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The opening of Toronto's new subway extension is generating the sort of hype Egyptians might have heard when Pharaoh cut the ribbon at the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Toronto Transit Commission chief Andy Byford calls the six-stop Spadina extension "the jewel in the crown of North America." Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca says it is "perhaps the single greatest transit achievement of my lifetime." The mayor, the Premier and even the Prime Minister came to the ceremonial opening on Friday.

But if we're being honest with ourselves, this is not a great achievement at all. In fact, it only serves to underline just how far Toronto has fallen behind other world cities when it comes to building mass transit.

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The Spadina project is the first expansion of Toronto's subway system since 2002, when the 5.5-kilometre Sheppard line opened. Sheppard itself was the first new subway line – excluding extensions of the original two – since 1966.

Counting the new Spadina extension that opens fully on Sunday, but disregarding the rinky-dink above-ground Scarborough RT, the city has opened just 12 subway stations from 1981 to now. Take out the often half-deserted Sheppard "stubway," which terminates abruptly at a shopping mall, and Toronto's subway map looks much as it did when the first Trudeau was prime minister.

While subway building languished in Toronto, a victim of budget cuts, political wrangling and plain myopia, other world cities leapt ahead. Shanghai began operating its subway system only in the mid-1990s. Today it has around 600 kilometres of track and more than 350 stations. Toronto, which opened its first subway, under Yonge Street, in 1954, has 75 stations over 77 kilometres of track – an eighth of Shanghai's extent. Put another way, Shanghai built eight times as much subway in about a third the time.

Singapore, Beijing and Hong Kong left Toronto in the dust, too. Transit historian Ed Levy reports that while it took Toronto more than 60 years to get to 70 kilometres, it took Hong Kong's MTR 34 years to reach 175 kilometres.

It is not only big, dynamic Asian cities that have overtaken Toronto. Madrid and its environs has about the same population as the Toronto and Hamilton region, yet its Metro has 300 stations over nearly 300 kilometres, four times the network Toronto has. Vienna, with a much smaller population, has 109 U-Bahn stations over 83 kilometres of track and five lines.

So opening an overbudget, behind-schedule, 8.6-kilometre extension is really not much to boast about. Toronto has a sorry history of cancelling and delaying transit projects. The shovels were already in the ground when an incoming Conservative government killed a subway on Eglinton Avenue West in 1995 to help with a budget crisis. Politicians have been quarrelling for years about what to do about the aging Scarborough RT.

Toronto failed even to build the most obvious and urgently needed project: an east-west line across the booming downtown core. The idea goes back at least to the 1940s.

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What subways Toronto did manage to build during these lost years were guided more by politics than logic. The Sheppard line was Mel Lastman's baby. The new Spadina extension just happens to end in the home turf of a former provincial finance minister, Greg Sorbara.

All three levels of government deserve a share of the blame: the city for drawing up plan after plan, only to tear them up and start again; the province for failing to prepare and spend for the future, while forcing the existing system to run on the lowest public subsidy in North America; Ottawa for, until recently, standing on the sidelines.

No matter who is most responsible, Toronto has dropped the ball. In other ways, the city has been going from success to success. Its thriving downtown hums with life day and night. Its cultural industries are thriving. It is absorbing hundreds of thousands of immigrants from around the globe.

Its mass transit has simply not kept up. It is Toronto's greatest failure.

Belatedly, governments are waking up and getting in gear. The massive Eglinton Crosstown light-rail project will create a new transit corridor in midtown. A big expansion of GO's regional rail service will help speed the flow to the city core and back. The city is finally pushing ahead with a costly and controversial express subway to replace the Scarborough RT. Ottawa is coming in with new money.

A new golden age of transit could be dawning if governments can manage to stick to a plan and muster the massive funding required. As Premier Kathleen Wynne put it on Friday, they cannot afford to hit the pause button again. The Spadina opening, she said, is "a milestone, not a finish line."

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Instead of one station every three years, Toronto should be opening at least one or two stations a year on average to have any hope of catching up. Those stations need not always be in tunnelled subways – light rail and even bus-only transitways can carry lots of people at a lower cost – but whatever the form they take it's critical to keep up the pace and avoid the inertia of the recent decades.

The fact that Toronto makes such a fuss about opening a few overdue subway stations just shows how much work lies ahead.

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