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Subway expansion gets a strong 'yes' vote

Commuters return to their regular routines Monday morning on the Toronto subway. Most workers in the city were expected back at work for the first time since the blackout last Thursday and the transit system was ready to take them there.

Darryl James/ The Globe and Mail/Darryl James/ The Globe and Mail

While Toronto voters split right down the middle when it came to supporting either mayor-elect Rob Ford or his two leading rivals, there seems to be far less ambiguity about one piece of the overall outcome: More than 83 per cent of voters supported a candidate who favours subway expansion.

That result is a sharp reversal of the 2006 election, when Mayor David Miller ran on his plan to build a dedicated streetcar network (Transit City) and handily defeated Jane Pitfield, who was promising a massive subway construction program.

Some transit experts welcome the shift in public opinion. "The encouraging thing is that subways are back on the table" in the broader debate about Toronto's transportation network, observes University of Toronto Cities Centre director Eric Miller, adding that the recent focus on light rail systems has led to a lack of analysis about other transit modes. "We haven't had a systemic look at how these things fit together."

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But Roger Keil, director of York University's Cities Institute, says Mr. Miller deserves credit for pushing Torontonians to recognize the role transit plays in connecting neighbourhoods as well as moving people around efficiently. "That's what good metropolitan regions do: They make these two things happen at once."

How the subway debate plays out from here, however, is hardly clear.

Dr. Keil points out that provincial politics will ultimately determine whether Torontonians get the multibillion dollar subways they seem to crave.

Liberal Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne says she's heard "loudly and clearly" that the city wants better rapid transit, but notes that Queen's Park has already invested heavily in a regional transportation plan, which has been approved by the Metrolinx board, the Greater Toronto municipalities and the provincial cabinet. "I believe we should move ahead with the plan as it exists."

Over the next 15 years, the so-called Big Move only envisions one subway project apart from the Spadina line to Vaughan (now under construction), and that is an extension of the Yonge line up to Richmond Hill. No funding has been allocated.

Neither Rob Ford nor George Smitherman included the Yonge extension in their respective platforms, proposing instead subway projects in North York, Etobicoke and Scarborough.

Metrolinx chief executive Bruce McCuaig says the agency hopes to sit down with the new mayor and his staff "as soon as they're ready." But he warns that a mayoral mandate may not be sufficient to persuade Metrolinx to revise its plans. "It has to be a council position in the end, as opposed to the position of one individual on council."

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