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Canada Ontario, Toronto agree on terms to upload city’s subway system

In a formal agreement meant to guide talks on Ontario taking over Toronto’s subway system, the province has agreed to discuss scenarios involving only a partial upload, or none at all.

For more than a year, the provincial Progressive Conservatives have pledged to take over ownership of the city’s subways, a controversial idea that they argue would let them amortize construction costs, allowing the quickest possible expansion of the system. In terms of reference between the province and city that were signed on Monday and made public on Tuesday, though, other outcomes are floated.

The possibilities to be discussed include the upload as originally pitched by the province, with Queen’s Park taking over ownership and maintenance costs; a partial takeover that could include only future subway infrastructure; and no upload at all, with the province restricting its role to building any expansion of the network.

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Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek said in an interview that their intent remains a full upload, with legislation coming by late spring, but that the end game is not fixed.

“You want to make a decision [on] what’s best for the commuter and we can’t come to that conclusion just yet, until we finalize these discussions and take a look at the financials and have a valuation determined [by] a third party,” he said. “But, you know, our goal hasn’t changed.”

The possibility of a subway upload has dominated the transit conversation at city hall for the past year. Council voted strongly to retain ownership, a statement noted in the terms of reference, but also agreed to participate in talks with the province.

City manager Chris Murray was the delegated authority to lead those talks with provincial representatives, on behalf of council, and his signature is on the terms of reference.

“They have, so far, been in very good faith in sitting down and having a series of [talks about] the terms of reference that will now shape the discussion … and try to determine exactly what uploading means and whether that’s good for everybody involved on our end,” Toronto Mayor John Tory told reporters at an unrelated event.

However, Shelagh Pizey-Allen, chief executive of the transit-advocacy group TTC Riders, expressed concern about what she didn’t see in the document.

“The fact that affordability is not one of the principles they’re considering is deeply concerning, because higher subway fares [are] one of our top concerns with the upload,” she said. “I think that there needs to be a fourth option in these terms of reference, for the city to say no, this is not a plan that’s good for our city and good for transit riders.”

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The province’s willingness to entertain various upload scenarios could give solace to Torontonians who worry about transit-expansion decisions being made by a government that has little representation in the parts of the city where the subway is most crowded. And it could encourage people elsewhere in the province, who are concerned about Queen’s Park taking over an asset with about $21-billion in capital demands over the next 15 years.

The document makes clear, though, that this is not a simple process. There are repeated references to the complexity of the upload issue, and hints at some of the likely sticking points in the coming discussion.

Key elements of the information discovery process, according to one of the appendices, are the city’s valuation of its subway assets and the Ministry of Transportation’s procurement of a third party to do a value assessment of the subway and its liabilities.

Part of that third party’s job will be to determine the state of repair of the assets, a question given added resonance by a recent TTC report spelling out the looming bill to keep up the system.

The TTC has traditionally done capital planned on 10-year time-frames and kept some items “below the line” and out of the budget. In contrast, the agency recently looked ahead 15 years and included everything, except expansion, with a resulting $33.5-billion tab for capital maintenance and equipment replacement.

That figure was cited by Mr. Yurek as a piece of financial information that needed a closer look.

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“I’m not doubting the report that came forward,” he said, “but verification always is the way to go during these types of negotiations.”

About $21.3-billion of the TTC’s figure was associated with subway infrastructure and roughly three-quarters of that amount is currently unfunded, meaning an annual bill of about $1-billion to keep the subway system running in decent shape. During the election campaign, the provincial Tories suggested their annual tab to maintain the system would be in the range of $160-million.

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