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Toronto’s transit problem isn’t about money — it’s about priorities

Matt Elliott wonders when will we learn from our transit mistakes.

The downtown relief line is still at least 14 years away. Cars on the current overcrowded Yonge line are shown here.

Torstar News Service file / Torstar News Service Order this photo

The downtown relief line is still at least 14 years away. Cars on the current overcrowded Yonge line are shown here.

Here’s the good news: following a vote last week by city council, the relief line subway – the Toronto transit project long championed by actual experts– is now closer to becoming a reality than ever before.

Here’s the bad news: it’s still at least fourteen years away.

Yeah, yeah, I know. That’s hard to accept. Fourteen years is a ridiculously long time to wait for a vital piece of transit infrastructure. Try not to think about how old you’ll be by then.

But waiting is all we can do. Planners say this subway line, which would run underground along Queen Street East from downtown before turning up Carlaw Avenue and connecting to Pape Station, is the only sure-fire way to reduce crowding on the city’s subway system.

And yet even following council’s overwhelming 42-1 vote last week in favour of moving forward with planning and design for the project, no one has offered a credible plan for opening the subway before 2031. By then, of course, crowding will be even worse.

Since we’ve got at least fourteen years to kill, we might as well take the time to reflect on this, and ask the big question: how the hell did things get this bad?

A lot of people will tell you the reason is money. And yeah, the relief line subway, like all subways, is expensive, an estimated $6.8 billion.

But it’s worth noting that throughout the decades they’ve spent balking at the billions needed for the relief line, politicians at all levels have spent or pledged to spend billions on other transportation projects.

Let’s list a few. There’s the low-ridership Sheppard subway. There’s a subway extension to Vaughan. There’s the heavily-subsidized train to the airport. There are LRT plans that all connect to an already-jammed subway system.[ME3]  There are dozens of projects to widen provincial highways. There’s the plan to spend a billion dollars to maintain the least-used part of the Gardiner Expressway.

Oh, and don’t forget the multi-billion one-stop subway extension to Scarborough.

No, the real problem with transit planning in Toronto has never been about money. It’s always been about priorities.

Instead of prioritizing ridership and network demands, support for transit projects has long been decided based on which projects are best positioned to help win votes. Stacked up against projects seeking to bring subways and rail to large suburban areas, the relief line—running through just a couple of ridings and a handful of municipal wards—never stood much of a chance.

And despite council’s vote of support for the relief line last week, there’s little sign of that fundamentally changing. The provincial government — yet to confirm its share of funding for the relief line — is now chasing big, high price plans for high-speed rail, while mayors from municipalities north of Toronto were successful in keeping hope alive for a subway extension into Richmond Hill.

And that’s the worst news of all. Even with jam-packed subway platforms offering daily evidence that Toronto’s transit priorities have been dangerously misaligned, we keep making the same mistakes.

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