The $660 million question:

The Liberals are plotting to take over transit and hand control to Metrolinx in the GTA. That’s one way to understand the interminable debate around the Scarborough subway.

Here’s another: The minister of transportation, Glen Murray has gone rogue. And the premier, Kathleen Wynne, has a caucus revolt on her hands.

That would explain some of the maddening machinations of recent days, including a move by the premier to step back from her previous commitment to bring in revenue tools to raise money for much-needed transit expansion.

If you haven’t heard, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was in town Monday, September 23, to drop a cool $660 million of federal money on the Scarborough subway extension approved by council back in July, a three-stopper from Kennedy to Sheppard. And thereby throw a wrench into the provincial Liberal subway plan announced weeks earlier for a two-stop subway from Kennedy to the Scarborough Town Centre.

A masterstroke by the HarperCons, opined most observers. Clearly, with a municipal election a year away and a provincial runoff looming in the spring, the move will win some votes for the PM’s fishing buddy, Mayor Rob Ford, and embattled PC leader Tim Hudak.

With their electoral fortunes waning elsewhere, it also puts more Scarborough seats in play for the federal Conservatives.

But check the backgrounder provided by Flaherty’s peeps. There are more than a few references to conditions attached to the federal funding. First among these: interest from the private sector.

A detail missed in the media’s deciphering of the feds’ intervention is the fact that the subway plan is to be funded under their New Building Canada Fund. Under that plan, projects with capital costs of more than $100 million will have to go through a P3 (public-private partnership) screening process “to determine whether better value for money can be achieved through P3 procurement.”

What that means in practical terms is difficult to pin down in conversation with a spokesperson from Transport and Infrastructure Minister Denis Lebel’s office.

When I ask if the feds’ $660 million pledge will still flow if a private partner or partners can’t be found, I’m told I’m thinking too far ahead. Presumably, the private sector will jump at the chance to get in on the deal, but it’s more likely a diversion. Taxpayers will be on the hook for this one. And where subways are concerned, that usually means massive cost overruns.

There is such a thing as a bad transit investment, and the Scarborough subway extension is it in spades: its $3.5 billion total cost would be better spent on the original light rail network approved by council before winning votes in Scarborough and TTC chair Karen Stintz’s mayoral aspirations got in the way.

This may seem too obvious for words. But the obvious can’t be stated often enough when lies are passing for truth.

Others have said it in these pages, so I won’t waste too much time on the details. A subway extension would do little to alleviate gridlock or move Scarborough residents downtown faster. We’re talking tree to eight minutes at best.

What it would do is increase already crippling congestion on the Yonge line. That’s why the two people who know the most about transit, TTC CEO Andy Byford and chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, have been pushing the Downtown Relief Line as the system’s number-one priority.

More smoke and mirrors: there’s also the not so small matter of the $1 billion funding gap the city has no money to cover unless council raises taxes. Barely 24 hours after basking in the glow of Flaherty’s announcement, and claiming to have delivered on a campaign pledge, the mayor was railroading again, insisting that he’s not willing to go above a 0.25 per cent property tax increase. That won’t cover it. But false subway promises have sufficed before, so why not again?

At Queen’s Park, Murray indicated he’s not in any hurry to change course on the province’s plan during question period on Tuesday. He said provincial transit agency Metrolinx will be releasing its ridership and job projection numbers next week to bolster his case.

“We’re not a government that’s going to build subways that’ll run empty,” he said.

Was he freelancing when he shocked everyone by announcing that the province would go it alone because the feds weren’t ponying up?

That’s the spin some close to Premier Wynne are offering.

But it’s also the case that certain members of the Scarborough wing of her caucus are attempting to subvert more parts of the province’s LRT plan approved by council in 2012.

Don’t look now, but the push is on to replace the Sheppard East LRT with a subway too. Mayoral wannabe Brad Duguid and Bas Balkissoon are said to be spearheading that drive. Scarborough’s wide streets are tailor made or surface light rail. Think Salt Lake. But apparently, taking away car lanes to accommodate light rail and bikes doesn’t wash with the grassroots east of Vic Park.

How long before Ford jumps on that train and declares it’s time to finish the loop with a subway from Sheppard to Don Mills? Has the ring of a campaign plank, doesn’t it? How Ford became the champion of subways is really something, given he’s the progeny of the Mike Harris folks who cancelled rapid transit. Ford didn’t even have a transit platform during the 2010 campaign until he released one on YouTube in the dead of night.

But back to Premier Wynne. Perhaps smelling the winds of political change, she’s backing away from her commitment to dedicated revenue tools for public transit. The Libs announced last week that they’re setting up a 13-member panel headed by Anne Golden to study the issue.

The Toronto Region Board of Trade pounced on what it perceives as a delay tactic. “By calling for more study, the government is slowing down the process at a time when action is much needed,” said board CEO Carol Wilding.

CivicAction struck a similar note, demanding the province set timelines. In the interim, the costs of gridlock continue to grow. The C.D. Howe Institute pegs those at $7.5 billion to $11 billion a year in the GTA.

Maybe there’s method to the transit madness. One Queen’s Park observer suggests the Grits’ are moving to take over transit holus-bolus from GTA municipalities. That would allow Queen’s Park to deal directly with the feds without having Ford or anyone else play them off for their own gain. Whether that would buy us smarter transit is another question.

enzom@nowtoronto.com | @enzodimatteo

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