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Ford government eyes dropping takeover of TTC in exchange for Ontario Line support: Sources
Oct. 9, 2019

City and provincial officials are negotiating a deal on the future of Toronto transit that would include the Ontario government abandoning its push to take ownership of the existing TTC subway, the Star has learned.

According to two sources with knowledge of the talks, Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government is willing to drop the proposed subway upload as part of a compromise that would see Mayor John Tory throw his support behind council endorsing the Ontario Line--the contentious $11-billion project that is the centrepiece of the province’s transit plans.

Ford announced the Ontario Line project in April as a replacement for the city council-approved relief line subway. Under the potential deal, which hasn’t been finalized, the project would mostly proceed as the province has proposed, but with some adjustments requested by the city, according to the sources.

While the deal would involve the province taking the upload of existing TTC subway assets off the table, the Ford government has already passed legislation enabling it to take over new Toronto rapid transit projects.

In an email Tuesday, Ford’s press secretary Ivana Yelich would neither confirm nor deny the two sides were nearing the deal as described by the Star’s sources.

“The premier remains steadfast in his commitment to accelerate the building of better public transit options for the people of Ontario,” Yelich said in response to questions about the negotiations.

“Our government has been working with the City of Toronto over the past year -- under the Terms of Reference agreed between both parties -- to deliver on this commitment.”

Mayor Tory is Europe this week, and was headed from London to Copenhagen Tuesday to lead a green business mission.

His spokesperson Don Peat also didn’t answer specific questions about the terms of a potential agreement. He said in an email “discussions at the provincial/city table are ongoing but there is no deal at this point.”

Scrapping the upload would represent a major reversal for Ford, who ran in the 2018 election on a platform of wresting ownership of the subway network from the city.

The Ontario government has argued transit riders would benefit from Queen’s Park owning the lines because the province has greater financial and regulatory powers than the city, which would make it easier to fund capital investments for the system. Under the original proposal the TTC, which is a city agency, would continue to operate the subway.

The idea has faced strong opposition from city council, the Ontario NDP, the TTC workers union and transit advocacy groups.

Taking ownership of Toronto’s aging subway was always a costly proposition for the province. A TTC report published in January projected the network would require $18 billion worth of work over the next 15 years just to maintain current service levels, $13.5 billion of which wasn’t funded. Those figures exclude any work required for stations, and far exceed the $160 million a year the Ontario government pledged to spend on subway maintenance after the upload.

Council has voted more than once to keep the subway in the city’s hands, but last December agreed to enter into talks with the Ford government after receiving legal advice confirming the province has unfettered legislative authority to take ownership of the subway.

While talks about the broader upload are ongoing, legislation the Ontario government passed in June that it says is designed to speed up the construction of new projects has allowed the province to take over the relief line and effectively replace it with the Ontario Line proposal.

But Ford’s government is anxious to secure council approval for the Ontario Line in order for the municipal government to support reallocating about $3.2 billion in federal funding the city had earmarked for the relief line subway to the new provincial project.

Council is expected to vote as soon as the end of the month on whether to endorse the Ontario Line. City and TTC staff recommendations about the project will be included in a wider assessment of the province’s transit plans scheduled to go first to Tory’s executive committee on Oct. 23, and then on to council Oct. 29.

Although Tory has shown no fear of taking on the Ontario government over issues like provincial cuts to public health and other municipal services, he has largely held his fire on the upload plan.

Like the majority of council, he voted to register the city’s position that the subway should remain city-owned. But he’s also repeatedly rejected calls from Ford critics on council to break off talks with the province.

Tory has said his primary concern is that any changes the Ontario government makes won’t delay the completion of new transit projects, and argued the negotiating table was the best place to ensure the city’s interests were protected.

The relief line subway has long been considered by many experts as Toronto’s most pressing transit priority. Its first phase would be about 7.5 kilometres long and take pressure off the crowded Line 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina) by providing a new route into downtown from the eastern portion of Line 2 (Bloor-Danforth). It’s undergone years of planning and with the support of city council was scheduled to open as early as 2029, at a cost of at least $7.2 billion.

Comparatively little design work has been done on the Ontario Line, which would serve the same purpose of diverting passengers off Line 1 but would be about twice as long.

Preliminary plans detailed in an initial business case Metrolinx released in July show the line would cut through the heart of downtown using a different route, and stretch from Ontario Place to Exhibition GO station.

The Ford government has pledged the Ontario Line would open by 2027, but experts have cast doubt on that timeline, and Metrolinx has acknowledged it’s “ambitious.”