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Toronto A tale of two LRTs: Ontario recommits to Finch West, admits Sheppard East on hold

Hundreds of members of the public watch as Metrolinx and TTC staff move a giant Eglinton Crosstown Tunnel boring machine named "Dennis" slowly along Eglinton Avenue from the west side to the east side of Allen Road in the early morning hours of April 18, 2015. Of the four LRTs the province said they would pay to build and operate in Toronto, construction has begun on only one, the Eglinton Crosstown.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

The long-promised light rail line on Sheppard is being pushed into the distant future, the province admitted Monday. If built, it is unlikely now to open before late next decade.

The Finch West LRT line, which once was going to open this year, is now tentatively set to begin service in 2021.

"This project will bring 11 new kilometres of rapid transit and 18 surface stops to the region," Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca said at an event touting the latest timeline for Finch.

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"The LRT will connect people with transit systems and key destinations along Finch, from here at Humber College to the new Toronto-York Spadina subway extension."

But the province's announcement that they will finally fulfill their promise on Finch was followed immediately by the acknowledgment that plans for the Sheppard East LRT are drifting into the future.

In a partial victory for anti-LRT politicians in the city's northeast, Queen's Park says it is deferring the Sheppard project to focus attention on Finch. This gives opponents more time to agitate against the plan for Sheppard and could end up saving the province a pile of money.

Of the four LRTs the province said they would pay to build and operate in Toronto, construction has begun on only one, the Eglinton Crosstown.

A subway has been approved to replace the planned Scarborough LRT, with the city letting the province off the hook for operating costs and construction overruns. And the deferral of the Sheppard East LRT plan means that it will have to survive at least one election at each of the three levels of government. As with Scarborough, a change of plan on Sheppard is likely to mean the province dropping their promise both to pay for any extra costs and to pick up the tab for running it.

The province said Monday that construction of the fourth LRT, the one on Finch, will begin next year. This line – whose price has climbed from nearly $1-billion to $1.2-billion – has been promised since the days of David Miller's mayoralty.

According to Mr. Del Duca, the delay on Sheppard was because of the difficulty of trying to do too many big projects at once. "The plan right now is to have the procurement begin for the Sheppard East LRT after we complete the Finch West LRT," he said.

There was no firm timeline available for the Sheppard line. If it starts on its new schedule and takes about as long as Finch to build, it should be ready some time after 2025.

This timeline is sharply at odds with the information given to a reporter in the provincial budget lock-up on Thursday. The government's position then – given on background and not for attribution, under the rules of the lock-up – was that the Sheppard line would open about a year after Finch. Mr. Del Duca's spokesman did not return a message Monday seeking clarification of what had changed.

"Sheppard delayed a full decade: This is a significant blow to Scarborough's transit needs," Cameron MacLeod, executive director of the transit advocacy group CodeRedTO, said in a statement.

"There is no reason to delay at all, and this will ensure residents continue to receive only contradictory election promises for another 10 years."

TTC Chair Josh Colle acknowledged being "surprised" by the long delay to the Sheppard project. But he stressed the positive of Monday's announcement.

"This is really good news today that we're seeing Finch being built," he said. "My focus has got to be on what we're getting in the ground, and there's a long list right now and I think that's good. Would we like Sheppard sooner? Of course we would. But let's get this one going."

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Mayor John Tory took a similarly sanguine view, saying he didn't intend to pick a fight with the province over the timing of the Sheppard project.

"The province has indicated that there is a certain amount of capacity [to get major transit projects done] they believe they have," Mr. Tory said at an unrelated event later Monday.

"They have said that those capacity considerations may cause this to happen a little bit later. But that's what they've said and I have to sort of accept their expertise on this, knowing that we would like to have every transit project built by tomorrow morning and all funded by the province and federal government in an ideal world, but life doesn't work that way."

With a report from Ann Hui.

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