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Mayoral candidates sketch out fantasy schemes for Toronto's transit dilemmas

Given the seriousness of Toronto's transportation mess, you might expect some serious proposals from the candidates for mayor. Vain hope.

Consider Rob Ford's plan. Released this week in a YouTube video by the front-running Etobicoke councillor, it would scrap the Transit City network of light-rapid transit lines scheduled to roll out over the coming years. In its place, he would build new subways, extending the Sheppard subway from Downsview station in the west to Scarborough Town Centre in the east and replacing the aging Scarborough rapid-transit line with a full-fledged subway.

That will appeal to those who think subways, not LRT, are the way to go, but subways are far more expensive. How would this self-proclaimed paragon of fiscal prudence pay for his scheme? Simple, says Mr. Ford. He would get most of the $4-billion cost by taking $3.7-billion already dedicated to Transit City.

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The trouble is that, having spent years negotiating, approving and funding Transit City, Queen's Park is hardly likely just to hand Mr. Ford a cheque. Even if it did, $790-million of the $3.7-billion Mr. Ford has his hungry eyes on is already being used to expand the Viva transit system in York region, not build Transit City.

Mr. Ford says he would raise a further $1-billion for subways and road upgrades by selling developers the right to build around subway stations, but the figure seems wildly optimistic. It often takes years for development around subway lines to arrive. Many stations on the Bloor-Danforth line are still surrounded by old low-rise buildings decades after the line was built.

The really eye-popping part of his scheme is the plan to replace downtown streetcar lines with buses. This, he says, would save drivers from the trauma of getting stuck behind trundling streetcars. But hang on a bit. Streetcars carry more passengers than buses - many more, once the big new cars ordered by the TTC arrive - so to carry the same number of passengers you would need a lot more buses. Imagine all those buses trying to pull in and out of traffic on a crowded artery such as Queen Street, spewing exhaust all the way.

The TTC has spent tens of millions of dollars rebuilding and upgrading downtown streetcar tracks in recent years. If Mr. Ford got his way, that time and money would go to waste. So would the $1.22-billion the TTC has spent to order 204 new cars for 11 city streetcar lines. (Disregard Mr. Ford's claim that he would simply sell the cars, specially designed for Toronto, to some other city. It isn't that easy.)

Though Mr. Ford's plan is typically the worst thought-out of the bunch, many of the other candidates' plans are faulty, too. George Smitherman's ambitious plan for new LRT and subway lines looks great until you ask him how he is going to pay for it. Simply put, he would borrow the money - about $5-billion in all. How can someone who promises to make "fiscal credibility job one" at city hall propose saddling an already-indebted city with such a burden?

Rocco Rossi's $4.5-billion plan to build two kilometres of new subway lines a year for the next decade is affordable only if he goes through with his plan to sell Toronto Hydro, and even then it's not clear the proceeds would cover such a massive expenditure. Similarly, Sarah Thomson's plan to pay for 58 kilometres of new subway lines partly by levying tolls on city highways underestimates both the take from tolls and the cost of the lines.

With the exception of Joe Pantalone, who simply proposes to press on with Transit City, all of the candidates seem to have sketched their fantasy transit schemes on the back of a napkin. Anyone can draw lines - this subway here, this LRT there. The question - the only question - is how to pay for it all. As transit advocate Steve Munro points out, none of the candidates has even tackled how to find the extra $70-million it will take to keep the current TTC system operating in 2011.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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