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Transit has quickly become the hot-button issue of the Toronto mayoral campaign. <137>Commuters ride a TTC subway west from Kennedy Station in Scarborough, Ontario Wednesday, September 25, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)<137> (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Transit has quickly become the hot-button issue of the Toronto mayoral campaign. <137>Commuters ride a TTC subway west from Kennedy Station in Scarborough, Ontario Wednesday, September 25, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)<137> (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Toronto transit debate heats up, but refuses to solidify Add to ...

Transit has emerged as the hottest issue in the early going of the campaign for mayor, as it should be. But the quality of debate is poor. Point scoring, cheap tricks, evasions and empty boasts are the order of the day among the leading candidates.

Consider Karen Stintz first. Last week, the former chair of the Toronto Transit Commission unveiled her plan to “declare war on congestion.” She proposes to raise money for better transit by selling off half of Toronto Hydro, and using income from the Toronto Parking Authority and revenue from traffic-enforcement fines. She would also put a $3 levy on Green P parking.

The problem is that the income from those sources – except for the parking levy, which would be new – is used for other things the city does, from fixing potholes to paying police officers. Where would she get the money to pay for those things? She could not say. Services, she said, would have to be “re-prioritized” and money “redirected.” Oh.

Next consider Olivia Chow. Although she attacks Mayor Rob Ford Ford for wasting a billion dollars on a Scarborough subway and leaving the city “almost maxed out,” she would raise her own billion for transit in exactly the same way Mr. Ford would: by hiking property taxes, even if that might mean going back on her promise to keep tax increases within the inflation rate.

Her transit blueprint calls for ripping up the plan to build a Scarborough subway that city council approved last summer and the that federal and provincial governments pledged to back with hundreds of millions of dollars. Transit planning, already as loopy as a midway ride, would go through another wrenching turn.

In a speech last week, Ms. Chow said she would press Ottawa and Queen’s Park to step up funding for Toronto transit, a cry that has gone out from City Hall for years. Why could she persuade them when other mayors have failed, wondered one reporter. “Because it’s right, it’s just and the people of Toronto deserve no less.” Oh.

Then there is John Tory. One of his many ideas is to use water taxis or other vessels to transport commuters along the shore of Lake Ontario. No mention of whether he would employ ice-breaking water taxis during winter freeze-ups.

His big pitch on transit is to get the downtown relief line built. But he has not said yet how he would pay for it (he promises a costing announcement soon). Worse, he is is distorting Ms. Chow’s position on the issue.

Since Ms. Chow launched her campaign, he has been trying to persuade voters she would drag her feet on building the line. When she tried to make it clear she would not, his staff posed with a fake Twister game to make fun of what they claim are the many twists in her position.

Mr. Tory wrote: “Chow has confirmed she will not get the relief line done until 2031. I will get it done now.” Really? City transit experts say that even if they got the green light tomorrow, it would take a few years just to get the design and environmental approvals and another eight to 10 years for construction.

Contrary to the claims of the Tory camp, Ms. Chow has not shown “total disinterest” in the relief line. She said last week that she wants “to see the relief line built as quickly as possible.” She is just saying it is a complex, long-term project and she wants to make progress on things like bus service in the meantime.

Unlike Ms. Chow, Mr. Tory wants to stick with the Scarborough subway plan instead of changing course yet again. Give him marks for that. But the Chow campaign points out that he once said on his radio show the subway was “barely justifiable.”

Here is how he explains himself. “If I’d said it was completely, absolutely unjustifiable, then I realize I’d have to be explaining myself to a greater extent. I said barely justifiable and I meant what I said. Now it’s my job to work – I mean, if I become the mayor – to work with the other people on the city council and elsewhere to make sure that something that was barely justifiable becomes eminently justifiable.” Uh-huh.

Finish with Mr. Ford. Before he went on a leave last week, he said he had plans to build not one, not two, but four subways: the Scarborough line, the relief line and lines on Finch and Sheppard. This champion of the taxpayer seemed to say (you never quite know) he would find all those billions by raising property taxes and asking higher levels of government for more money. “It’s very straightforward what I’ve been saying,” he told reporters. Ah.

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