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Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau raises provincial Liberal by-election candidate Sandra Yeung Racco's arm at her campaign office after speaking to supporters in Thornhill, Ont., on Jan. 16, 2014.NATHAN DENETTE/The Canadian Press

The Liberal candidate in a crucial Ontario by-election is promising to fight for a northward extension of Toronto's subway system, putting the fractious issue of rapid transit expansion back into the political spotlight.

The governing party wheeled out the big guns Thursday, calling in federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to launch Sandra Yeung Racco's campaign in the Toronto suburb of Thornhill. Standing next to him, Ms. Racco wasted no time placing a subway pledge at the heart of her bid.

"We need to bring the Yonge Street subway line all the way to Thornhill and to Richmond Hill," she said as a capacity crowd crammed in her campaign office shouted its approval. "We need to find ways to fund it."

Last summer, Liberal Mitzie Hunter won a by-election in Scarborough in part by co-opting a Progressive Conservative promise to extend the Bloor-Danforth subway east. Premier Kathleen Wynne's government helped Ms. Hunter by abandoning it previous plan for a light rail line and instead backing the subway mid-campaign.

The Yonge extension is already part of the Liberals' plan, but they have not committed money to it. The party wants to build other transit lines first. Asked if her pledge meant she would push for the subway to be funded and built sooner, Ms. Racco said she did not yet know.

"I haven't had a conversation with the Wynne government yet, but [the subway] is something I've always been pushing, even as a municipal councillor. I will continue pushing that," she said.

Progressive Conservative transportation critic Frank Klees said unfunded Liberal subway promises are worthless.

"People in York Region have heard this story over and over and over again, and I think the Liberals' credibility on this is non-existent," he said.

Thornhill sits in the vote-rich suburban belt outside Toronto, where provincial elections are typically decided, and the Grits are fighting hard to wrest it from the Tories in the Feb. 13 vote. Cabinet ministers have already been campaigning in the riding, and the party was banking on Mr. Trudeau's star power to give it a boost.

"The Liberal government here in Ontario is doing a very good job and deserves to be continually supported," he said.

Ms. Racco, a Vaughan city councillor and mother of four, also pledged to fight for more funding for the local Viva Bus Rapid Transit system and for programs to help young people find work. Gila Martow and Bruce McIntosh are vying for the Tory nod. Cindy Hackelberg is the only contender for the NDP nomination.

The seat became vacant last month after Tory MPP Peter Shurman resigned.

Mr. Trudeau is scheduled to spend Friday in Niagara Falls campaigning for the Liberals in another by-election there.