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marcus gee

For years, local Toronto politicians have said the city needs better rapid transit. For years, they have called on higher levels of government to help out. For years, they have complained that transit projects are too often halted or delayed. So what do they do when the provincial government comes up with tens of millions to get a big project done in a hurry? Why, stand in the way, of course.

City hall is trying to block a plan to build a big GO Transit train overpass near Dupont Street and Lansdowne Avenue. The project is part of a push by the Liberal government at Queen's Park to beef up the GO network. That means running trains more often on the main lines radiating out from Union Station. The idea is to transform GO from a rush-hour to an all-day service, with trains running every 15 minutes in core areas – good news for commuters and for the city.

One part of the plan is to increase service on the Barrie line, which runs from Union to the growing community on the shore of Lake Simcoe. Activity would increase more than fivefold.

To make that possible, engineers must remove a bottleneck: the Davenport Diamond, a level crossing where the CP rail and the GO lines intersect. At present, GO trains have to stop to let freight trains go by, so the level crossing must come out to allow more GO trains to run.

The provincial transit agency, Metrolinx, looked at a few options and determined it would be best to build a 1.4-kilometre overpass raising the GO track above the CP line. Residents oppose that plan, arguing that the "Gardiner expressway for GO trains" would block views and cause noise pollution. They want Metrolinx to dig a tunnel under the CP tracks instead.

Nice idea, except that a four-kilometre tunnel would cost an estimated $620-million, a staggering half a billion dollars more than the $140-million overpass. Building the tunnel would take five or six years compared with one-and-a-half or two for the overpass. Although a tunnel would have less impact on the area around the diamond, massive tunnel entrances would have to be built in neighbourhoods on either side.

None of these details carried any weight with city council when it voted to express an opinion on the issue on Thursday. Councillors opted to side with neighbourhood residents and ask Metrolinx to consider a tunnel.

David Shiner said the overpass plan would have trains "flying over this community … back and forth, back and forth, back and forth." Ana Bailao said that, although "we are very supportive of transit," she did not want the district she represents to be transformed into "a community of train watchers." Gord Perks said "we defeat the entire purpose of transit if we allow it to destroy places."

It was a classic case of noisy local interests drowning out the broader public interest. Councillors listened to the well-organized local neighbourhood group, but who speaks for the commuters who would have to wait longer for a better transit network under the vastly more expensive tunnel option?

Rolling out express rail promises to improve mobility as the region struggles to control congestion. Upgrading the Barrie line, in good time and at an affordable cost, is an important early step in this massive project.

If politicians side with vocal community groups every time an overpass has to be built, a bridge raised or a rail corridor widened, it will gum up the works, adding to the time it takes and money it costs to get express rail done.

Councillors are elected to represent their local constituents, yes. They also have a responsibility to see the greater good. In the case of the Davenport Diamond, they failed.