The provincial government dealt a major blow to the priority project in Karen Stintz's ambitious OneCity transit plan Friday, when the transportation minister announced the Liberal cabinet will not consider replacing the Scarborough RT with a subway line.
At a Queen's Park press conference, minister Bob Chiarelli said that cabinet has already approved the construction of a Scarborough light rail line, in accordance with council decisions in February and March that revived four Transit City-era LRTs.
While Stintz played a key role in orchestrating those LRT votes, she has since changed course and is now calling for a Scarborough subway as a key part of the 30-year, $30-billion proposal she plans to bring to council in July.
But Chiarelli said Friday "that train has left the station," and confirmed that the province will move forward with replacing the Scarborough RT with an LRT line by 2020.
"After all the recent confusion, debate, and reversal, we must not, and cannot, allow further council debate and delays to reverse any significant elements of these four priority transit projects," he told reporters.
Noting that since he has taken office four different plans for Toronto transit expansion have crossed his desk, Chiarelli said it was time to move forward with building council-approved LRTs on Eglinton, Sheppard East, Finch West, and the Scarborough RT replacement. The four lines are being funded by an $8.4-billion investment from the province.
According to provincial transit agency Metrolinx, $40 million has already been spent on designing and planning the Scarborough RT replacement LRT line, and light rail vehicles for the route have already been ordered.
While Chiarelli said the OneCity plan "has a lot of merit to it in terms of improving the debate," he believes Stintz's sweeping proposal would take at least two years to properly vet, would require coordinating buy-in from three levels of government, and couldn't be implemented anytime in the near future.
He also threw cold water on Stintz's proposal for the city to create a dedicated transit fund by skimming revenue from property value re-assessments. The scheme would require a provincial legislative change, and Chiarelli suggested it's unnecessary because the city already has the power to increase property taxes at budget time.
Stintz is seeking $10 billion each from the provincial and federal government over three decades to finance the TTC expansion.
As Chiarelli was making his announcement at Queen's Park, Stintz was presiding over a TTC board meeting at City Hall. After being told of the minister's comments she remained unfazed, and promised to bring the OneCity plan to council next month with the Scarborough subway piece in tact. She believes that should council endorse the underground line, the province would be obligated to consider changing its plans.
"If the will of council were to change, then we would expect the province to consider that change," she told the press gallery.
But Stintz was also clear that the province killing the Scarborough subway idea would not spell the end for OneCity, which she said is bigger than any one transit line. Aside from the dedicated transit fund, she's also proposing 20 other streetcar, bus, and rail routes.
"If they come back and say, no we're sorry it's too late, that's the decision that we will respect," she said. "They are our partners, they will continue to be good partners, and there's a lot of other priority projects that we can identify to continue to invest and build transit across the city."
TTC vice-chair Glenn de Baeremaeker, a Scarborough councillor who is pushing hard for the subway plan, is hoping that because the OneCity funding proposal would allow the city to contribute financially to transit expansion, the province might be open to scrapping its current plan to replace the Scarborough RT with above-ground rail.
"If the city of Toronto comes forward and says we're willing to put in $500 million to build infrastructure out in Scarborough, I think that's going to be listened to," he said.
Stintz believes that should a subway be built instead of an LRT, it might be possible to use the light rail vehicles Metrolinx has already ordered on a East Bayfront LRT, which she has identified as the second priority project under OneCity.
While debate about the Scarborough RT replacement will likely carry on for months, there are yet more changes coming to the Sheppard LRT project. Originally intended to be operational in time for the PanAm Games in 2015, Chiarelli announced Friday that it has been delayed until 2021, a year later than projected only two months ago.
The minister said that the project had to be pushed back because of doubts over whether the construction sector can handle it at a time when the province is also contracting out work for PanAm infrastructure, the 407 East highway, and the three other LRT lines.