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A commuter looks up at a map showing the subway route in Toronto.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

To govern is to choose, and to choose poorly is to govern badly. A public dollar spent in one place means a dollar less to spend anywhere else. Money squandered over here spells belt-tightening over there. Welcome, friends, to the saga of Toronto public transit.

Transit policy in the Greater Toronto Area has spent the past few decades lurching between immobility and abrupt sprints down the wrong track. The latest body trying to bring some perspective to the situation is the provincially created Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel. The Liberal minority government has given it a matter of weeks to rethink the long-standing plans of the provincial transit agency, Metrolinx.

Those plans need reconsidering, since they've already been much altered by politicians, and face evisceration from Toronto's subway-obsessed Mayor Rob Ford, and the like-minded Progressive Conservative opposition at Queen's Park.

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In its first report, released last week, the panel notes that, once upon a time, Toronto was "a transit system leader," but "now ranks as the worst performer in Canada in moving people to and from work and is near the bottom of global rankings." It's all too true.

Some of the transit problems have to do with a simple lack of public spending on transit. But a lot of what's ailing the GTA is about what's been done within the budget envelope. There have been so many completely wrongheaded spending decisions. And they've been motivated by transit politics, not transit economics.

In the 1970s, a subway was driven up the centre of the low-density Allen Expressway. A few years later, provincial industrial policy foisted an overpriced, rickety, made-in-Ontario technology onto the Scarborough Rapid Transit line. The nineties brought the Sheppard subway; transit in the centre of Toronto groans from an excess of demand, in part because so many precious public dollars were sunk into a subway whose ridership is lower than the busiest downtown streetcar route. Governments – municipal, provincial and even federal – time and again pushed for big-ticket projects that impress a desired group of voters far more than they serve real transit users.

And it's happening again with the newly promised Scarborough subway. The costly bauble is now favoured by all three levels of government, despite carrying double the price tag of the long-planned $1.8-billion Scarborough light rapid transit line.

The Transit Investment Strategy panel has so far made the right noises on the illogic of the subway fixation. But is anyone listening? Mr. Hudak, leader of the government in waiting at Queen's Park is, remarkably for a conservative, determined to tilt the spending balance even further in favour of suburban subways. This guarantees less transit for more dollars. A good part of Toronto City Council, led by the Mayor, is similarly inclined. Economics should be trumping politics, not the other way around. And we're still waiting for that train to come in.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this editorial mistakenly said that the Scarborough light rapid transit line in Toronto was already under construction.

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