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Scarborough subway: Damn the cost, full speed ahead

Decisiveness is an overrated trait, particularly in politics. Toronto's perennially short-sighted city council has voted to make its top transit priority the building of a one-stop subway extension to a remote shopping mall. The cost will be at least $3.2-billion, an expenditure from a cash-strapped municipal government that defies logic when the marginal gains in transit service are measured against the outrageous cost. No one should get undue credit for their ability to make a decision when it's so clearly the wrong one.

The Scarborough subway extension represents deluxe underground service in a low-density area and will do little to solve the mounting transit problems of Canada's largest city. In fact, the pre-emptive decisiveness shown by those who voted for Mayor John Tory's highly politicized plan, which replaces a seven-stop light-rail proposal the province agreed to pay for years ago, will effectively make things worse. All taxpayer money is finite: By allocating billions to an inefficient suburban subway extension, Toronto's political leaders have guaranteed that other, higher-priority routes will remain unbuilt for years – or more likely decades.

Toronto's more clear-headed transit advocates clamoured to keep the Scarborough debate alive in the foolish hope that reason, common sense and basic accounting would prevail. For their honourable persistence, they were accused of being political quarrellers who were all talk and no action – an anti-democratic accusation that wrongly prizes divisive decisiveness over the considered deliberations of critical thought.

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It's easy to understand why Mayor Tory pushed the Scarborough subway with such zeal. Politicians are in the business of getting re-elected, and he needs votes in a large suburb that has long felt cut off from downtown Toronto – a discontent former mayor Rob Ford tapped into when he campaigned on the mantra "subways, subways, subways" and killed a sensible light-rail plan developed under his predecessor. The Liberal government at Queen's Park originally backed and promised to pay for light rail, but it too climbed on board the Scarborough subway several years ago, in a bid to boost its local MPP during a tough by-election.

Toronto's diffuse political structure gives disproportionate power to local councillors who don't have to concern themselves with the growing city's greater good. A downtown relief line may be Toronto's greatest need, but Mayor Tory recognized that the struggle of undoing a fait accompli designed to charm voters in Scarborough would cost him dearly. No wonder he's so eager to move forward without delay, even as public transit in Toronto takes a backward step.

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