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Canada Ontario Transportation Minister pledges expansion into suburbs as part of Toronto subway takeover

Transit users crowd a subway platform at Union Station in Toronto.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Ontario’s new Transportation Minister pledged subway expansion throughout the suburbs in a speech on Wednesday, but made no mention of the downtown relief line, as part of a provincial move to take over the core of Toronto’s transit network.

Jeff Yurek, who took over the role in a cabinet shuffle in early November, said the province’s own panel will report on the issue later this month and that “legislation or regulation” allowing Queen’s Park to upload the city’s subways could come early next year.

“Looking ahead, when the uploading is completed, Ontario will have a greater control to implement vital regional transit-policy objectives,” he told the Toronto Region Board of Trade on Wednesday in his first major speech in the portfolio. “We will be able be able to push the subway [farther] into York, Peel and the Durham regions.”

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The promise of such far-flung subway expansion echoes a pledge made by Premier Doug Ford during the summer. It goes well beyond plans currently on the books, though, and will fan the fears of those who say the subway upload is effectively a suburban usurpation of a key Toronto asset.

In his speech, Mr. Yurek did nothing to quell those concerns. He criticized the city for what he characterized as a time-consuming transit expansion approvals process and “poor” record for on-time and on-budget project completion. He did not mention the relief line – which the city has consistently called its most urgently needed expansion – but made the point five times that the subway is important to the province as a whole, not just to Torontonians.

Asked subsequently what the omission of the relief line said about the province’s priorities, an acting spokesman for Mr. Yurek listed it among several under-construction and planned projects in Toronto. “We’re making sure they get built,” Andrew Koolsbergen said in an e-mail. These projects are at various stages of progress and the relief line has the least committed funding of any of them.

The mechanics of a provincial takeover are currently being studied by a provincially appointed panel headed by Michael Lindsay, a former vice-president at Infrastructure Ontario. The province has not made Mr. Lindsay available for interviews and the terms of reference for his work have not been made public.

The feasibility of the province assuming control of the subway is a source of dispute among the city’s top transit professionals.

Phil Verster, chief executive of the regional transit agency Metrolinx, told reporters in September that it would be “quite straightforward” for his agency to take over the much more heavily used subway system. But his counterpart at the TTC, Rick Leary, sent a note to staff a few days later, warning that any such move would be complicated.

“The suggestion that [the TTC], its rolling stock, yards, car houses, tunnels, signals, stations, ventilation, electrical, drainage and all other interdependent systems can be somehow easily transferred or uploaded is simply not the case,” Mr. Leary wrote.

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The provincial Tories have framed their desire to take over the subways – a move that would still leave the city in charge of day-to-day operations – as a way to speed up expansion.

“Later this month, our cabinet will receive a report [from Mr. Lindsay] that will inform the basis of the discussion of the government with the city going forward in early 2019,” Mr. Yurek said on Wednesday.

“Moving forward, we’ll consider additional panel members to assist Michael [Lindsay], who can add value to the discussion and analysis as we contemplate implementation through legislation or regulation in early 2019.”

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