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Toronto Tory says budget is win for SmartTrack, transportation minister has different take

Toronto Mayor John Tory in Toronto, Thursday March 12, 2015.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Toronto Mayor John Tory claimed victory after the province formalized its promise to electrify GO lines, but Ontario's Transportation Minister said it was planning to do that "regardless" and the budget mentioned the mayor's transit plan as a gesture toward co-operation.

Steven Del Duca spoke to The Globe and Mail on Thursday after the tabling of a budget that included Ontario's long-standing commitment to electrification and more frequent service on much of the GO rail network. This is work Mr. Tory needs done to realize his own plan for surface rail on existing GO lines, and he seized on it as evidence of provincial support.

"I'm very much viewing this as very significant progress," the mayor said, brandishing the budget papers. "There are other pages in this budget where SmartTrack is specifically referenced. So if it's not happening, why is it in their budget?"

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Mr. Del Duca had a different take. He said that the proposed line was mentioned because it was important to acknowledge the benefits of working with partners. And because the provincial plans for GO, while they predate Mr. Tory's mayoralty, make possible his idea.

"We're doing [expanded GO service] regardless," he said. "The mayor knows that. It's now … contained in the budget document, everyone can see it."

He also said that money Ontario was planning to spend on electrifying GO rail will be "a significant component" of the province's contribution to Mr. Tory's transit plan. The contribution would also include a portion of the system upgrades, signalling improvements and fleet expansion, he added. A dollar figure has not been set.

It has long been assumed that the $8-billion estimated cost for SmartTrack will be split evenly between the municipal, federal and provincial governments. And because Mr. Tory's proposal overlaps so much with existing provincial plans, the nature of Queen's Park's contribution will be closely watched.

If the province touts a contribution to Mr. Tory's plan consisting mostly of money it would have spent anyway on its own GO expansion plans, detractors will accuse Queen's Park of counting those dollars twice, trying to claim it has done its share for SmartTrack without putting up anything new.

Conversely, since Mr. Tory's $8-billion pricetag includes spending on electrification the province was already going to do, critics could argue that the part of his proposal that is new is actually several billion dollars cheaper. Therefore, the province should contribute a third of that lower price, regardless of what it is doing separately with GO rail.

Mr. Tory said Thursday that the details on the province's exact contribution are still being worked out, but touted the spending on electrification.

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"I'm confident that what this represents is a multibillion-dollar contribution from this government," he said. "Exactly how much that all costs and whether it constitutes the full one-third share that we would be obviously expecting to achieve from the provincial government, I can't speak to that at the moment. But we'll talk about it as time goes on."

Several councillors at city hall were quick to question his assurances that the budget was great news.

"I am also confused by Mayor Tory's claims that the other levels of government are backing his transit plan," councillor and former mayor Rob Ford said in a statement.

"Mayor Tory is speaking as if the province's plan to electrify the rails is being implemented for his transit plan. This study was done in 2010, and was part of the proposed budget in early 2014."

And Councillor Gord Perks said Thursday's budget doesn't amount to anything for Mr. Tory's transit plans.

"SmartTrack got no money," he said. "There's no money at all for the Eglinton-West line, which is a major piece of it, and there's no money for building the additional stations. All the province announced today was something that is very good for York Region, and what the province intended to do all along. There's nothing new here for the city of Toronto."

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