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Liberals, NDP, not ready to commit to SmartTrack

Opposition parties vow to commit more cash for transit than the Conservatives, but will let Toronto council decide what to spend it on.
June 19, 2015
By David Rider

Mayor John Tory wants the federal NDP and Liberals to match the Prime Minister’s pledge to spend billions on SmartTrack - but those opposition parties are not prepared, at the moment, to do so.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper delighted Tory on Thursday by saying a re-elected Conservative government would kick in “up to $2.6 billion,” or almost one-third of the transit expansion’s projected $8 billion cost.

On Friday, Tory said hopes Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair make the same pledge for the 53-kilometre, 22-station line commuter line, using existing GO tracks, on which he campaigned.

“It is not asking too much to have the leaders of all of Canada’s political parties prepared to be quite specific about not just their national plans for investment, but rather what specifically they might do in Toronto,” after this fall’s federal election, Tory said after a Pan Am athletes’ village tour.

“It is a perfectly fair question to say will you support (SmartTrack) or not ... when you have all these other governments lined up.”

City council has not debated or even approved SmartTrack, only asked for studies on it. The Ontario government says $2.3 billion in promised rail electrification for two regional lines can be a foundation for Tory’s plan.

Liberal MP Adam Vaughan said he expects his party will reveal municipal funding promises “in a matter of days” including billions of dollars in new ongoing, predictable funding for infrastructure including transit.

But it will be up to Ontario and Toronto council, not the Liberals, to decide which projects get Canada’s biggest city’s share of the money, he said.

“If the city is pushing SmartTrack, then SmartTrack it is - cities will be full partners ... ,” the Trinity-Spadina MP said.

“I don’t know how the Prime Minister can choose SmartTrack without an application or process.”

The NDP says Toronto could fund SmartTrack from its new national infrastructure fund, that will grow to $3.7 billion per year by the end of a first term, or a separate transit fund that will grow to $1.3 billion per year.

But how much Toronto gets will depend on funding formula negotiations to give all municipalities “dedicated, predictable,” transit funding, said Matthew Kellway, NDP MP for Beaches-East York.

“Our (annual) funding is more than what Conservatives are promising so I don’t know how the Prime Minister makes a $2.6 billion commitment from a fund that is $1 billion across the country,” Kellway said.

“We are going to stop politicizing transit and if Ontario and Toronto decide SmartTrack is a priority for their dedicated, predictable funding, they can make that decision,” he said.

Councillor Joe Mihevc, a transit advocate, agreed with opposition parties that it is too soon to say SmartTrack is council’s main priority.

“It does seem like they've really jumped the gun here,” Mihevc said of the federal Conservatives. “The only plausible cause is the fact there's an election coming. There are other deserving projects.

“Downtown waterfront east is a very big and important project and actually is our priority.”

Nelson Wiseman, a U of T political scientist, predicted that, in the end, Toronto federal voters won’t care which party pledged how much for which transit project.

Tory won last fall’s mayoral election because people believed he was best positioned to beat then-councillor Doug Ford, not because SmartTrack particularly resonated with the public, said Wiseman.

Like the municipal election, the federal election will be about leadership - “’Who do you trust?’”, said Wiseman. “The other issue is how long the government has been in power and whether they're carrying too much baggage.”