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You could fill a dumpster to the brim with all the maps, press releases and expert reports on the various subway and light-rail plans that have come and gone over the past generation.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Happy talk filled the airwaves when the news broke that city hall had reached an agreement with Queen’s Park on a grand new transit plan for Toronto. Mayor John Tory said that the city had beaten back the provincial government’s attempt to seize ownership of the existing subway system. Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said the deal cleared the way for an unprecedented expansion of Toronto’s overburdened transit network. The board of trade called it a “great deal” for Torontonians and promised Mr. Tory its full support. The federal Liberals, perhaps afraid of getting left out of the party on the eve of an election, suddenly dropped their skepticism and suggested they would dedicate billions to the project.

The sweaty straphangers on the Yonge subway line at rush hour could be forgiven for simply shrugging, if they could find the room. After all, they have seen this film before. Time after time, suits have lined up at the microphone to announce a new transit project that would ease crowding and improve service on the subways. Time and again, commuters have seen those projects scaled back, altered or just scrapped.

You could fill a dumpster to the brim with all the maps, press releases and expert reports on the various subway and light-rail plans that have come and gone over the past generation. Asian cities have built whole subway systems in the time Toronto has been talking about expanding its network, which still relies mainly on two lines opened (if since extended) in the 1950s and 60s.

Toronto to keep ownership of existing subway network in Queen’s Park transit deal

Is this latest announcement any different? The early signs were encouraging, no doubt. The city and the province had been at loggerheads for months over Premier Doug Ford’s move to upload the subways and replace the city’s long-planned Relief Line subway project with one of its own: the Ontario Line. Now, after many months of talking, they have struck a deal.

Queen’s Park drops its plan to upload the subway; city hall drops its objections to the Ontario Line. Toronto doesn’t have to put up even a penny of the nearly $30-billion it will cost for the provincial government’s ambitious transit plan, which along with the Ontario Line includes a westward extension of the Eglinton light-rail line, a northward extension of the Yonge subway to Richmond Hill and the much-disputed, often-adjusted Scarborough subway. That means it will have more money in its coffers to cover the billions in maintenance costs it faces just to keep the existing subways running.

No wonder Mr. Tory felt able to crow in his statement on the deal: “We have defended our TTC, found a way to move forward on transit expansion, and to invest in improvements in our existing system, and we have done so with an increased financial commitment from the province – that is tremendously good news for the residents of Toronto I was elected to represent.”

But, amid all the hosannas, some difficult questions swirled. The centrepiece of the whole thing, the Ontario Line, is still just a coloured line drawn on a map. Much of the money and effort that went into designing the Relief Line is out the window. The Ontario Line is a very different animal. What kind of cars will it use? What kind of stations? How will it fit with the current subway and commuter-rail system?

The Toronto Transit Commission notes that “The Ontario Line will use a transit technology that is not the same as existing TTC subway technology and trains will not be compatible with existing TTC subway trains, tracks, or other facilities.” Its careful endorsement of the project says that “It is important to note that this assessment is based on the current early conceptual design.” That design calls for the western part of the line to end at Ontario Place by the waterfront, no one’s idea of an obvious mass-transit terminus.

Then there is the little matter of money. Thirty billion is a lot of dough. Even if city hall is not picking up the tab, someone has to. How a government that is dedicated to erasing the provincial deficit and controlling the size of government will find the resources for this ambitious plan is another mystery.

Toronto has learned through bitter experience that, when it comes to mass transit, there is a distinction between announcing something and building something. Those sweaty straphangers are right to think: I’ll believe it when I ride it.

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