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The Globe and Mail

John Tory has much to say, but his transit pitch lacks direction

You can't accuse John Tory of having nothing to say. He has spent the first few weeks of his second campaign for mayor sending out a hail of policy announcements on everything from creating tens of thousands of jobs to planting millions of trees to boosting the city's live-music sector.

He would consider using water taxis or ferries to improve lakefront commuting. He would set up an "innovation hub" to create jobs in Scarborough. He would act as a "youth employment ambassador," working with business to find jobs for young people. He would create a high-tech corridor in the city's northwest. He would introduce a 10-point code of personal and political conduct. All this with five months still to go till election day.

Mr. Tory has so much to say about so many things that it is hard to keep track of all the issues he feels passionate about and all the problems he would solve. The effort to convey a sense of energy and purpose often makes him come across as scattered, full of ideas and overflowing with talk but lacking a reliable compass. Consider how he has handled the hottest issue of the campaign so far: rapid transit.

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Since the start, he has insisted he is on an urgent mission to build a new transit line that would relieve pressure on the overloaded subway system. Though he took to calling it the Yonge Street relief line, everyone assumed – and he did nothing to correct the impression – that he was talking about the downtown relief line, the subway project most experts agree is a key to relieving transit overload. Now under study by the city, Metrolinx and the Toronto Transit Commission, the DRL would loop down from the Bloor-Danforth line, pass through the core and loop up again, taking pressure off the crowded Yonge line by giving travellers from the east and west another way of getting downtown.

It turns out Mr. Tory has a different idea altogether. With a great flourish this week – a technical briefing for reporters, a colour-coded map, glossy handouts and a speech – he announced that he is now backing a surface rail line. His SmartTrack "London-style surface rail subway" would do away with all the fuss and expense of tunnelling and make use of existing GO Transit track to bring people in and out of downtown at speed.

It is not a bad idea. Most big cities make above-ground commuter rail a big part of their transit network. It is not a new idea either. GO and its parent agency, Metrolinx, already have plans to increase the frequency of the growing GO service and convert the diesel fleet to electric.

Mr. Tory would expand on the concept, adding extra stops and a spur heading west along Eglinton. Presto: a surface subway that would "break the back of the city's congestion problems."

But commuter rail has always been considered a complement to a broader subway network across the city, not a substitute for it. TTC chief executive Andy Byford says the DRL "remains our number-one priority." Even with electrified, more frequent service on the GO lines, he told reporters on Wednesday, all the figures and studies show that "whatever you do there's still a need to add capacity in that critical corridor to relieve Yonge-and-Bloor station and to relieve pressure on the Yonge line."

By pushing his $8-billion, 22-stop SmartTrack line, Mr. Tory admits he would bump the DRL down the to-do list, the very thing he accused his main opponent, Olivia Chow, of doing. When Ms. Chow dared to say the relief line was a "long-term" priority, acknowledging the plain fact that it would take years of approvals, planning and construction, he jumped down her throat for contemplating such a delay. "It's time to build subways," he wrote in the Toronto Sun on April 14.

Now the same John Tory who accused Ms. Chow of being indifferent to the DRL attacks her for continuing to back it. He boasted in his transit speech that his SmartTrack would be finished in just seven years, instead of the 17 it would take to complete "her" relief line. The same John Tory who said nothing as dozens of newspapers reported his fervent support for the DRL now speaks against it. The DRL, Mr. Tory now says, is "the wrong line at the wrong time, and it isn't funded."

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Neither is his. He would ask the federal and provincial governments for two-thirds of the cost. He would raise the city's third by raking off the extra tax revenue – $2.5-billion worth, he claims – that might come when developers build around transit stops. No need to hike your property taxes, folks.

This is the same transit-for-nothing talk we once heard from Mayor Rob Ford. He tried to convincer city council he could build a Sheppard subway by using, among other things, tax increment financing – the very instrument Mr. Tory proposes.

The Tory transit plan was supposed to make him look bold and decisive. Instead, he looks all over the map.

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