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Toronto bureaucrats bypass politicians to make waterfront LRT pitch

Two of Toronto’s top bureaucrats are pushing for a new light-rail line right across the city’s waterfront, taking to higher levels of government their pitch for a route expected to cost hundreds of millions.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Two of Toronto's top bureaucrats are pushing for a new light-rail line right across the city's waterfront, taking to higher levels of government their pitch for a route expected to cost hundreds of millions.

Coming during an election race in which polls show transit is the top issue for voters, the idea would resuscitate part of a transit plan that was killed when Mayor Rob Ford persuaded the province to adopt his priorities.

The request represents a different approach to transit planning by seeking funding for a line that has dropped off the political radar. This could offer a way to jump-start a process that for years has been notable for squabbling, leading to delays and reversals including the cancellation of Transit City and flip-flopping on the best solution in Scarborough.

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If money can be found, an east-west transit route near the lake could take pressure off the Gardiner and Lakeshore expressways, as well as potentially offering quicker transit access to the downtown for people living in the Liberty Village area.

Andy Byford, the CEO of the Toronto Transit Commission, and city manager Joe Pennachetti met with senior provincial bureaucrats earlier this month and planned to follow up with provincial politicians. The next step will be taking their pitch to Ottawa.

"Doubtless, there would still be more discussion at city council," said Mr. Byford, who explained how they might accelerate the process by securing funding first.

"The debate tends to start with, well, where's the money going to come from. So at least if you're able to go, to say, well we have some agreement in principle, for the money, now let's talk about the issue, the actual concept. You can change that debate, because you don't immediately get bogged down on who's paying, or where's the money coming from."

The proposed route includes the East Bayfront LRT, which was dangled as a possibility in the province's last budget but remains far from certain. And it adds the Waterfront West LRT, which last saw the light of day as part of the Transit City plan championed by former mayor David Miller.

The Waterfront West LRT has had several variations. After Transit City was cancelled, though, the proposal sank into obscurity. The line has played no role in the fantasy transit maps produced by the various candidates for mayor. It is buried deep on a list of the lowest-priority Metrolinx projects, though it's left unclear whether it would be light rail or buses.

"I'd argue strongly that over the next 15 years, the province has to assist Toronto and the GTHA with the Waterfront LRT," Mr. Pennachetti said. "I'd argue we need it from Waterfront East – meaning East Bayfront – all the way to Ontario Place and the Ex as soon as possible. And it's not huge dollars."

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He suggested the cost would run between $600-million and $1-billion for the entire line.

In their last budget, the province pledged $15-billion over the next decade for transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA). Mr. Penachetti said they were hoping to have the waterfront light rail line included.

The planning process for this particular route differs in a significant way. Typically, transit lines in Toronto are either proposed by politicians or stem from explicit council direction to city staff. In this instance, the city's most senior civil servants are taking initiative, a move that has the potential to ruffle political feathers.

Although waterfront transit has not featured prominently in recent debates at council, Mr. Byford said there was still "broad agreement" at city hall on the need for it.

The drive for the Waterfront LRT line also comes at a time of transition for Toronto's civil service. This month, Mr. Pennachetti announced plans to retire as city manager in November, a position he has held since 2008.

Mr. Byford and Mr. Pennachetti said they brought to the province a list of priorities that included money for the aging Gardiner Expressway and upkeep of the transit system, as well as a shift back toward Queen's Park covering part of the TTC's operating expenses. Most unexpected, though, was their push to have an LRT across the whole waterfront included in the next round of transit projects the province will fund.

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"You only have to look at what's going on down on the [waterfront] to see the number of condos going up, the amount of development going up. There is a pressing need for a transit solution," Mr. Byford said.

Transit advocate and blogger Steve Munro said that the Waterfront West LRT has circulated in various forms since 1990 and has suffered from meddling by politicians.

"It's one of these lines that, it's sort of like a doodle on a map and every time someone has an idea, the line gets 'Oh, let's put it here. Oh, that building, well let's move it over here,'" he said.

Mr. Byford acknowledged that there are "various iterations" of the line floating around. "Obviously funding is one of those criteria for determining which of those iterations actually sees the light of day," he said.

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