Ontario Liberals divided on Sheppard LRT

Yet another transit debate looms as councillors, MPPs in talks to revive subway

Mixed messages from the Ontario Liberal government are fueling speculation that Toronto city council could start its new term the exact same way as it did the last one: engaged in a divisive debate about transit on Sheppard Ave. East.

On Tuesday Metroland Media reported that Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly has been speaking behind the scenes to his provincial and municipal colleagues to organize support for tearing up the 2012 agreement between the city and province to build a Sheppard LRT. Kelly, the councillor for Ward 40 Scarborough-Agincourt, hopes to replace it with a subway instead.

That would require a vote under the new term of council, which will be elected in Monday’s municipal vote. The provincial government would also have to agree to the switch.

In an email to NOW, a spokesperson for Minister of Transportation Steven Del Duca said he’s not interested in reopening the Sheppard debate. “Our government has an ambitious plan for transit and transportation infrastructure across the GTHA and all of Ontario,” the spokesperson said. “We have no plans of deviating from that plan. That plan includes a Sheppard LRT.”

But members of Del Duca’s own government are openly musing about getting rid of the LRT. Soo Wong, MPP for Scarborough-Agincourt, has been talking to Kelly about reviving the subway. “As it now stands, the lower tier government supports the LRT,” she says, referring to city council. But “they change their mind on a regular basis. That’s their prerogative. That’s what democracy’s about.”

The LRT proposal is so reviled in her ward, Wong claims, that her constituents would prefer no transit at all. “They have no appetite for having an LRT on Sheppard,” she says.

Wong says she expects councillors to continue “expansive, robust conversations” about Sheppard transit, and suggests that if they vote in favour of a subway next term, she might approach Premier Kathleen Wynne about altering the government’s plans.

Bas Balkissoon, the Liberal MPP in the neighbouring riding of Scarborough Rouge-River, says that he hasn’t spoken to Kelly or Wong about resurrecting the subway, but he too is a staunch opponent of the LRT.

Balkissoon says that if council approves a subway, the deal-breaker will be whether the city agrees to come up with the cash to pay for the more expensive underground line, which could cost between $2.7 and $3.7 billion. The city isn’t paying anything for the $950-million Sheppard LRT two-thirds of its cost is being picked up by Queen’s Park, and the federal government is contributing the other third.

“Are they coming with money?” Balkissoon says of city councillors, “or are they coming with their hands out, as they always do? It all depends on how they’re coming.”

It’s unclear how Kelly hopes to pay for the subway. He did not return a request for comment for this story.

Reopening the Sheppard debate would continue council’s astonishing record of indecisiveness on transit. Council first approved an environmental assessment of the Sheppard light rail line in 2008, and it was originally supposed to be completed in 2013. When Rob Ford was elected mayor in 2010 he cancelled the project and pledged to build a subway instead. But council revolted in March 2012 and voted 24-19 to endorse the LRT again after an expert panel determined projected ridership levels were too low to justify a subway.

In October 2013 council reversed course on another line, scrapping plans to build a light rail line as a replacement for the Scarborough RT and endorsing a subway extension instead.

The Sheppard LRT is scheduled to break ground in 2017 and be completed by 2021. Planning work has already begun. A spokesperson for provincial transit agency Metrolinx said it would have to undertake a “full analysis on sunk costs” to determine what, if any, financial penalty the city would be liable for if council cancelled the LRT.

Councillor Josh Matlow, who advocated for both the Sheppard and Scarborough LRTs this term, says re-debating Sheppard would only cause more delays and do a disservice to residents “who have been waiting generations for rapid transit.”

“They want transit built as quickly as possible,” says Matlow. “The last thing they want is more signed agreements thrown out.”

Among the three leading mayoral candidates, frontrunner John Tory says he supports the Finch West and Sheppard East LRTs “proceeding as planned.” Olivia Chow also supports the light rail lines, while Doug Ford has promised to build a subway on Sheppard.

bens@nowtoronto.com | @BenSpurr

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