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Ontario Liberals need to be held accountable for Scarborough subway decision

When people who aren’t big fans of the Liberal Party of Ontario talk about why they won’t be voting for Premier Kathleen Wynne’s party on June 12, they tend to rattle off a big list of headline-making scandals from the last decade: eHealth, ORNGE, the Oakville and Mississauga gas plants, something about cancer-causing windmills, and so on.

But they hardly ever mention the other big reason voters — especially Toronto voters — should think twice before supporting the Liberals on June 12: the Scarborough subway.

The political machinations that led to the province and Toronto City Council ditching the Scarborough LRT plan in favour of a subway were detailed over the last week in an investigative series by John Lorinc at Spacing Magazine. Backed by a bunch of documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Lorinc’s account of the events that took place last summer confirms our worst suspicions. The subway deal was largely political, and made with little regard for expert opinion, ridership projections and project cost.

There’s lots of blame to go around, at all levels of government, for this toxic hell stew of a transit decision, but the bottom line is this: the subway plan likely never would have got much traction if the Ontario Liberals hadn’t suddenly transformed themselves into shameless “Subway Champions” in advance of last summer’s Scarborough by-election.  The Liberals need to wear that.

It was from that transformation that almost everything else followed: the re-opening of the signed transit master agreement, the city’s thrown-together property tax increase and the near total disregard for Metrolinx and other transit experts who kept saying, hey, we don’t really need to be spending nearly a billion dollars on this subway, especially when there are so many other places where we could spend that money.

This kind of behaviour can’t be condoned and it can’t be rewarded — for a couple of big reasons.

First, voters risk legitimizing the complete and total politicization of transit decisions. The Scarborough subway seems like a clear case of politicians making a major decision because they wanted to secure votes, and not because of, you know, evidence. But here’s the thing: if transparent attempts to win votes with flashy transit promises continues to result in the winning of votes, why would politicians ever bother listening to the experts? Why not just continue promising subways — and winning elections — for years to come, evidence and outcomes be damned?

Second, it’ll just mean bad news for the future of light rail transit in Toronto. The Ontario Liberals had a choice this past summer during the Scarborough by-election. Minister of Transportation Glen Murray and Scarborough MPPs could have responded to voter concerns about LRT — much of which was based on misinformation thrown around by Mayor Rob Ford — with facts and evidence.

But they chose not to. Instead of saying, “Yes, we hear your concerns but this is why we think this is a great plan” they essentially said, “Yeah, LRT sucks, we’re going to build you a subway.”

By not countering the concerns voters expressed about LRT, they risked cementing it as a second-tier technology choice. And that’s bad news for Toronto — a city that could really benefit, as most transit experts continue to point out, from the speed, reliability and relative affordability offered by LRT.

But after the Scarborough subway, there’s no reason to trust that the Ontario Liberals will actually back Toronto’s LRT plans when push comes to shove. There’s no reason to think they won’t re-open existing plans if they feel it’s politically advantageous. There’s no reason to think they won’t see transit planning as an opportunity to score a few extra votes.

And, most importantly, there’s no reason to think this irresponsible Scarborough subway decision won’t be a model for transit planning under the Liberal Party in the years to come, should they win on June 12.

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