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Toronto mayor John Tory is pictured during a Toronto Region Board of Trade luncheon on Nov. 24, 2016.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The "relief line" is a fitting name for Toronto's most famous unbuilt subway project.

The line would run south from the Danforth and then west into downtown. Eventually, it would continue west and head back up to the join the Bloor line, forming a rough U. The idea is to take pressure off the Yonge line, the city's busiest. Rush-hour commuters could use the relief line to bypass the bustling Bloor-and-Yonge hub on their way downtown and back.

What a relief that would be.

Commuters already complain about not being able to board full-up trains that rumble into Yonge-line stations at peak times. Even if they get on, they often end up packed together, Tokyo-style. Transit experts say it is vital to build the relief line by 2031, when the Yonge line is expected to reach its capacity.

In a sane and sensible city, authorities at all levels would be pulling together to get it done on time. Ah, but this is Toronto, a town that makes its transit plans on the back of a napkin, then crumples the napkin, throws it on the floor and draws another. Over the past decade, so many transit plans have come and gone that even city hall veterans struggle to remember all the variations.

The latest round of jockeying over the relief line shows once again just how haphazard and fiercely political Toronto transit planning can be. Frustrated that he has been unable to secure the money to build the relief line, Mayor John Tory threatened to stop planning for another project – a northward extension of the Yonge line into York Region – until he got a funding promise from Queen's Park. It was the symbolic equivalent of laying his body across the railway tracks. No Yonge extension for you without a relief line for us. The extension would only add to the crowding on the Yonge line, he said, and "without relief, I can't allow that to happen."

That caused a predictable reaction from the government of Premier Kathleen Wynne. Steven Del Duca, the Transportation Minister, accused Mr. Tory of "playing politics" and pointed out the province is spending bundles of money on transit needs, including planning for the relief line.

Then, suddenly, peace seemed to break out. Mr. Tory appeared with three leading politicians from north of Toronto to say that he was dropping his threat to block the Yonge extension. They, in turn, were supporting the relief line. They would stand together, a band of brothers, to lobby for both projects. Birds sang and rainbows appeared.

At Toronto City Council this week, Mr. Tory explained that it was better to have the northerners as friends than as enemies. The relief line was unlikely to get funding unless the line to the vote-rich north did, too. That was just "the political reality."

Skeptical councillors worried that coupling the projects would undermine the relief line. They pressed city officials to confirm that this was the No. 1 future project for the city. The officials confirmed it. The mayor said the relief line was indeed tops and he wants it funded "pronto." But he also said that the line must proceed in parallel with several other projects, a process he called continuous transit construction. Joe Mihevc, a downtown councillor, chimed in that the relief line was just part of a "matrix of priorities" and that "to overprioritize might actually be a little bit unhelpful."

As Mr. Tory might say, heavens above. It should be clear by now that Toronto desperately needs the relief line. It makes no sense whatever to embark on an extension of the Yonge line until the centre of the city, where transit is most heavily used, gets some relief. This subway should have been built years, even decades, ago – before the extension to Vaughan now nearing completion, before the Scarborough subway now being planned.

Mostly because of the twisted Toronto politics that pits suburbs against downtown, it fell down the priority list. Mr. Tory himself helped put it there, by pushing his SmartTrack "surface subway" plan during the 2014 election campaign and even deriding rival Olivia Chow for pushing the relief line instead – words that were thrown back in his face at council on Wednesday.

It would be nice to think that, if only Mr. Tory complained loudly enough, he would find the money to build every one of the projects on his wish list. In the world as it is, governments need to set priorities. The relief line should stay at the very top of everyone's list until shovels are in the ground.

For Toronto and the surrounding 905, a region known for sprawl and environmental apathy, the provincial Places to Grow Act was passed with the hope of trading unsustainable growth for urban density and Greenbelt protection. Over a decade later, how have municipalities in Ontario's Greater Golden Horseshoe area fared in living up to those sky-high expectations?

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