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Transit czar Rob Prichard has a message for those who dream of criss-crossing Toronto with new subway lines: get real. Mr. Prichard, chief of the Metrolinx transit agency, says he is buttonholed all the time at cocktail parties, on transit and even by people on the street who ask him: "Why aren't you building more subways?"

The question clearly drives him a little mad. First of all, he tells them, 12 kilometres of the proposed Eglinton light rapid transit line - one of the priority projects for Metrolinx - run through an underground tunnel. The big, modern LRT cars would whiz along as fast as a subway. A second priority project, replacement of the aging Scarborough rapid transit line, would run on dedicated track at subway speeds.

On two of the other main rail projects planned by Metrolinx, the Sheppard and Finch LRT lines, a subway makes no sense. The density of people and buildings on those suburban routes is not even close to enough to justify the enormous expense of building, then operating, subway lines. Subways cost around three times as much as light rail. Expanding the Spadina subway north to York University, for example, is costing about $300-million a kilometre. Do the math. At 33 kilometres, the Eglinton LRT, if converted into a subway, would cost $9.9-billion, about half the size of the national defence budget.

Yet some of our candidates for mayor seem to think they can conjure subways out of the wind. No fewer than four of the six main candidates have talked about expanding the subway network.

Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti said he would persuade the private sector to build a subway up to Jane and Finch. Oddly, no giant corporation has stepped forward to seize this golden opportunity.

Former Liberal fundraiser Rocco Rossi started the campaign saying he would sell Toronto Hydro and use the proceeds to fix Toronto's finances. Now he says he would use the proceeds for a $4.5-billion, 10-year transit expansion that would focus on the "continuous tunnelling" of subway lines, two kilometres a year. "Torontonians want subways, and as their mayor I will deliver," he proclaims, a wildly unrealistic promise.

Businesswoman Sarah Thomson would pay for subways by levying tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway, but she overestimates the take from tolls and underestimates the cost of subways. Remember that, along with costing a fortune to build, subways cost more than LRT to operate, and take longer to construct. If you think building the St. Clair LRT was a mess, consider the disruption from digging new subway lines along Toronto thoroughfares.

Even Rob Ford, that penny-pinching champion of small government, has embraced subways. How would we pay for them? Why, by harnessing private financing and selling the air rights over subway stations. If that formula worked, then the private sector would be paying for the Spadina subway extension. Instead, the taxpayer is on the hook.

Subways, let's be clear, are a wonderful way to get around, and if the city can find a realistic way to finance more of them, great. In the meantime, in the real world, Metrolinx is rolling out a plan to complete four of the proposed Toronto LRT lines within 10 years, despite the province's disappointing decision in its March budget to delay $4-billion in funding. Mayor David Miller, still feeling betrayed about that call, said on Monday he doesn't believe the province is serious about paying for even the scaled-back plan.

But as Mr. Prichard put it in a breakfast talk on Monday, Toronto can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It can't let subway dreams be the enemy of LRT tracks on the ground, either.

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