Toronto and the provincial government have reached a tentative deal clearing the way to expand transit in the city after months of difficult negotiations.
Under the arrangement, which must be approved by city council, Queen’s Park drops its plan to seize ownership of the existing subway network. In exchange, the city agrees to endorse four provincial transit projects, which would then go ahead without the city having to contribute financially.
Although the city wouldn’t have to put money toward the province’s big-ticket projects, including its three-stop Scarborough subway extension in the city’s northeast and the Ontario Line spanning the downtown, Toronto would be required to direct billions to maintaining the increasingly aged current system, or for other expansions the city and province agree are worthwhile.
The arrangement announced Wednesday marks a turnaround for the governing Progressive Conservatives, which had campaigned on a pledge to take over Toronto’s subways. City council voted against the idea, saying that residents paid for much of its construction. The province had the legal right to go ahead with the takeover, though, and has passed enabling legislation.
The deal, which was negotiated by city bureaucrats, will go to Toronto City Council later this month and is being championed by Mayor John Tory.
“I believe our professional city staff, through negotiations and discussions with the province over the past year, have found a path forward that will see more transit built, see it built as soon as possible and will see the city as a partner in the design and construction of the new lines,” he told reporters as he announced the deal, which comes five days before a federal election.
Although the deal does not require city funding for the Ontario Line, the Scarborough project, an expansion of the subway north from the city to Richmond Hill and an extension of a midtown light-rail line, the city’s endorsement of these projects is crucial.
Under a long-standing federal funding model, Ottawa defers to cities on which transit projects to support. In the case of these four, Toronto has to deem them priorities, even if the city will not pay for them, in order for federal money to flow.
Toronto’s share of the cost of these projects – which would thus be freed up for other use – is projected to be between $5.1-billion and $6-billion under standard funding formulas. Most of this money has not been budgeted for, though, and would have to be raised by the city. If done, this could make a dent in the transit system’s more than $30-billion repair and upkeep backlog.
Under Wednesday’s deal, Queen’s Park would pay the balance of the four projects and has promised to reimburse Toronto for “reasonable costs” incurred by the city on transit design work made unnecessary by the province’s plan.
The province would own the resulting transit infrastructure, which would be operated by the Toronto Transit Commission. The city would be liable for any operating-cost shortfalls.
“Riders will be paying to operate new lines through the fare box,” Shelagh Pizey-Allen, director of the advocacy group TTCriders, said in a statement. “Mayor Tory must negotiate for proper funding, because provincial cuts are already squeezing the TTC budget.”
A city staff report released Wednesday said that both the Scarborough and Ontario Line projects are “supportable in principle,” and would benefit the city.
The report notes that the province has promised to have the Ontario Line open by 2027 and the Scarborough extension by 2029/2030. However, those timelines are not firm. Other lingering issues include how much longer the current train line in Scarborough can be kept operational.
More questions hang over the Ontario Line, which is in the very early stages of design. Councillor Brad Bradford, who was named by Mr. Tory to lead council’s effort on the Relief Line, a long-standing proposal being replaced by the Ontario Line, acknowledged uncertainties around it.
“Design is very preliminary at this point, but as we go through the process, as the professionals, the engineers, the designers, work on that, we’re going to have more information and they’ll flesh out the design of the Ontario Line,” he said.
Talks between the province and the city on a subway upload have been going on for months and included the possibility that Queen’s Park would own only expansions to the current system. Settling on the arrangement announced Wednesday leaves the city owning the current infrastructure.
Asked why the retreat was necessary, Caroline Mulroney, who has been the provincial Transportation Minister since June, said it was clear from the outset that the city wanted to keep ownership of the existing system.
“We share priorities with the city of Toronto on this issue, and it’s an opportunity to work together,” she told reporters at Queen’s Park, explaining that ditching the upload proposal was the best way to work with Toronto and get transit built quickly.
The deal also marks a new twist for transit in Scarborough, which has been modified repeatedly over years. Supporters of the Scarborough subway initially said it would cost only $500-million more than the light-rail line that the then-Liberal government had promised to fund. Costs ballooned by billions and council eventually decided to remove two stops to save money.
While campaigning for provincial office, Doug Ford insisted the project needed to have the stops added back in and dismissed concerns about how much more this would cost. With provincial control of the project, the stops are to be included and all costs borne by higher levels of government.