With Liberal promises rapidly eating up the amount of money they've earmarked for transit, Finance Minister Charles Sousa hinted that Thursday's budget could include new funds and revenue tools.
The provincial government said Tuesday that Queen's Park will pick up the $1.6-billion tab for a light-rail line in Mississauga and Brampton. This means that, within the past few days, the government has announced projects whose pricetags total more than 90 per cent of the $16-billion promised for the next 10 years of transit.
The wave of spending seems to have pushed a relief subway line in downtown Toronto farther into the future and has created uncertainty about a number of projects identified by the regional transit agency Metrolinx.
"On Thursday, we'll be able to detail it more clearly," Mr. Sousa said, when asked how the roughly $1-billion left unallocated from the transit fund could possibly pay for the remaining projects.
"There are ways to source funding, and we've given you a taste of that already with respect to what we're doing with repurposing of assets and unlocking some of those assets, so that we can reinvest them into other things."
Mr. Sousa argued that the Toronto area has to compete with cities that have extensive transit systems. He was coy when a reporter, noting that many of those cities have revenue tools to fund transit, asked "are we going to have that debate again?"
"Stay tuned on Thursday," the Finance Minister said. "We, of course, we need to afford the things we're doing. And we have to increase our funding."
Premier Kathleen Wynne once argued that revenue tools – some combination of new taxes or fees – would be needed to pay for transit. The idea proved politically unpopular and was replaced with plans to raise more money from provincial assets or sell parts of them, including a stake in Hydro One.
The government has said that it will spend about $16-billion over the next decade on transit in the Toronto and Hamilton areas. The LRT is the second announcement in quick succession that details how that money will be spent.
On Friday, the province said it would pour $13.5-billion into a major increase in GO rail service. They are trying to turn it from a largely commuter service into one offering frequent trips all day in both directions.
Tuesday's LRT announcement is for a 23-kilometre surface line from the Port Credit to Brampton GO stations. Although hurdles remain – the route through historic downtown Brampton remains contentious and will require council approval – construction is slated to start in 2018. The LRT is expected to enter service in 2022 and projected to carry 34.5 million people annually by 2031.
The project was billed by Brampton Mayor Linda Jeffrey as one that will "transform Peel region."
Both the GO expansion and this new LRT seem likely to be used mostly by suburban riders. But Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca rejected any suggestion Toronto was getting shortchanged on transit funding, pointing to a series of projects that are under way or are being planned in the city.
"Since 2003, Ontario's Liberal government has literally invested billions of dollars, much of which has flowed to Toronto," he said. "This is about making sure that under Premier Wynne's leadership, we make the investments that make the most sense, to deliver the greatest return, to ease the commute for the people of this region and to continue to unlock our economic potential."
Progressive Conservative transportation critic Michael Harris said that other cities that paid a share of their new transit will question the favourable treatment for Mississauga and Brampton. And he wondered how the Grits will be able to build all the projects that have been proposed by Metrolinx.
"The downtown relief line, where's that at?" he asked. "It sounds like, [after] this announcement, there's less than a billion dollars left."
According to Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig, the downtown relief line remains part of the agency's so-called "next wave" of projects. But he noted that it is in its very early stages.
"There's still a lot of planning work to be done on the relief line before we can get to the point of making a formal and detailed commitment to the delivery of that project," he said.