Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak pledged sweeping change to Toronto's transportation network, promising to merge the subway, GO trains and local expressways into a single system. He also left the door open to new taxes, tolls or fees to pay for transit expansion.
That a Tory would even consider a transit tax shows how crucial the province's largest city is to the party's electoral hopes. Mr. Hudak's party took only a handful of seats in the GTA during the last vote, and was shut out of Toronto proper. The Liberals, by constrast, dominate the city. Premier Kathleen Wynne has her seat here, and the party holds all but six of its ridings.
At a lunch-hour speech in the financial district Wednesday, the P.C. Leader launched his campaign to woo the city's voters, telling anecdotes about riding the subway from his uptown residence to work at Queen's Park and laying out a laundry list of Toronto-focused policies.
As premier, Mr. Hudak said, he would pump up the city's cultural sector – which includes a slew of theatres, film studios and art galleries – by simplifying business regulations to make it easier for people to set up shop. He also promised to help immigrants have foreign credentials recognized in Ontario in a bid to get the best and brightest to settle in Toronto.
Most of his agenda, however, was centred on transit.
"For far too long, Toronto has been creaking under infrastructure designed in the 1950s for a city of a much more modest size than it is today," Mr. Hudak said. "And as Toronto grows, that gridlock will continue to grow along with it, at a cost of … $6-billion in lost economic activity."
He said he would extend the subway north to Richmond Hill and farther east into Scarborough, and add on to the northern end of Highway 427. He also proposed simplifying transportation planning by putting provincial agency Metrolinx, which operates the GO network, in charge of Toronto's subway, four planned LRT lines and several local highways, including the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway.
Transferring only the subway to provincial control, however, would be difficult, because the system relies heavily on streetcars and buses to funnel passengers into it. And it might not be the most efficient option, given that several TTC streetcar and bus routes carry more people than most GO lines.
Subway expansion, meanwhile, will be costly. But the austerity-minded Mr. Hudak said he would find money for it in part by tapping cost savings in other government departments, pointing to subsidies to green energy companies as dollars that could better be spent on transit.
Metrolinx is currently holding consultations to develop a list of funding tools – which could range from road tolls to new taxes to parking fees – to be tabled in June. Mr. Hudak said he was "open to options," and that he would establish a dedicated source of transit dollars, in contrast to the usual one-off format of transportation funds.
"Whether it's a combination [of funding tools], whether it's one or two, my view is we don't have more time to waste," he said. "Let's get on with it."
Carol Wilding, the CEO of the Board of Trade, which organized the event, said she was encouraged by Mr. Hudak's words and urged him, should be become premier, to move ahead on transit expansion even as he looks to cut spending elsewhere.
"You've got a public who are very frustrated both in terms of their quality of life … and they're ready to move," she said. "You need to seize that moment."