What Doug Ford could mean for transit in Ontario

OPINION: The Tories haven’t yet made their transportation plans public, but the premier-designate is known for his love of suburban subways and highways, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on June 19, 2018
On matters of transit, there’s little to suggest that the Tories will be any more evidence-based than their Liberal predecessors were. (Andrew Ryan/CP)

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On Thursday night, Metrolinx will host a community meeting in northwest Toronto to update residents on the progress of the Finch West LRT, an 11-kilometre light-rail line that will extend from Finch West station on the Line 1 subway west to Humber College’s north campus. No doubt some people will have questions about construction impacts and community benefits, but the most pressing question will almost certainly be about the future of the project itself.

A new provincial government will be sworn in only eight days after this week’s community meeting, and it’ll be led by a man who has been one of the most vocal critics of light-rail projects in the city of Toronto. As councillor, Doug Ford worked with his late brother to dismantle Toronto’s plans to build a network of light-rail vehicles (which he repeatedly and falsely referred to as streetcars), and now, as premier, he’s got the opportunity and means to finish the job.

This is probably the clearest GTA example of how transportation policy in Ontario could change with the new government at Queen’s Park, but we don’t yet know what the Progressive Conservatives are going to mean for policy across the province.

To put it bluntly, the Liberals did not cover themselves in glory on the transit file. The Scarborough subway, their high-speed-rail fantasy, their recent infatuation with hydrogen-powered trains — all undercut any pretense that Metrolinx was the “arm’s-length” planning agency it was supposed to be when they created it.

(The Toronto Star reported this week that some Metrolinx board members and executives raised serious questions about the government’s “madness” for hydrogen fuel cells, only to be railroaded anyway.)

There’s little to suggest that the Tories will be notably more evidence-based than their Liberal predecessors on these matters. Doug Ford is at least as much a “subway champion” as Kathleen Wynne, and his desire to build even more subways in Toronto’s suburbs will likely eat up the $5 billion he’s pledged to spend, and more.

That said, if the Tories are more skeptical about the push to build hydrogen-powered trains for the GTA, they could end up averting a debacle.

The Tories could also inject some much-needed realism into provincial transportation policy by ending the Liberal practice of making token gestures toward high-speed rail in the province’s southwest. In both 2014 and 2018, the Grits became election-season evangelists, selling the vision of fast trains zipping the business class from London to Waterloo to Toronto, and this year’s budget even included some money for an environmental assessment. But it was only ever a dubious project on the merits, and the actual money committed in future years was questionable. To cap it all off, rural communities in the southwest were never terribly enthusiastic.

Outside of mass transit, the Tories are very likely to resuscitate the environmental-assessment process for the GTA West highway. The promise was in the People’s Guarantee platform released under Ford’s predecessor Patrick Brown, and Ford reiterated it as party leader in April. The Liberals formally abandoned the project in February after having kept it in suspended animation for more than two years, and their decision to cancel it was welcomed by environmental groups that worried about the impact of routing a new 400-series highway through the Greenbelt.

But the Liberal move was unpopular with leaders in Vaughan and Caledon, who had been anticipating the surge in business development and reduction in congestion that the new highway would bring. Technically, the Tories have committed only to finishing the environmental assessment process, not to building the road itself. But they won’t be able to get shovels in the ground unless they do the EA first.

There were arguments for and against the GTA West highway, and the “right” answer depends as much on your priorities as on the data: those of us who don’t see a new six-lane highway as the solution to every urban problem weren’t sold on the merits. But that’s the fun thing about elections: they change up the people who get to make decisions for a while.

The Tories will get their chance for the next four years, and the evidence we have so far suggests that if there’s still going to be a government thumb on the regional transportation planning scales, it’s at least going to be a very different kind of thumb.

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