Chairman's Desk

Transit deal a win for Toronto as well as the premier’s new style

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on November 3, 2019.

This week saw Toronto City Council endorse, by a wide margin, a new transit plan proposed by the Ford government. Federal support is expected soon to follow. This is good news for the residents of Toronto — but also for the Premier’s Office, a vindication of its newly adopted, collegial tone and a sterling example of the fruits that might be borne of it.

A recap for those who no longer follow the twists and turns of transit-building in Toronto: last spring, then-Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek proposed the Ontario Line, a 15-station stretch of subway that broadly followed the contours of the much-needed Downtown Relief Line, as well as two additional stops along the Scarborough subway.

Because the announcement came on the heels of a simultaneous plan to upload control of the subway from the TTC to the province, and because it proposed to use an unspecified, new technology that did not accord with the rest of the subway system, the Ontario Line was greeted with derision. It was a “finger painting,” drawn on the back of a napkin and most of city council was adamantly opposed to the proposed subway upload, even though they had no real say in the matter.

As it happens, all this derision toward the transit lines themselves was never justified. The Ontario Line plan was conceived by experts at Metrolinx, and the route is sensible, even preferable to the Downtown Relief Line, whose only advantage was that it was marginally more advanced in the early planning stages.

The Ontario Line makes more liberal use of above-ground tracks, a far cry from the underground-subways-only mantra from Ford of yore. By extending further north and further west, it will provide greater relief to the congestion epicentre that is Bloor-Yonge, funnelling riders from a wider area. As for Scarborough, a single-stop subway never made sense to begin with.

How, then, did this so-called finger painting go on to win an overwhelming majority of votes in city council?

The simplest explanation is to follow the money. Under the terms of the new agreement, Toronto won’t be on the hook for the Conservative government’s $28-billion transit plan. That means subways north to Richmond Hill and the Eglinton West LRT, at no cost to the city and political advantage to PC MPPs from those ridings. Relief-line diehards should have been pleased with reimbursement for sunk costs, though three such councillors still voted against the plan. The agreement also frees up substantial amounts of city cash to spend instead on more pressing matters, like repairs and upkeep of the existing subway system.

But money alone does not account for this victory. Historians of this government will recognize it emerged at the beginning of a new era — AD, or After Dean. The deal’s origins can be pinpointed approximately to the cabinet shuffle that saw Yurek moved to the Ministry of the Environment, with Caroline Mulroney inheriting the transit file.

Though some viewed it at the time as a demotion, Mulroney has evidently delivered within her first few months on the job. During that time, she has worked quietly and assiduously, negotiating in good faith with City of Toronto staff.

Whether the subway upload was proposed as a shrewd negotiating tactic, always intended to be disposed of at the right moment to seal the deal, or another ingenious way to stick it to Toronto City Council, by all accounts the turning point in negotiations came when the province agreed to drop the idea.

Compromise, conciliation — these are novel ideas to a government that has relied up to this point on aggressive negotiation. Mulroney herself deserves credit. She personifies the softer touch and collegial approach to governing that the Premier’s Office now hopes to adopt on all fronts.

In the meantime, the residents of Toronto should applaud the fact that provincial and municipal governments have learned to play nice. If all goes according to plan, the Ontario Line will be completed by 2027. That may be optimistic, but it was optimistic also to expect that these two levels of government would ever learn to get along in the name of progress. Yet here we are.