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Olivia Chow speaks to the media after she officially entered into the race as a candidate in the up coming fall Toronto mayor election in Toronto on Thursday, March 13, 2014. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Olivia Chow speaks to the media after she officially entered into the race as a candidate in the up coming fall Toronto mayor election in Toronto on Thursday, March 13, 2014.

(Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Chow touts LRT as mayoral race heats up Add to ...

The race for the hearts and votes of Toronto is shaping up to be a showdown over transit with Olivia Chow supporting a return to a light-rail plan for Scarborough and Mayor Rob Ford and rival candidate John Tory restating their commitment to building subways.

Ms. Chow began her campaign for mayor Thursday with a media blitz that started with early morning interviews and centred on a kickoff filled with family and supporters.

Globe and Mail Update Mar. 13 2014, 2:16 PM EDT

Video: Olivia Chow knocks Rob Ford in campaign kick off speech

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Her formal remarks steered clear of policy announcements, but when questioned by reporters, Ms. Chow said she favours the defunct seven-stop light-rail proposal rather than the Scarborough subway extension approved by council in 2013. Ms. Chow later clarified her stand in an interview with The Globe and Mail, saying a change would be contingent on Ontario’s willingness to shift the money it has committed to build a subway back to an LRT. “That’s up to the province,” she said. “We’ll see.”

Ms. Chow stressed the need to improve transit service, but gave qualified support for a downtown relief line, identified by the Toronto Transit Commission and the provincial transit agency as a priority, saying it “eventually” will be built.

Overcrowding in buses is also among her priorities, she said in an interview. “It is important to build a network,” she said, and to “live within our means.”

The light-rail option to replace the aging Scarborough Rapid Transit line can be built sooner for less and will have four more stops, she argued.

Her remarks came the same day Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced the province would not increase the gas tax or HST to fund transit.

Mr. Ford countered with promises to build not only the Scarborough extension, but three other subway projects on Sheppard and Finch and the downtown relief line. He attempted to characterize all of his main rivals – Mr. Tory, Ms. Chow, former councillor David Soknacki, and Councillor Karen Stintz – as one and the same. “They all want to kill the subways,” he said.

Ms. Stintz, the former TTC chair, led the fight to revive former mayor David Miller’s light-rail Transit City network before backing an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway in Scarborough. Under the plan approved by council, the extension will be paid for with provincial and federal dollars and a 30-year property tax levy.

Mr. Tory is the former head of CivicAction, which also supported the light-rail plan, but he has been clear he would back the Scarborough extension if elected. After Ms. Chow’s comments Thursday, his campaign launched a website, buildsubwayrelief.ca, with the statement, in bold letters: “Toronto needs to build the Yonge subway relief line and the Scarborough subway line now.”

Mr. Tory’s team also sent out an announcement accusing Ms. Chow of “dithering” over transit, to which the Chow campaign responded with a transcript of a July, 2013, exchange on Mr. Tory’s radio show when he said the Scarborough subway extension was “barely justifiable,” and accused Tory of “making it up as he goes along.”

Mr. Soknacki, the only other major mayoral candidate to come out in favour of LRT over a Scarborough subway extension, welcomed Ms. Chow to the race Thursday. “I don’t think she’s stolen my thunder so much as she’s joined the right track,” he said.

Ms. Chow took pains in her formal remarks and in interviews to stress her humble background as a new Canadian growing up in the high-rise towers of St. James Town and the value of a dollar that it ingrained in her. She also took a swipe Mr. Ford’s personal troubles, saying he is “no role model” for her two granddaughters.

Mr. Ford tried to deflect attention from the scandals that have dogged him, including his admission that he smoked crack cocaine, and focus on his accomplishments. “This city’s booming. This city’s on fire,” he said. “You know what, they can criticize me all they want. I’ve got a proven track record.”

And while Ms. Chow, an NDP MP until Wednesday, stressed her ability to work with politicians from all sides of the spectrum and build consensus, Mr. Ford tried to placed her firmly on the left.

“If people want to go back to the NDP tax-and-spend ways, she’s their candidate,” he said. “All she is, is a tax-and-spend socialist. Everyone knows it.”

With reports from Ann Hui and Marcus Gee

Follow on Twitter: @lizchurchto

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