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Toronto's transit planning: No way to run a railway

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty make a transit funding announcement in Toronto, March 31, 2011.

J.P. MOCZULSKI /The Globe and Mail

Transit planning in Toronto is a colossal, humiliating failure. It is hard to imagine how any city could make a greater hash of it.

While other major cities from Taipei to Seoul to Madrid have rolled out vast networks of rapid transit, Toronto has fallen far behind. It is 34 years this week since the last extensive subway project opened: the Spadina line going north from Bloor.

One new subway, on Eglinton West, was halted in mid-construction for lack of provincial funding. A hole was dug for a tunnel, then filled right back in again. Another project, the underused five-stop Sheppard "stubway," dead-ends at a mall. A third, the rinky-dink, outmoded Scarborough RT, runs on vehicles that don't hook up to the subway system.

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Toronto thought it had a new start with Transit City, mayor David Miller's plan to build seven light-rail lines along busy corridors such as Finch and Sheppard. But Queen's Park pulled back $4-billion in funding in 2010 and a newly elected Mayor Rob Ford cancelled it altogether at the end of that year. The Liberal government, fearing defeat at an imminent election, meekly acquiesced.

Now we have this staggering mess over the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown line. The original plan was to have it travel underground through the middle and above ground at the end, where the city is less dense. Mr. Ford insisted on putting it underground all the way, adding vastly to the cost.

He has never taken that rash, unilateral decision to city council, despite clear wording in his memorandum of agreement with the province that requires the deal to be democratically approved. Now he faces a rebellion by councillors.

His critics say that it makes no sense to dig a tunnel through the wide-open spaces of eastern Eglinton to carry light-rail vehicles that were intended to travel mostly above ground. If it's going underground, it should be a proper subway like all the other trains in Toronto that travel through tunnels. If it's light rail, go back to the original plan and put much of it on the surface. But the mayor is digging in his heels.

Now the biggest infrastructure project in Canada is stuck in political gridlock. The mayor and the chair of the Toronto Transit Commission are butting heads. The provincial government is waiting for the city to get its act together, but refusing to take any leadership itself. The TTC, which is supposed to run the ruddy thing once it gets built, is complaining about being sidelined.

It is a clown show of the first order. Who on Earth is in charge?

A city cannot act like this and expect to build a decent transit system. Rapid transit requires long-term planning, firm, consistent leadership and huge amounts of money. Cities that do it properly come up with a plan looking decades into the future and stick to it.

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Toronto? Toronto plays politics, cancels projects in midstream, draws up plans only to rip them up and delays, delays, delays. It is no way to run a railway.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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