When it comes to public transit, the late Rob Ford famously said, the people of Toronto are clear about what they want: “Subways, subways, subways.” Now his brother Doug, recently elected premier of Ontario, is promising to give them their hearts’ desire. He wants to spend billions on building new subways. And to make the building go more quickly and smoothly, the provincial government would assume ownership of the whole subway network.
The idea has a surface appeal. Toronto is way behind other cities in building out its mass transit system. Its city council has flipped and flopped about which transit line to put where. The Toronto Transit Commission, the giant agency that now controls the streetcars, buses and subway trains, bungled the last big subway project, a northward extension into the neighbouring municipality of Vaughan. It fell years behind schedule and many millions over budget.
Mr. Ford and his ministers say that things will go much better with the province in charge. Provincial accounting rules will make it easier to finance multibillion-dollar subway projects. The provincial government will pay for the maintenance of the system, which is a heavy burden on the perpetually underfunded TTC. But it would leave the commission to run the system day to day.
“I think the TTC does a great job and their employees do a great job, especially in operating,” Mr. Ford said this summer. “I believe other people can build subways a lot more efficiently.”
It’s at least a plausible argument. If Mr. Ford can get a move on with transit, more power to him. His government expects to receive a report on the issue from a special adviser shortly. It hopes to introduce legislation on the subway takeover early next year.
What’s much more troubling than the uploading of the subway system is the Ford government’s nutty plan to run subways far into Toronto’s suburbs. In a speech this week, Ontario Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek said that once the province is in charge, “We will be able be able to push the subway into York, Peel and the Durham regions” – outer suburbs to Toronto’s north, west and east.
Just after he was elected in June, Mr. Ford held a news conference in the eastern suburb of Pickering to proclaim that a subway might even extend all way there. “Folks in Pickering eventually will be able to hop on a subway,” he said. And pigs will fly there, too.
How on earth a premier wrestling with a hefty deficit and an enormous debt left behind by the departed Liberals hopes to find the tens of billions of dollars that would be required for these endless ribbons of steel is hard to grasp. Even if Mr. Ford could find the money, it would make no sense to extend the subway system to far-flung, sprawling, low-density suburbs that, like Pickering, are already served by the steadily improving regional bus-and-rail service run by GO Transit, a provincial outfit.
If Mr. Ford wants to expand the subway system, the place to start is with the long-awaited, desperately needed downtown relief line, designed to take pressure off the crowded Yonge Street route that forms the spine of the network. This is the line that Toronto wants built first and that just about everyone in the transit business agrees should be the city’s priority.
Mr. Yurek insists he wants the DRL built as badly as anyone. On CBC Radio’s Metro Morning this week, he promised the government would not shunt the project to the sidelines in favour of suburban subways – “guaranteed.” But under questioning by host Matt Galloway, he would not say it was the government’s No. 1 priority. He failed even to mention the DRL in his speech.
To make matters worse, the Ford government is planning to cut the legs out from under the already-hobbled provincial transit agency, Metrolinx. A proposed change in its governing legislation would emphasize that the transportation minister is in charge. That makes foolish, political subway projects all the more likely. The suburban subways that Mr. Ford dreams of building just happen to run into the 905 area code around Toronto that his party relies on for much of its support.
All of this has to be discouraging to the average straphanger squeezed onto the morning train. The city’s transit story has gone through as many twists, turns and loops as the Wild Mouse. Light-rail lines have become subway lines and subway lines light rail; projects have been cancelled, then revived; subway tunnels have been dug, then filled in. Each new government draws a new map of its transit fantasies. Doug Ford’s suburban-subway fantasy is the wildest yet.