Ontario Transportation Minister Glen Murray says he is revisiting a $34-billion transit blueprint for the Toronto region – a move that could reopen debate after years of provincial and municipal planning.
Cities and the province's transit agency, Metrolinx, have spent millions of dollars and several years designing the next phase of the province's so-called Big Move – 10 big-ticket projects including Toronto's long-awaited downtown relief line, the Yonge Street subway extension, and light-rail lines in Mississauga and Hamilton.
Mr. Murray was appointed to the transportation file in February. He told The Globe and Mail that he is unconvinced the planning process has been rigorous enough to be final and considers the proposed routes "placeholders."
The minister, who describes himself as passionate about transit, said he has asked for further study and that he would like to see changes if they would better serve the region's transit needs.
As one example, he pointed to the light-rail transit lines being built along Toronto's Eglinton Avenue and proposed for Mississauga and Brampton. He said it could be worthwhile to connect them, and to add an extension to high-employment areas near the airport.
Such a connection to the airport would replace a proposed bus-rapid-transit line at a cost of an additional $900-million, a Metrolinx official said.
While it is unclear how far Mr. Murray would go, the prospect of further changes to the transit blueprint will raise eyebrows among those who have watched transit-building efforts stall for decades. The Big Move was intended to prevent political roadblocks by having different governments agree on a long-term vision and stick to it. Substantially revising the plan could delay transit improvements yet again.
On Wednesday, top Metrolinx officials played down Mr. Murray's comments and said any changes to the plan would be minor, and a spokesman stressed that Mr. Murray is committed to the plan and is keen only on "optimizing" it.
"We think we have it about right and we think that is the package that it is reasonable to ask the public to pay for," Metrolinx chairman Rob Prichard said.
Mr. Murray told The Globe he has questions about the routes and the types of vehicles. He said his staff is analyzing where people live and work, and how they move through the Toronto region.
The minister is already questioning whether some areas could be better served by altering the plan.
Metrolinx officials said they are keenly aware that, amid a rancorous debate over dedicated funding for transit, people must be certain they know what they are being asked to pay for.
"We understand, with a 20-year horizon, there has to be a capacity to alter the strategic plan," Mr. Prichard said. "But we can't go out and sell an apple and deliver an orange. We can't."
Current and former government sources told The Globe that Mr. Murray was an advocate of rethinking the Big Move even before he became Transportation Minister. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said his proposed changes go beyond a few minor tweaks.
As a result of Mr. Murray's involvement, what Metrolinx once viewed as a largely static planning document has become an evolving blueprint, according to one person familiar with the file. And there is concern within the agency that substantial changes may be requested.
Local leaders who see this revisiting of the plan as an opportunity to advocate for their communities may be disappointed. Mr. Murray said the current plan is too often about "municipal priorities, not regional priorities" – a problem he would like to rectify.
Metrolinx is legally mandated to report to the province by the end of May with its preferred list of taxes and fees for the next phase. The debate has been polarizing, with politicians on the right insisting that people cannot afford more, and politicians on the left saying that corporations need to step up and pay a bigger share.
Until now, though, the debate has focused on how to pay for transit – not whether the current plan should be carried through as presented.
A concern at Metrolinx is that, while many of Mr. Murray's suggestions are good, the plan has to be made "politician-proof," or it will be too easy for it to be changed again and again over the years.
The minister pledged that the projects currently under way – such as the Eglinton LRT in Toronto – must continue. But he said the way the lines are operated could be adjusted later if necessary.
With a report from Adrian Morrow