Thursday’s victory means that the Liberals can pursue their transit plans with a freer hand.

Among the projects that will be competing for funds are the “next wave” of priorities identified by Metrolinx, which include rapid transit in Hamilton, Durham, Mississauga and Brampton, as well a relief subway line into downtown Toronto and an extension of the Yonge subway north to York Region.

Also dangled is the possibility of surface rail east along Toronto’s waterfront.

Follow on Twitter: @moore_oliver

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