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John Tory, Toronto mayoral candidate will announce his One Toronto Transit Plan during a speech at a Canadian Club luncheon on May 27 2014.

Fred Lum

John Tory is promising 53 kilometres of high-frequency surface express rail to relieve Toronto congestion, saying this can be done at no cost to residents.

In a speech on Tuesday, the mayoral candidate called traffic congestion "a looming shadow" and pitched a "SmartTrack Line" that would connect northwestern Etobicoke, Union Station and northeastern Scarborough, mostly through existing GO Transit corridors, within seven years.

The proposal for high-frequency trains arriving at least every 15 minutes would push into the future light-rail plans on Finch and Sheppard avenues and a tunnelled downtown relief line, leading some to say Mr. Tory would try to do a half-baked relief line cheaply.

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Mr. Tory's transit plan piggybacks on the provincial Liberals' recently announced goal of electrifying GO routes, which would cover most of his proposed line, with an extra spur running west from Mount Dennis to employment lands near the airport. The party that wins next month's provincial election would have to go ahead with this plan for Mr. Tory's idea to work. And he would have to persuade the province to prioritize transit in the city from among a long list of competing projects.

"This is going to provide significant relief to the Yonge Street commuters, and the University subway commuters," Mr. Tory told a media briefing on Tuesday before a lunchtime appearance at the Canadian Club.

The proposal had rival candidate Olivia Chow labelling Mr. Tory a flip-flopper, noting he had for months promised a Yonge Street relief line subway. And placing a provincial plan at the heart of his transit proposal prompted Karen Stintz, another rival, to note that GO Transit is "not within the city's jurisdiction."

Bruce McCuaig, CEO of the provincial transit agency Metrolinx, which oversees GO, would not comment on a campaign proposal, but said the plan fits with a broader GO evolution from commuter rail service to a regional transit system.

Former Toronto chief planner and Metrolinx board member Paul Bedford said Mr. Tory's plan raises questions, and that he would add more stations, but it was a good addition to the transit-planning debate. "It has a lot of potential," he said. "It's a very valid concept that has a lot going for it."

Mr. Tory said the city's one-third share of the $8-billion cost would be covered through the increased tax revenues from transit-related development along the route. That raised red flags among transit-watchers, who point to Mayor Rob Ford's failure to find a way to finance transit without increased property taxes.

Blogger Steve Munro, a local transit authority, said he was unclear about the line's potential to generate development.

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"To some extent, maybe the [Unilever Canada] site [near the base of the Don Valley Parkway], presuming that it gets a station, but the core around the railway station and Liberty Village is already well built up," he said. "Where is all this development going to occur? And … is he paying for this line by anticipating an even greater level of development downtown than we're now seeing and are to some extent concerned about, from the point of view of density?"

The most of Mr. Tory's proposed route is part of a Liberal plan launched just before the provincial election campaign, with a new spur west from Mount Dennis to near the airport, running in a trench in a right-of-way beside Eglinton. The $8-billion would cover the cost of the entire line, the Tory campaign says.

Although the Provincial Conservatives under Tim Hudak oppose Liberal plans to electrify GO, which is required for high-frequency service, Mr. Tory said the next government, of whatever stripe, will see that his plan makes "too much sense not to get on with."

Mr. Tory criticized conventional plans for a tunnelled downtown relief line, which is usually envisioned as a U-shaped local subway line into the core that intersects the Bloor-Danforth line to the east and west of Yonge. That plan has serious problems, he said, arguing it would take too long, disrupt neighbourhoods and "do nothing" to extend transit into the suburbs and ease congestion by getting people out of their vehicles.

His version was lauded by a group that has long advocated surface rail. In a statement, Transport Action Ontario said it is "pleased to see the [regional express rail] concept picked up by one of the top-tier candidates for mayor."

But Ed Levy, author of Rapid Transit in Toronto: A Century of plans, progress, politics and paralysis, said he worries the plan will appear to diminish the urgent need for a relief line. He noted that Mr. Tory's proposal would put downtown stations too far apart to be of much value given extensive growth in the core. And he said it could overload Union Station.

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"I don't think this is the practical panacea that Mr. Tory is thinking it is," Mr. Levy said. "It sounds like he's trying to find a cheaper way of doing the relief line, and there are always drawbacks. It's not quite in the right position and there are problems with how much relief a line like that is going to provide."

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