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Transit issues take centre stage at Liberal leadership debate

Liberal candidate Glen Murray

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Liberal leadership contender Glen Murray is calling for a "paradigm shift" in the way the province finances and develops public transit projects.

Over the past decade, some 32-million square feet of new office space has been built in the Greater Toronto Area, Mr. Murray said at an all-candidates debate on Sunday. But many people have difficulty getting to these offices, he said, because 90 per cent are a kilometre or more away from subways, streetcars and other public transit systems. Contrast this with the little-used Sheppard subway line, he said, where it costs $18 a passenger to operate, enough to eventually buy each passenger a Porsche.

"I think transit is fundamentally broken in Ontario," Mr. Murray said.

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If people could count on public transit to get to work, they would use it more frequently and it would generate more revenue, helping the province to earn a good return on its investment, he said.

With transit one of the key topics on the agenda during the 2.5 hour debate, there were plenty of ideas from the other six candidates on how to address the gridlock that routinely turns roadways in the GTA into parking lots for many people commuting to work.

Charles Sousa called for one giant transit system for the GTA. Harinder Takhar called for new infrastructure bonds to help pay for pricey transit projects. Gerard Kennedy called for changes at Metrolinx, the regional transit planning agency created by the government, which he said has not had the capacity to work with communities.

"I think we all have to understand there's been political gridlock," he said.

Within the confines of the rigid format set by the Liberal Party for the debates, there is little opportunity for the candidates to discuss current issues swirling around the minority Liberal government, notably the labour strife over the new contracts imposed on teachers last week. (The fifth and final debate takes place on Wednesday.)

It was well into the debate, during the segment on health care, before anyone mentioned that students face the spectre of losing extra-curricular activities during the duration of the contract.

"I don't want kids to be without extra curriculars for the next 18 months," said Kathleen Wynne, a perceived front-runner in the race to replace outgoing Premier Dalton McGuinty later this month.

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The rigid format also provided little opportunity for drama. The only hint of discord came when Sandra Pupatello, also a front-runner, drew attention to the fact that she is the only candidate from outside the GTA by twice mentioning that she is from Windsor.

"It doesn't matter where you come from," Ms. Wynne said. Whoever succeeds Mr. McGjuinty "has to be able to connect with the whole province."

Many of the candidates pledged to try to find common ground with Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak and New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath.

"I don't believe an election in the spring is inevitable unless we want it," Eric Hoskins said.

Mr. Sousa said Ontarians are not looking for a leader who is going to be "combative" and "fighting in the trenches."

However, Mr. Murray warned that the Liberals under their new leader will have to "sharpen their swords" to take on Mr. Hudak's right-wing agenda, which he says would create much more havoc than the Common Sense Revolution under former Conservative premier Mike Harris.

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"Tim Hudak is no Mike Harris," Mr. Murray said. "He's much worse."

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