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Toronto Toronto mayoral candidates' transit plans stand on shaky ground

This municipal election campaign has unveiled a hunger for action on the linked issues of mass transit and gridlock. A Nanos Research poll taken late last month for The Globe and Mail and CTV News showed voters consider it by far and away the most important issue facing the city.

And no wonder. A new report by the Pembina Institute says Toronto has fallen behind smaller cities Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa at building rapid transit, opening less than a kilometre's worth a year over the past 20 years. That is a dismal record for a growing city that is welcoming throngs of newcomers.

Impatient voters want to hear what candidates for mayor would do about it and, sensing the urgency, the three front-runners have rolled out their plans with a flourish of announcements, advertisements and glossy maps.

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Start with Rob Ford. He called a news conference last week to announce a grandiose plan to build 32 kilometres of new underground transit for a total of $9-billion – all at no cost to the property taxpayer.

He would send subway lines fanning out to Humber College in the west and McCowan Road in the east. He would start building the long-awaited Downtown Relief Line. He would bury the end of the Eglinton Crosstown light-rail project. Once you get tunnel-boring machines in the ground, he said, you just "bore, bore, bore till the cows come home."

Wonderful. But, on the key question of how to pay for it all, he was typically vague, mentioning a slew of funding mechanisms, from selling air rights over subway stations to using development charges, but supplying no numbers. Remember that this is the same Rob Ford who said he could build a Sheppard subway in similar pain-free fashion but ended up supporting a Scarborough subway extension paid for partly by, you guessed it, property-tax increases.

John's Tory's SmartTrack plan is almost as shaky. It would use existing commuter-rail track to create a 53-kilometre, 22-stop "surface subway" sweeping across the city. But his timeline for opening it, seven years, is wildly ambitious for such a big project. His source of funds for the city's one-third share of the $8-billion cost, something called tax-increment financing, is untried on such a scale in Canada. How he would wring the rest of the money from Ottawa and Queen's Park is unclear.

His rival Olivia Chow points out that on the stretch of the line along Eglinton West that would not run along existing rail track, housing developments are rising where the smart tracks are supposed to go in. Would he build tunnels under the housing for his "surface subway?"

Mr. Tory told CP24's Stephen LeDrew on Tuesday that "you might have to tunnel a bit." But only last week, at a mayoral debate, he said: "This can be done in seven years because it's on existing GO train track – no tunnelling, no buying of property." Tunnelling would add enormously to the cost and could make mincemeat of his seven-year deadline.

He insists that his plan will "solve" the city's congestion problem. "As your next mayor, I will solve that problem quickly with SmartTrack," he proclaims in his ads. Could he try for world peace while he's at it? If he gets elected on this plan, he could be setting Toronto up for yet another crashing disappointment over transit.

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Olivia Chow's transit plans are the most practical of the three. She would improve service on the city's heavily used bus lines and press for action on the Downtown Relief Line. Refreshingly, she says that unlike her two main rivals, she would leave the detailed transit planning to the experts.

But her plan to scrap the Scarborough subway project and return to light-rail would upend a project backed by all three levels of government, setting up yet another transit wrangle on the one part of the whole endless mess that seemed to be settled. And, she, too, is sometimes evasive about where the money would come from, admitting only under repeated questioning from reporters last week that the city's share of the relief line project might have to come through higher property taxes.

Voters are hungry for action, yes. But before they vote, they should take a cold look at the dubious offerings in this campaign.

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