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Transit debate devolves into embarrassing carnival

Transit planning in the country's leading metropolis is in a truly staggering state of disarray. We have endured close to four years of false starts, madcap schemes and head-twisting reversals – and still we don't really know where we are going or how we are going to pay for it.

Let's review. In 2010, a new mayor, Rob Ford, comes to power and promptly cancels a settled, fully funded plan to build a network of new light-rail lines. The provincial government cravenly agrees to a ridiculous proposal to bury one of the lines, on Eglinton, so that Mr. Ford can claim to be building subways. City council rebels, overturns the new plan and goes back to the light-rail network – but later changes its mind and decides to put one part of it underground: the Scarborough subway.

Along comes a new premier. Kathleen Wynne sends expectations soaring when she suggests that, after years of delay and underfunding, Ontario will find new sources of revenue for a big transit buildout. Not long after, the provincial transit agency, Metrolinx, completes an exhaustive study of the issue and recommends just such a "revenue tool": an increase (among other things) in the provincial sales tax.

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Ms. Wynne balks at that idea and sets up another panel, which recommends a gas tax. She balks again. Now she says new money for transit will come from diverting some of the existing gas taxes to that purpose, leaving everyone to wonder how a deficit-ridden government will fill the resulting hole in provincial finances. Don't worry, she says. It will all come clear in the budget.

The opposition parties' only contribution to this important debate is to fire spitballs at the teacher. The NDP's Andrea Horwath, who is supposed to speak for the downtrodden masses stuck on suburban buses for lack of rapid transit, refuses to support any new tax or levy on the hard-pressed taxpayer even if it buys commuting relief. The Conservatives' Tim Hudak, in an echo of Mr. Ford, says he wants subways, subways, subways but won't say how he will pay, pay, pay.

In the campaign for the Oct. 27 municipal election, the level of debate on transit is infantile. Mr. Ford takes credit for a Scarborough subway that is years from getting under way and that he had next to nothing to do with. He says he would build no less than three more subway lines – exactly how, he cannot say.

His two leading challengers, John Tory and Olivia Chow, get in a slanging match. Mr. Tory says that the "NDP candidate" would not make building a downtown-relief subway a priority. Why, she would not get anything done till 2031 – which happens to be about how long city experts say it would take for such an ambitious project. He, on the other hand, is taking a "firm stand" on the need for a relief line – something that everyone that matters, including Ms. Chow, in fact agrees is badly needed. Details on how he will pay for it – well, they will come later.

Not to be outdone for pure silliness, the Chow campaign fires back with a note saying that Mr. Tory lacks "the courage and judgment to stand up to Rob Ford" over the Scarborough subway. What Mr. Tory is in fact saying is that, after all the to-ing and fro-ing over transit, it would be foolish to unravel a subway plan backed with hundreds of millions of dollars of federal and provincial money.

Building better transit is one of the biggest challenges facing this growing city. It will take consistency, determination, strong leadership and intelligent discussion. Instead, we have this embarrassing carnival. It's no way to build a railroad.

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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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