Turmoil at the top of the provincial government has unleashed a fresh round of debate about the future of Toronto transit, with PC leader Tim Hudak vowing to divert any available funding toward underground rail, should he be elected premier.
Depending on the timing of the next election, that could mean canceling the LRT lines council approved earlier this year.
The province has committed $8.4 billion to building surface rail on Finch West, Sheppard East, Eglinton, and the route of the Scarborough RT. But speaking at a press conference outside City Hall the morning after Premier Dalton McGuinty's shock resignation, Hudak said that, if elected, he would use any of that money that had not yet been spent to construct subterranean transit instead.
"I simply believe that world class cities build underground. They build subways," Hudak said.
"I've made a commitment that where funds are available, a PC government would build underground."
Asked repeatedly if he would cancel the surface LRT lines, Hudak would not rule it out.
"I don't know when the election is going to be, I don't know what my options are. But I will maximize the dollars available in that [$8.4 billion] pool towards building underground," said Hudak.
With McGuinty stepping down, the timing of the next provincial election is uncertain, but likely won't come until his successor is chosen at an as yet unscheduled leadership convention. Construction on the Eglinton Crosstown LRT has already begun, and the first of the other three lines is scheduled to break ground in 2014.
While reopening the subway vs. LRT is the last thing many councillors want, Hudak was flanked at the press conference by several of Rob Ford's closest allies, including Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday and the mayor's brother, Councillor Doug Ford.
Councillor Ford, who is widely rumoured to be eyeing a run for MPP in the next election, gave Hudak's transit plans his full support.
"He's the only leader out there provincially that believes in building subways out to our friends in Scarborough," Councillor Ford said.
"I'm going to work day in, day out to make sure Tim Hudak is the next premier of this province."
The conservative leader also reiterated his plan, which he first outlined last week, to bring all existing and future TTC rail lines under the control of Metrolinx, the regional transit agency that already operates GO Transit. Hudak envisions a radically expanded organization that would also be responsible for all regional rail lines, as well as the Greater Toronto Area's major highways.
"We've got too many back seat drivers," said Hudak.
"The province is going to seize the wheel. The province will take charge of transit here in the GTA."
Speaking to reporters after Hudak's appearance, TTC chair Karen Stintz warned that revisiting the surface vs. underground debate will only delay the delivery of much-needed transit to the city.
"We need to build transit in this city. We can't spend more time debating decisions that have already been made," said Stintz, who led council in ditching Mayor Ford's subway scheme in favour of the LRT lines last winter.
But Stintz also admitted that council likely wouldn't be able to prevent a Hudak government from canceling three of the LRT routes and burying the full length of the Eglinton rail line, which under the council-approved plan will be above ground east of Laird.
"Council made a decision on its transit future, and we clearly voted that we wanted those transit lines built," she said. "But ultimately it is not the city's money, and the province will decide where it spends its money."
The master agreement for the LRT lines has yet to be finzlied between the city, the TTC, and Metrolinx. According to a Metrolinx spokesperson, "it's on track to be signed very shortly." The spokesperson would not speculate on whether a future provincial government could rescind the agreement once it's been signed.
Stintz also opposes Hudak's proposal to upload TTC rail lines to Metrolinx. She said that at a closed door meeting at Queen's Park Monday, she told Hudak that any upload to the province is an all-or-nothing proposition, otherwise Toronto would be left with a fractured system.
"My comments to Mr. Hudak were, you can't take part of the TTC, you need to take all of it, because it needs to be integrated," she said.