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Toronto’s transit deal not done until the wheels go round and round

Toronto transit planning, a new report from city officials states, is "an iterative process." They can say that again. Toronto's rapid-transit plans have gone through so many iterations, permutations, modifications and alterations that the most dedicated transit geeks have trouble keeping track.

The latest plan came before city council's executive committee on Wednesday and it's enough to make any commuter's mouth water. Like so many plans that have come before, it shows a web of coloured lines criss-crossing the city. Subway lines, light-rail lines, heavy-rail lines – if all goes well, future Toronto can have them all.

In theory, it's a great plan. Within 15 years, Toronto could get a waterfront light-rail transit line; LRT lines on Finch and Sheppard; the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, with a long extra spur on its east end; a relief subway running downtown from the eastern stretch of the Bloor-Danforth subway, relieving crowding at Yonge and Bloor; an express subway extension to Scarborough; a Yonge subway extension to Richmond Hill; and Mayor John Tory's famous "surface subway" line to boot.

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Hosanna, weary straphangers will cry. At long last, they will think, Toronto is making progress on transit. And they will be right. Construction on the Crosstown line is well under way. Work on the Finch line is coming soon. The long-delayed subway extension into Vaughan is getting closer to completion. Planning work on the relief line is coming along (planners have picked a preferred route, sensibly bringing it along a Queen Street corridor).

Even more encouraging, there is some actual money floating around for all this. The provincial government is spending billions on regional express rail and other projects. The new federal government is promising billions more.

But wise commuters will temper their enthusiasm. Transit plans have been altered or shelved so many times in the past decade or so that it's risky to count any project as a done deal until the wheels actually start rotating.

This is the town, remember, where they dug a tunnel for a subway (on Eglinton), then covered it up again. We were going to have an extension to the Sheppard subway, a dreamchild of former mayor Rob Ford. Then we weren't. The Finch and Sheppard LRTs were killed off, then reborn. We were supposed to get a new LRT to Scarborough; then it became a subway with three stops; now it's a subway with one.

Consider the Incredible Shrinking Transit Project known as SmartTrack. It came forth in a blare of trumpets during Mr. Tory's 2014 election campaign. Now, like snow on the suddenly mild streets of Toronto, it is simply melting away. Planners say a ruinously expensive western spur makes no sense. They want to cut the number of new stations – to seven or eight under one option, four to five under another. (Mr. Tory simply says there will be a "goodly number.")

What is emerging does not really look like a new transit service at all. It is more like a limited upgrade of the express-rail service already planned by provincial authorities along GO Transit lines. Even that, say the experts, is only worth doing if fares are kept low enough and service frequent enough to attract riders. Whether those things are possible is still up in the air. Staff are working on a "business case" for SmartTrack.

Even though just about everything his critics said about the project has been proven right, Mr. Tory insists that it is a positive thing for the city all the same. The worst he would admit to, in an encounter with reporters on Wednesday, was a possible excess of enthusiasm for his big campaign promise. But it is just this sort of slapdash, politically driven proposal that has plagued Toronto transit for years, teaching smart Torontonians to be wary of coloured lines on maps, however inviting.

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