The city council donnybrook that has turned an $8-billion transit project into Toronto’s priciest political football has galvanized efforts to wrestle more transit planning authority from the city’s fumbling hands.
Concerns over the mishandling of the transit file came from two influential corners on Thursday. At a meeting of Metrolinx, the province’s regional transit agency, outgoing board-member Paul Bedford implored his former colleagues to ignore the mayor’s subways-or-bust campaign and respect city council’s decision to build above-ground light rail lines. But he warned of letting political squabbles at Queen’s Park and city hall derail broader public transportation planning across the GTA and urged the agency to do everything in its power to avoid becoming “stuck in neutral by inaction.”
“Remember that you are building a city and region on purpose, not by accident,” he said in a send-off speech.
Later that same meeting, board member Doug Turnbull expressed similar worries, but was harsher on Mayor Ford. He criticized the mayor for creating a “a false debate of subways that can’t be built, and we don’t have the tools to pay for, versus an LRT system that gets transit where it’s needed in this city.”
Mr. Turnbull, deputy chairman of TD Securities, added that the furor at city hall could persuade the province to walk away from its $8.4-billion commitment altogether.
“My concern is that we have a mayor who doesn’t want to take yes for an answer,” he said. “I worry that the longer that the subway versus LRT debate drags on, a window is going to slam closed on us.”
Both Metrolinx Chair Robert Prichard and CEO Bruce McCuaig reassured the board that they hadn’t heard of any wavering from the province.
But both men also said that council could further grapple over the transit plan at a March 21 meeting to consider recommendations from a panel established to look at rapid transit options on Sheppard Avenue.
Meanwhile, the Toronto Board of Trade added its heft to the criticisms of Metrolinx’s lack of authority.
In a Globe and Mail op-ed, Toronto Board of Trade President and CEO Carol Wilding argues that the political wrangling at city hall proves that “Metrolinx is needed now more than ever.”
She writes that Metrolinx was created in 2006 to develop, adopt and co-ordinate a transportation plan for the GTA. But over the past year, the agency has refused to weigh in on Mayor Rob Ford’s clash with city council over how the provincial pot should be spent. The mayor wants it to go entirely to burying the Eglinton Crosstown LRT line, while a majority of councillors have voted to raise the easternmost section of that line above ground and use the savings to build light rail along Finch Avenue West and Sheppard Avenue.
“Cabinets and City Councils come and go,” she writes. “Nothing will get built if every new council weighs in and sends progress in a different direction.”
Ms. Wilding adds that the Board of Trade has refused an invitation to sit on an expert panel established to settle on a rapid transit option for Sheppard Avenue.
“We believe that Metrolinx should be leading those discussions,” she said in an interview. “And if we believe Metrolinx should be the lead then it would be inappropriate for us to sit on that panel.”
During a Thursday morning board meeting, Metrolinx officials said that the agency will attend the meetings – scheduled for Feb. 17, 24, and March 2 – but had also turned down a request to sit on the panel.