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Metrolinx on the sidelines of city hall's transit civil war

Mayor Rob Ford confers with his budget chief Mike del Grande during a committee hearing on Jan 24.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The mayor has one idea about transit, the chair of the Toronto Transit Commission another. City councillors are feuding among themselves. The TTC commissioners are split on the question. A bewildered public wonders who on earth is running this show.

If only we had an impartial, professional agency to settle disputes like these. An agency with a mandate to oversee transit planning in the Toronto region. An agency that could stand above the political fray, look decades into the future and decide what kind of transit we need.

Oh, wait, we already have one. Metrolinx was set up in 2006 "to provide leadership in the co-ordination, planning, financing and development of an integrated, multi-modal transportation network." But where is Metrolinx now, when its leadership is most needed?

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As civil war broke out at City Hall on Monday over two very different visions of the city's transit future, the provincial government agency remained weirdly passive. Chief executive officer Bruce McCuaig won't say which vision he supports: Mayor Rob Ford's for a mostly underground crosstown line along Eglinton, or TTC chair Karen Stintz's plan to get a bigger bang for the transit buck by using more above-ground light rail.

Instead, Mr. McCuaig summoned journalists to the Metrolinx headquarters on Bay Street to deliver a presentation, featuring 19 slides, to "provide information" and "restate principles." On the one hand, it said, burying most of the Eglinton line would move more people, more quickly. On the other, putting most of the line in a tunnel would raise the cost from about $6.5-billion to about $8.2-billion, meaning that "limited provincial funding is available to other projects."

Good to know – in fact, already known. This has been the nub of the argument for the past year. You might think that, instead of blandly restating the pros and cons, the agency in charge of regional transit might express an opinion on which project suits Toronto's needs best. The Eglinton line, after all, is to be owned by Metrolinx and paid for entirely with provincial funds. If it's their project, not the city's, then surely they should take a stand on what shape it takes.

No such luck. "I'm not advocating for one direction or the other," says Mr. McCuaig.

In Slide 13, titled Going Forward, Metrolinx states that it is simply "seeking a single position" from city hall. "We remain committed to delivering transit" – good to know again – "but clarity is required." In other words: You decide. Then we might make up our mind.

That kind of bureaucratic waffling is sadly typical for Metrolinx, the transit heavyweight that looks more and more like an empty suit. When Mr. Ford first declared he was ripping up the Transit City light-rail plan, Metrolinx and its parent, the provincial government, could simply have told him to buzz off. At the very least, it should have asked him to seek approval from city council, the city's sovereign democratic body, before throwing out years of planning and millions of dollars worth of work.

Instead it held closed-door talks with the mayor's people and agreed to a whole new plan. Bowing to the Mr. Ford's blind prejudice against putting rails on city streets, no matter how wide, it said it would put the whole $8-billion of provincial funds into one buried line: Eglinton.

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For the past year, Metrolinx has been proceeding as if that were a done deal, ignoring rising opposition on city council and disregarding a clause in the memorandum of understanding between the city and the province that made it clear council had to approve the deal. Now things have gone off the rails, as Ms. Stintz has been warning Metrolinx and the mayor's office for months that they would.

A stubborn mayor got us in this mess, but a spineless transit agency didn't help.

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