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Toronto-area transit projects put on hold

A streetcar on Yonge Street in Toronto.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario government is delaying funding for major transit projects in the Greater Toronto Area, including four central to Toronto Mayor David Miller's ambitious public transportation legacy.

Citing deficit pressures, the province used Thursday's budget to postpone $4-billion in spending over the next five years for key Metrolinx projects.

The move by Premier Dalton McGuinty's government is likely to be interpreted as a decline in support for public transit in the GTA. Less than a year ago, the Liberals announced $9.3-billion for the fast-track expansion projects, a commitment widely viewed as a political victory for Mr. Miller.

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"We're going to work with Metrolinx to ensure that those [projects]that are needed most quickly continue on and that the other ones are still going to continue on, just over a longer period," Finance Minister Dwight Duncan told reporters Thursday.

Mr. Miller called postponing the light rapid transit lines a "disgrace."

"It's not acceptable to me," he said. "It's not acceptable to the people of Toronto and it shouldn't be acceptable to this provincial government and this premier who repeatedly announced this funding."

The LIberal government said the restraint measure could affect five planned transportation expansion projects: The Scarborough rapid transit line, the Eglinton cross-town line, the Finch West rapid transit line, the Sheppard East line and the expansion of the York Viva service.

The projects are major elements of Mr. Miller's Transit City plan to expand public transportation - including light rail - deeper into Toronto's suburbs.

The government is asking Metrolinx, its regional transportation agency, to submit a proposal phasing in the projects for a total of $4-billion in savings over five years, starting in 2010-2011. An official said it would take a few months for the government to decide which projects will be delayed.

The five projects were initially slated to be finished between 2013 and 2016, with most in time for the 2015 Pan-Am games. Construction has already started on the Sheppard East line and the York Viva expansion. Work on the other projects was to begin this year.

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By delaying the projects, a government official said Thursday that the GTA will avoid traffic snarls caused by so much roadwork while also staying within the capacity of the local construction industry.

Mr. Miller, sporting a Transit City button on his lapel, told a news conference that he only found out Thursday in a briefing with the president of Metrolinx, the regional transportation agency, that the signature program of his legacy would be delayed.

He said the Liberal government's decision also means rapid transit won't be ready in time for the Pan Am Games in 2015.

"We promised and the premier specifically promised PASO [the Pan American Sports Organization]that all of the venues that were being used for the Pan Am Games and the Athletes Village would be accessible by rapid transit. Well, they can't be unless you build Transit City," Mr. Miller said.

Government officials said the move would not affect the ongoing expansion of the Spadina subway line or improvements to GO's Georgetown South line, which is expected to be finished by 2015 and will include a link between Union Station and Pearson International Airport.

Also in Thursday's budget, the Liberals scrapped a program that helped cities replace aging buses, saying future purchases will now be eligible under the municipal share of the gas tax. The government will honour $174-million in one-time funding for 2009-2010 for cities that have already placed orders for new buses.

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