Toronto got an early taste of its next great transit debate when councillors discussing John Tory's SmartTrack proposal wanted changes and the city's top bureaucrat raised a doubt about the timeline.
Mayor Tory's hand-picked executive committee voted unanimously on Thursday to approve $1.65-million in additional funds to study the mayor's signature transit proposal. But, perhaps foreshadowing the full council debate next month on the funding, three other councillors showed up to question aspects of the plan, offering suggestions that included adding a station and lopping off a large portion of the plan.
"We're obviously going to have a vigorous debate at council," dissenting councillor Gord Perks said dryly.
Also raising questions were councillors Janet Davis and Frances Nunziata, who was the mayor's choice for council speaker.
Mr. Tory promised in the election campaign to piggy-back new transit on a provincial expansion of GO rail, adding stations and building a new spur along Eglinton Avenue West. It was the Eglinton section, some of which must be tunnelled, that raised the most questions.
The mayor has pledged to finish his plan within seven years. City manager Joe Pennachetti said on Thursday that "right now, seven years seems feasible."
"Eglinton West is the more complicated piece, and it could impact [timelines]," he elaborated to reporters.
"But at the end of the day, we're not sure. We're advancing as quickly as we can … and the fall will be a better indication of timelines."
In a motion introduced on her behalf by a member of the executive, Ms. Nunziata questioned the wisdom of the train turning west at Eglinton and asked that staff study the possibility of continuing north instead. She also called for study of one more station in the west end.
Mr. Tory voted in favour of the motion, saying that it was good to get ideas into the discourse early.
"I think, frankly, we'll avoid a situation arising later where people, three-quarters of the way through the process, say 'now I've decided it's time to add stations or change routes or do this or do that,'" he said.
"We are going about this in a way that I think makes sense … it's professional and it's careful and it allows for people to put some ideas on the table that will be professionally considered based on facts and evidence."
The other two dissenters noted that substantial work has already been done on an unfunded Eglinton LRT extension that would cover the same ground as Mr. Tory's plan.
"I'd have to be really convinced that we would want to take another alternative, solely at our expense," Ms. Davis told reporters.
Mr. Perks went further, drawing a parallel with former mayor Rob Ford killing the Transit City plan as soon as he took office. "Four years ago, we have approved projects … and the mayor of the day said, 'No, I have a better idea,' and today nothing is built," Mr. Perks said. "We're about to make the same mistake on Eglinton."
A key difference is that the money was in place for Transit City. But Mr. Perks said SmartTrack is advanced enough that money could be found.
"If we turn our minds to actually paying for what is approved, we could in a few short years have transit all the way to the Mississauga corporate centre and the airport," he said.
Mr. Tory stressed that he is sticking with his original plan.
"The western portion, as proposed by me in the campaign and on which I was given a mandate to proceed by the voters, is going to be studied now in detail," he said. "I'm confident they're going to see the merits of connecting people to jobs in this manner. But the reports will say what they say and we'll see in the fall."
With a report from Elizabeth Church
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story reported Ms. Nunziata as saying she wanted studies on four more stations. She later clarified that she had meant to say she was asking about only one more station. This online version has been updated to reflect that.