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Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak speaks at a campaign stop in Ottawa on Monday, June 9, 2014. (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Ontario Conservative leader Tim Hudak speaks at a campaign stop in Ottawa on Monday, June 9, 2014. (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

To court Ottawa voters, Hudak reverses course on transit funding Add to ...

Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak says he is now open to funding the second phase of a light rail transit project in Ottawa as he tries to win over voters in the nation’s capital, days after saying he would not.

Ottawa currently has a Bus Rapid Transit system – one of the biggest in North America – but it has struggled with to keep up with ridership. The $2.1-billion LRT project will include 13 station stops to replace a large portion of the BRT, including 2.5 kilometres of underground tracks through downtown Ottawa.

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Last week, while at a media stop in the Ottawa suburb of Nepean ahead of the June 12 vote, Mr. Hudak told reporters his party would complete the already-underway first phase of the LRT project – a pledge he has made several times during the campaign – but would not fund the second phase.

“No. We can’t afford it. We’ll continue with the funding that has been discussed and is budgeted for the first phase,” he said after a local reporter asked him pointedly about the second phase.

But during a quick morning stop at a rally in Ottawa Monday, Mr. Hudak changed his tune, saying the province’s second-largest city would get “its fair share” and committed to funding an extension to the LRT – or similar transit project – after the budget is balanced.

“Whatever Ottawa says is going to break gridlock,” Mr. Hudak said. “If LRT is the project they think is going to break gridlock, [then] after we balance the budget, absolutely.”

He also promised to upload highway 174, a four-lane highway that is currently the responsibility of the City of Ottawa, to “fix the split” where it divides into highway 417 causing bottlenecks and gridlock.

The Liberals had been using the LRT as a wedge in Ottawa, offering to pay for its second phase out of a proposed $14-billion fund for non-Toronto-area transportation projects.

Asked if Mr. Hudak’s reversal – which effectively brings his position in line with the Liberals’ – takes away an issue in Ottawa, Liberal Leader Kathleen Wynne said the matter shows Mr. Hudak is not consistent in his policies.

“We have been consistent…we have always believed that Ottawa needs to have the best transit possible and needs to have the second phase of the LRT,” she said after touring an elementary school in Cambridge. “The choice that is confronting people is about the substance of the plans. But it’s also about the consistency and the deeply-held belief system that we bring to our plan.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said her party supported LRTs.

"We support them in Ottawa, we support them in Toronto, we support them in Hamilton," Ms. Horwath said Monday. "We know that communities need to have solutions to their transportation concerns. And one of the things that we also do as New Democrats is we respect local communities. And so if they make a decision that they want an LRT, then we’re going to do our best to partner in that effort."

Ms. Wynne spent the morning attacking Mr. Hudak’s plan to cut education jobs, including teachers, trotting out a succession of high-ranking former education officials to endorse her party.

Earlier in the campaign, Ottawa mayor Jim Watson sent out a questionnaire to the leaders of the PC, Liberal, NDP and Green parties with five yes-or-no queries about their plans for the city, including whether they would fund the second phase of the LRT and what their plans were to reform the arbitration process. The Green party, Liberals and NDP all responded with a yes or no, plus explanations to each question – less one murky response from the Liberals on arbitration – while Mr. Hudak responded to the questionnaire with a brief, three-paragraph letter touting his platform and not directly addressing any of the questions. Mr. Watson, a former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister, did not endorse any particular party, but said he was “disappointed” by the Tories’ response.

The PC party released a second, more detailed response to the mayor and city council on Saturday where Mr. Hudak promised to upload the troubled highway 174, reform arbitration and endorse Ottawa’s River Action Plan, though he did not clarify if the province would provide one-third of funding for the environmental project, as Mr. Watson asked.

With files from Susan Krashinsky

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