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<252>The Saint-Lazare metro station is part of 214 kilometres of subway lines in Paris. </caption><cutline_leadin>Benoit Tessier /Reuters

As the Toronto region dithers over transportation problems it worries will hold it back on the global stage, an indisputably world-class city is looking a century ahead, barrelling forward with a massive increase in its subway network.

In an epic project dubbed "Pharaonic" for its scale, Paris is soon to start digging 200 kilometres of subway tunnels that will finally give the city's sprawling suburbs proper transit. The work is being driven by the national government, on the premise that the economic vitality of the capital region is crucial to the country as a whole.

"We are engaged in a competition with the global cities of the world," Alexandre Missoffe, chief of staff to the executive president of the Société du Grand Paris, the body created to spearhead the project, explained recently. "We have a beautiful city, but if we don't change anything, if we say what is outside the Périphérique [ring road] is none of our business, in 100 years we could be Venice."

Visions differ dramatically in Toronto and Paris. The French capital's subway system will be more than six times as long as Toronto's once both cities are finished their currently planned transit lines. But the French project offers food for thought to the Toronto area as it ponders its own plans.

Borrow and build it fast

The Société du Grand Paris is expecting to spend 23.5-billion euros ($32.1-billion Canadian) on the project, a substantial sum even for one of the biggest economies in Europe. Although digging has not begun, the first line is to open by 2020, and all the new routes are scheduled to be operational a decade later.

It's an ambitious goal and the group is planning to borrow against future revenue streams to get the tunnel-boring machines into the ground as quickly as possible.

The project will be funded through four main revenue sources, all applied in the Paris area only. They include an increase in the tax on office space, a levy on every resident in the region, a contribution from the state-owned public transit operator and a user fee paid by the company that will operate the new system.

Together these will generate 800 to 900-million euros annually. This will be used to pay down the debt. "Within 30 years, we're done," said Mr. Missoffe, brushing his hands briskly together.

In Ontario, where Metrolinx has proposed a sweeping transit plan for the Toronto area, remarkably similar numbers are being floated. The provincial agency says it will cost about $34-billion for its "next-wave" network of subways, light rail and bus rapid transit. But it remains to be seen the extent to which Metrolinx will borrow to speed up construction.

John Howe, vice-president of investment strategy and project evaluation with Metrolinx, said they can't make any such decisions until they know the extent and stability of annual funding. And there are other factors at play. "There's an issue of capacity because you can't build a $34-billion program all at once," he explained this week.

"But it also makes sense to sequence some projects before others, because we're trying to build a network and there's a logical way to build it out. I'm making a rule of thumb here because I don't have the precise expenditure/revenue profile information. But if you're trying to plan, as we are, for a 20-year build program, it's a safe assumption that borrowing upfront lets you be able to sustain a continuous build program and not have to wait for the actual cash-flow to come in."

An automated network system

"Go on line 14," Mr. Missoffe said. "It will give you a very good idea of the kind of transit we will have."

This subway route wends its way diagonally through the city, from Gare Saint-Lazare to the Olympiades station. The line was finished in 2007 and is the first part of the Paris Métro to be built as a fully automated system. It will eventually link up with two of the forthcoming Grand Paris lines.

On line 14, there are barriers along the platform edges to keep people off the track, their entrances opening in sync with the train's doors. Instead of an operator's booth, the entire front of the first car is a wrap-around window, offering the best seats on the train, where children wave to other trains in the tunnel and tourists take photos.

Toronto is far behind this level of automation. Although the city's transit service is updating its subway signalling to allow computer control of the trains, there will continue to be an operator in the cab. And for the foreseeable future, trains will continue to have a second person on board to man the doors. Management would like to phase out that role, but the union has indicated it will oppose such a change on safety grounds.

The subway system in Toronto is also tiny compared to Paris.

The French capital currently has 214 kilometres of heavy rail city transit and will nearly double that distance once the new lines are built. In contrast, Toronto has about 68 kilometres of heavy rail. The system has not been expanded in a decade, and only one of the current transit projects underway in the region is heavy rail, an 8.6-kilometre extension to York University. The "next wave" of proposed transit projects includes only two heavy-rail plans, which together stretch under 15 kilometres.

But there are also similarities between the two cities' transit plans.

In Toronto, Metrolinx is determined to build a network system that connects suburbs to each other. This is a break from older transit thinking, which is usually based on a radial system that funnels people into the downtown. In the same way, the new Paris plan links together residents in outlying areas, most of whom now drive. Residents of Clichy-sous-Bois, the suburb with high unemployment that spawned widespread rioting in 2005, will no longer have to go almost all the way into Paris before changing trains and returning to job options at the international airport, only a few kilometres from their homes.

National importance of transit

The Périphérique, the ring road around Paris, was built roughly along the route of the old walls erected centuries ago to keep out the barbarians. The highway plays much the same role today by secluding suburbanites from city-dwellers, who often see them as a breed apart.

The two solitudes were brought to the fore most starkly in 2005 by days of anti-government violence that began in economically downtrodden suburbs.

"First thing is to connect the suburbs," Mr. Missoffe said. "The Périphérique really acts like a wall, cutting Paris away from the suburbs."

Such urban-suburban divisions are increasingly recognized as harmful to a region that is home to nearly 20 per cent of French citizens. And mindful of the economic importance of the region – which produces nearly one-third of the nation's GDP – the federal government decided that the suburbs need to be brought into the transportation fold. The law enshrining the Grand Paris project describes it as being in the "urban, social and economic" national interest.

Such a federal role has long been sought in Canada by the NDP, whose MP Olivia Chow is a strong advocate for a national transit strategy.

Andy Byford, the head of the TTC, has said he will go to Ottawa in person to advocate for funding, and Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig, speaking after the agency's board meeting this week, reiterated that the federal government needs to step up and pay 30 per cent of transit capital costs.

One day earlier, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne called for federal transportation support, "not only to unlock gridlock, but to invest in jobs and economic prosperity in our time."

Federal Transportation Minister Denis Lebel was unavailable for an interview late this week, but a spokesman noted that the federal government has "committed or invested" $2.2-billion in Greater Toronto Area transit since 2006.

Of course, the situation is not all rosy for transit-boosters in Paris, which faces challenges Toronto should be glad to avoid.

Land rights in France go "to the centre of the earth" and a tedious part of the project has been negotiating access to the 14,000 plots of land the subway will run through.

And it's been a difficult process getting agreement on routes and stations; the French lived up to their reputation for debate. After all, former French leader Charles de Gaulle once bemoaned the difficulty of governing a country so individualistic it had created 246 kinds of cheese. Imagine finding transit consensus in a region that has nearly 1,300 mayors.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that there's only one heavy-rail project planned for Toronto 7.5 kilometres.

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