Toronto’s subway extension ribbon-cutting, and the man who’s not in the picture

By Steve Paikin - Published on December 15, 2017
Kathleen Wynne and others at the new TTC subway opening
(Left to right) TT C Chair Josh Colle, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier Kathleen Wynne, Toronto Mayor John Tory and York Region Chair Wayne Emmerson tour a new subway station on Dec. 15, 2017. (Twitter/Kathleen_Wynne)



​This is a story about the guy who wasn’t in the picture.

It’s one of those events that politicians just love to be part of: the opening of a new subway extension, something of a rarity for Toronto’s beleaguered transit system.

So, this morning, there was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, Toronto mayor John Tory, Vaughan mayor Maurizio Bevilacqua, and Toronto Transit Commission Chair Josh Colle, all brandishing scissors, prepared to cut the ribbon on the TTC’s first new subway extension in fifteen years.

You never saw such big smiles — and why not? How often do these folks get to open $3.2 billion worth of six new stations and 8.6 kilometres of new track?

But there was one guy, at the event but stuck in the background behind today’s cast of political characters, that the cameras lined up for the ribbon cutting just couldn’t see. Yet without his stubborn, never-say-die attitude in the corridors of power at Queen’s Park, this thing never would have happened. It’s not for no reason folks at the legislature have joked that the nickname for this extension should be the “Sorbara Subway.”

Sorbara explains why in one chapter of his book The Battlefield of Ontario Politics. As a freshman MPP more than 30 years ago, Sorbara sat down beside transportation minister Ed Fulton in the Ontario legislature one day and sketched out his vision for a subway extension from Wilson Station (then the northernmost outpost on the west side of the Yonge-University-Spadina line) right up to York University. Sorbara represented a riding in York Region, right next to the university, and candidly admits a subway extension would have been great for his constituents, for York students, and for his re-election prospects.

But Fulton’s response was categorical: “You’ve gotta be crazy.”

That wasn’t the response Sorbara was looking for. But the next day Fulton continued the conversation.

“I’ve talked to my bureaucrats about your idea, and they don’t think you’re completely crazy,” he said.

Despite that, very little happened afterwards to move things along. The cause was hardly aided when the Liberal government was defeated in 1990 by Bob Rae’s New Democrats, who had other priorities.

The reality of politics is, it’s extremely hard to get projects like this done. It requires a tireless champion, who’s able to convince other levels of government to pony up hundreds of millions of dollars as well. Because there are so many demands on the public purse, not every project gets green lit. So relentless hammering away at every level of government over decades is what’s required. And Sorbara knew that.

Rae’s government preferred to build a subway along Eglinton Avenue, west of his riding — again, an understandable change in priority.

When Mike Harris’s government came to power in 1995, the priorities changed again. Eglinton was dead, and Harris instead got the Sheppard subway built — again, it’s hardly a coincidence that the Tories held some of those north Toronto seats where the line was built.

But in 2003, the Liberals returned to power under Dalton McGuinty, who, by making Sorbara his finance minister, gave him the authority he’d never previously had to make genuine progress on the issue.

And he did.

But politics is a strange business. Sorbara got caught up in what would turn out to be bogus conflict-of-interest allegations. But to clear his name (which he did), he stepped aside from cabinet in 2005. On budget day in 2006, Sorbara was as surprised as anyone to learn that his temporary replacement as finance minister, Dwight Duncan, had set aside $670 million of provincial funding for the project. Sorbara had no inkling the announcement was in the offing but was delighted.

With his name eventually cleared, Sorbara returned to the finance ministry and began to lobby his national counterpart, the late Jim Flaherty, for a federal contribution. The horse trading began in earnest. Flaherty wanted an extension to Highway 407 built east of Toronto to serve his constituents and wanted the province to pay for it. The dickering continued, but eventually, Sorbara and Flaherty shook hands on a deal that would see Flaherty contribute $660 million to Sorbara’s project, while Sorbara agreed to spend $1.5 billion on a 407 extension. (Note: the 407 is a toll highway, so the thinking was that the province would eventually be reimbursed for its investment.)

The “Sorbara Subway” project got a much-needed boost. Authorities wanted it extended even farther north to the Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. This was unprecedented: part of the City of Toronto’s transit system would extend beyond Toronto’s borders into York Region. That meant further intensely complicated negotiations with Vaughan and York Region, who contributed money for the capital costs of building stations, but would have no say in operations — the TTC retained that.

Sorbara left politics in 2012, but not before continuing to lobby then-Ontario transportation minister Kathleen Wynne to keep the project going.

Somehow, against all odds, it got done. Eight years ago, they broke ground on the York University subway extension, and today they cut the ribbon to make it all a reality. The public will have access to the new extension starting Sunday at 8 a.m.

“He was the energizer bunny behind this project,” Premier Wynne said this morning of Sorbara. “And I felt the full force of that energy.”

“It’s your vision and contribution that made this happen,” added York Region chair Wayne Emmerson.

So it was a good day to be Greg Sorbara. He can take satisfaction in knowing that an estimated 36 million additional transit trips will be made each year thanks to the extension, and that there will be 30 million fewer car trips as well, improving air quality and easing congestion.

“Every project that goes forward has to have strong merit in and of itself,” Sorbara writes in his book. “But that’s not enough. In our system, you need unrelenting political advocacy to win your case. The job of the politician is to make that case.”

The former MPP for Vaughan clearly made the case — even if he didn’t get in the picture. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that outgoing TTC head Andy Byford was one of the people who cut the ribbon at the opening of the subway extension Friday. It was actually TTC Chair and Toronto city councillor Josh Colle, not Byford.