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Commuters ride a TTC subway on Sept. 25, 2013.

KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Although almost lost amid the clamour over their proposed gas tax, the expert panel behind new recommendations for funding transit has also given a shot in the arm to plans for prioritizing a relief subway line in downtown Toronto.

The line is considered controversial in some suburban parts of the city but has received strong backing from the TTC and the regional transit agency Metrolinx. And now, the group led by former Conference Board of Canada CEO Anne Golden has identified it as the top subway priority.

Their report Thursday labelled the downtown line among the three most important projects of the 11 being proposed by Metrolinx. Their ranking puts it ahead of a planned northward extension of the Yonge street subway, reversing the hierarchy established by Metrolinx.

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"Right now, on the Yonge street subway, I know people who go north in order for them to go south," Ms. Golden said Friday after a speech about the panel's work to the Toronto Region Board of Trade, explaining how congestion is forcing some passengers to go out of their way.

"It's very congested. So if you were to extend Yonge street right up to, into Vaughan … you're just going to add to the congestion."

Under Metrolinx's plan, the Yonge subway extension would take six to nine years to complete, while the relief line downtown would take 11 years.

But the report issued by Ms. Golden's panel makes clear that the relief line downtown, two-way service all day on GO and a light-rail transit line in Mississauga are the top priorities. These deliver the highest ridership, relieve the most congestion, connect to employment and "establish the needed backbone of a region-wide rapid transit network," the report says.

Only after the relief line downtown is built can the Yonge subway north be extended, the report says, first to Steeles and then eventually the whole way to Richmond Hill Centre.

A Metrolinx spokeswoman said in an email that they are currently looking at ways to take the load off the Yonge line. "This study will examine both short term and long term solutions to relieving the Yonge subway as well as when additional ridership can be added through a northern extension," Anne Marie Aikins wrote.

Ms. Golden's panel was charged with finding ways to fund transit but chose also to offer suggestions on de-politicizing transit planning and ranking the proposed projects.

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"We probably went further than the mandate by suggesting that these were the priority considerations … by accelerating the first three-quarters of it so that people could see the benefits and thereby embrace the need to raise the full cost that's required," Ms. Golden said.

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