As Ontario's governing Liberals started searching for a new leader, Progressive Conservative chief Tim Hudak arrived at City Hall with a campaign-style transit-funding agenda that could reopen the debate over building a Scarborough subway.
"Where funds are available, a PC government will build underground," Mr. Hudak said, making it clear that would include redirecting some of the $8.4-billion now earmarked for a network of light-rail lines, the former Transit City plan.
It's a pledge with the potential to ignite an issue most considered settled earlier this year when Mayor Rob Ford lost his case for subways during a dramatic council vote. But just as the city is about to sign a final agreement with the province on its light-rail plan, signs are growing that the debate is far from over.
Toronto is embarking on public consultations about new ways to finance transit, and with local politicians asking residents to consider paying new tolls or taxes, many expect subways to be at the centre of those discussions.
"A Scarborough subway has to be back on the table," said Scarborough councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, the TTC vice-chair and a long-time supporter of the light rail plan. Mr. De Baeremaeker dismissed Mr. Hudak's promise to redirect the $8.4-billion in transit funding to subways, but said any new funds should go to replacing the aging Scarborough rapid transit line with a subway rather than light rail as planned.
That option was part of the One City plan Mr. De Baeremaeker and TTC chair Karen Stintz put forward this summer. While council rejected that plan, Mr. De Baeremaeker wants to put his Scarborough subway option back on the table next summer when council considers the staff report on transit funding. The cost of moving from light rail to subways, he estimates, is about $500-million.
"I don't think it is over," he predicted. "There is the opportunity to open up that debate if you can bring money to the table."
Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, who also represents a Scarborough ward, said it would be hard to ask her residents to pay extra to fund transit, but not direct any of that money to subways in Scarborough. "It's not going to fly," she said. "I think that we have to have another look at it. I do."
Ms. Stintz said on Tuesday that the city is still in negotiations with the province's transit agency, Metrolinx, on the agreement for the light-rail lines. The final deal is expected to go to the mayor's executive committee on Nov. 5, then the Toronto Transit Commission and council later in the month.
The $8.4-billion light rail plan was approved by council earlier this year over the objections of Mr. Ford and was passed by the provincial Treasury Board this summer.
"As far as I am concerned, those deals have been done, those lines have been confirmed. That is the expressed will of city council," said Ms. Stintz, who met with Mr. Hudak on Monday, but did not attend his Tuesday news conference.
"We need to build transit in this city. We can't spend more time debating the decisions that have already been made," she said.
Provincial Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli also said he considers the transit issue closed. "The train has left the station," he said in a statement. "Toronto city council has voted overwhelmingly to support the Metrolinx plan and we already have shovels in the ground."
The Eglinton portion of that plan is under construction, but work on the Sheppard Avenue line will not begin until 2014. A replacement for the Scarborough Rapid Transit line is scheduled to start after the Pan American Games in 2015, Mr. De Baeremaeker said. Work on Finch Avenue is set for 2015.
Asked whether he would halt work on Sheppard and Finch Avenues, Mr. Hudak said that would depend on the timing of the next election. "I'm clear-eyed and practical about this," he said. "I'm going to leave the door open if there are dollars on the table and it is feasible to put money underground."
But Councillor Doug Ford said Mr. Hudak's promise means Scarborough residents can once again start thinking about subways. He also held out hope that the debate could be reopened at City Hall, saying some councillors who supported light rail are now "born-again subway believers."
"It's time to build subways, not antiquated streetcars," Mr. Ford said. "It's time for the people of Scarborough to be heard."
When asked about funding options, Mr. Hudak said on Tuesday he does not favour imposing tolls on existing highways.