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Liberals say transit funds will be first-come, first-serve

Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, right, and Glen Murray, Minister of Infrastructure, wait to board the subway while en route to Wynne's speech at the Toronto Region Board of Trade in Toronto Monday, April 14, 2014.

Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Ontario government is looking to push transit money out the door quickly, saying that "shovel-ready" projects will get first crack at the billions announced this week.

Transportation Minister Glen Murray went into more detail about the $15-billion spending plan, which will require opposition support in the budget next month. He pledged that local needs would be taken into account and that "the experts" would determine the sequence of projects.

"It's really also looking at what can we get built fastest," Mr. Murray said Wednesday at an update for the Eglinton Crosstown light rail line, a separate project that is fully funded and already under construction.

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"We've got a number of those projects that will be multibillion-dollar projects. They will be prioritized: which ones have the greatest impact, which ones will move the most people, which ones reduce the congestion, which ones can we get out the door the fastest. You will see projects identified …as likely two years, as things that we can do in two years, things that we can do in five years and things that we can do in 10 years."

On Monday, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced $15-billion in transit infrastructure over 10 years in Toronto and the suburban areas around it. The plan will be partially funded by re-directing gas tax revenues, but how to pay for the remainder is just one of the vague parts of the plan.

Earlier this week, Ms. Wynne and Mr. Murray deflected repeated questions by saying they would be answered in the budget, including how to fill the funding gap to pay for the ambitious plan.

On Wednesday, the Transportation Minister provided a little more explanation on the process they will use to enact the plan. He said the initial key will be to find transit agencies and municipalities that can move quickly to push ahead their desired projects.

"Those people that are ready to go are obviously going to have an advantage," he said. "So if Hamilton's ready to go and Mississauga's ready to go, and they're shovel-ready, then a lot of those projects will move much faster than others."

The plan would involve putting transit money into a dedicated fund, a new tactic designed to keep the money secure for its stated purpose, but that depends on the government staying alive. The Progressive Conservatives show no willingness to support the government, and the New Democrats have said they can't support a plan funded by a tax increase on middle-income earners. The budget is scheduled to be tabled on May 1.

Even if the government survives, the public will have to be convinced that the transit planning process will not be hijacked again by local interests and political pandering.

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The city and region have seen decades of jousting over transit building with very little to show for it. As recently as last year, a funded and planned light-rail line in eastern Toronto was dropped in favour of a much more expensive subway extension after area politicians galvanized local opposition. The new plan is now under attack and transit in the area promises to be a key issue in the municipal election this fall.

Mr. Murray did not talk about politicization, but did say the government would support using the region's growth plan to put future transit where it is needed.

"We make sure we're building it where people want to go," he said, "not building it hoping they will come, if I can put it that way."

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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