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Minister of Infrastructure Sohi eases congestion on Toronto transit debate

Amarjeet Sohi’s awareness of transit as a social as well as transportation vehicle is particularly important in Toronto, a city where average transit commutes are much longer than average car commutes.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

For Amarjeet Sohi, the one-time bus driver who is now federal Minister of Infrastructure, transit is more than a way to get around – it's a vehicle for integration and social mobility.

The Alberta MP, tasked with overseeing the $125-billion infrastructure pledge that helped propel the Liberals to victory, remembers using transit as a newly arrived immigrant to go to the library, borrowing books to work on his English. And for all that transit agencies talk about convincing "choice riders" to come on board, he's keenly aware of people who ride because they have no other option.

"For example, a recent immigrant coming to a new city, they need to find a job; public transportation is the sole mode of transportation to get to that job," Mr. Sohi said during an interview Wednesday.

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"And I hear that from a lot of newcomers. … They can't get to where the job is because they don't have access to public transportation."

The awareness of transit as a social as well as transportation vehicle is particularly important in Toronto, a city where average Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) commutes are much longer than average car commutes and where service is often worst in the poorest areas of the city. Trying to improve access in those neighbourhoods is complicated by the backlog of priorities created over a generation without meaningful transit investments, projects the city can't hope to fund on its own.

The willingness of Ottawa to help with transit and other infrastructure needs has injected a dose of optimism into city hall, and Mayor John Tory was talking hopefully Wednesday about "building the city of the future."

"All in all, this was an extremely positive meeting," he said after talks with Mr. Sohi. "Now the hard work begins, which is to start to put together the kinds of proposals we can look at together that fit the needs and the timing, and various things that they have in front of them."

In his remarks to reporters after the meeting at City Hall, and then again in an interview, Mr. Sohi was short on many details about how the infrastructure money would be disbursed.

The particulars of the funding formula remain to be worked out and the specific criteria by which a project would be judged are still to come.

But he was clear on two fundamental elements. Ottawa will look at projects through the lens of whether they boost the economy, reduce the environmental footprint and help build socially inclusive communities. And they will seek to devolve as much decision-making as possible to the municipal level.

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"Local governments know their communities better than the federal government," he said. "They have the ability to make those decisions because they're close to people. They do the consultation with the communities, they do all the planning related to the projects, they go through the environmental studies and community impact studies that all have to happen. So I think they're better positioned in order to make those decisions."

However, it remains to be seen what that means for city politicians who decide to change projects already in the pipeline – a key issue for Toronto as it debates and re-debates transit. Asked whether federal funding, once approved, would be tied to a specific project, Mr. Sohi said he couldn't comment on hypotheticals. "We would have to judge [on a case-by-case] basis," he said.

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