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TTC chair hopeful federal money will help fund downtown subway relief line

TTC chair Karen Stintz speaks to the media at Toronto City Hall on March 21, 2013, the day the federal budget is released.

MICHELLE SIU/The Globe and Mail

The Toronto area needs to tap new federal money to fuel the expansion of its overcrowded transit systems, two prominent municipal politicians say, with TTC chair Karen Stintz singling out a new downtown subway relief line as the city's top priority.

Ottawa has earmarked more than $47-billion over 10 years for infrastructure spending beginning in 2014 as part of the budget released Thursday. The federal spending plan also includes a move to index the gas-tax fund to cities beginning next year, a measure that will put more dollars in municipal coffers.

Ms. Stintz, a north Toronto councillor and a possible rival of Mayor Rob Ford in the next election, called the funding announcement "good news for transit," and said it is now up to the city to make sure it is at the table and gets its fair share of the new money. She said an "ideal situation" would be for Ottawa to pick up one-third of the price of the proposed Downtown Relief Line, the first phase of which is expected to cost at least $2-billion.

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Ms. Stintz's enthusiasm for the federal funding was not shared by Hazel McCallion. Mississauga's long-serving mayor expressed disappointment at seeing so little funding for infrastructure, considering the backlog of projects in municipalities across the country.

"When you compare it with the need, it certainly has very little relationship," said Ms. McCallion. Like Ms. Stintz, she said transit funding is her city's most pressing need, with a light-rail line topping the list.

As Ms. Stintz faced reporters to discuss the city's transit needs, Toronto's mayor was notably absent. Mr. Ford issued a short written statement. "This is welcome news, as Toronto continues to make its own long-term investments in infrastructure that reduces gridlock, improves affordable housing and grows our economy," it read in part.

Ms. Stintz said having the mayor's support will help in any negotiations for federal funds, "no question." She added that the subway line – the first leg of which could run east between Union and Pape stations – has been singled out as a top transit priority by council, the TTC and the provincial transit agency. Securing a "significant portion" of its cost from Ottawa, she said, would make it possible to begin work within the decade.

"I'll let the mayor speak for himself," Ms. Stintz said when asked if he will back a request for funding for the subway line. "This is the kind of project that the mayor has supported, so I couldn't imagine that he would not want to support this kind of initiative," she added later.

Anne Marie Aikins, a spokeswoman for the regional transit agency Metrolinx, which is expected to build the downtown relief line, would not speculate Thursday about the possibility of funding it through the option Ms. Stintz is proposing. The agency is currently preparing an investment strategy that would pay for $34-billion worth of transit projects, including the DRL, and federal funding could be among the options, Ms. Aikins said.

The new federal money comes as the Toronto region is struggling with the controversial question of how it will finance its transit needs. Options on the table include new regional taxes, tolls, congestion charges and parking fees. A recommendation from the area transit agency Metrolinx, is expected by June. Ms. Stintz said the federal funding does not eliminate the need for new sources of funding.

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The NDP's transportation critic Olivia Chow, also a possible candidate for Toronto mayor in 2014, characterized the infrastructure program as a "cut" and promised more details at a news conference Friday.

Transit projects are just one of an array of big-ticket items the city is facing, most notable among them: repairing the crumbling Gardiner Expressway.

In other measures, Ottawa's move to index the gas-tax fund drew praise from municipal leaders because it will provide a stable source of funding.

"That's progress and we can thank them for that," Ms. McCallion said. "It needs to be indexed because the cost of transit goes up every year."

Hamilton Mayor Bob Bratina said that the stability of longer-term funding provided by the new infrastructure money is good news, but that municipalities will now be forced to think harder about priorities and ensure they have the money to react to opportunities. Based on past experience, he predicted Hamilton can expect to receive hundreds of millions in the coming years, crucial money for a city with "crumbling roadways" and a $195-million annual infrastructure deficit.

"I think it shows that the federal government recognizes that the engines of Canada's economy and Canada's productivity are the cities and towns where everyone lives and works," said Oakville Mayor Rob Burton.

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He said he hopes the pot of money set aside for infrastructure projects will inspire Queen's Park to do the same.

"One of the nicest features of this is it's kind of a challenge to all the provinces to step up and do their part."

With reports from Dakshana Bascaramurty and Oliver Moore

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