Corp Comm Connects

Harper’s pledged funding for Toronto’s SmartTrack draws criticism
June 20, 2015
By Bill Curry

The federal government’s pledge of up to $2.6-billion for commuter rail in Toronto is being promised from a fund that hasn’t yet launched, leaving many unanswered questions as to how Ottawa will contribute to Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack plan.

Mr. Tory said he wants his proposed SmartTrack line to be in place within seven years. Ottawa says the money will come from a new Public Transit Fund announced in the budget, but that fund is based on financing projects over 20 to 30 years which makes it unclear how long it would take for the city to get the promised cash.

A spokesperson for Finance Minister Joe Oliver, who is responsible for the new fund, said Friday that the amount would be transferred “over a long period of time, to be negotiated with the City of Toronto.” The full details of the new plan won’t be announced until the fall.

“As the announcement [Thursday] suggested, funding is conditional on receiving and approving an application,” said Mr. Oliver’s spokesperson Nicholas Bergamini.

SmartTrack is an $8-billion commuter rail plan that would connect lands near Pearson Airport to downtown Toronto and Markham. The Ontario government has already said it will support the project but Toronto City Council has not made a final decision.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday that he was “very optimistic” that council will approve the project given Ottawa’s pledge. But the lack of detail from Ottawa has opposition MPs and some on city council dismissing the announcement as a political promise of money that would be many years away.

“This government has set a record for announcing transit money that may or may not ever materialize,” said Councillor Gord Perks, a frequent critic of the mayor. “They’ve committed to a subway in Scarborough that may or may not ever get built, and now a SmartTrack proposal where we don’t even have the engineering drawings and don’t know if it will work.”

He added that Toronto city council still has to vote to approve its own share of SmartTrack funding, and that a number of councillors - himself included - have concerns about a part of the plan that requires building a new stretch of track in the city’s west end.

Mr. Perks is also concerned about the federal government’s requirement that the projects have a private sector partner.

According to the 2015 federal budget, the Public Transit Fund would not start until 2017-18 when it will be worth $250-million. It would then ramp up to $500-million the next year and an ongoing amount of $1-billion per year starting in 2019-20.

However the budget also indicated that the fund would be based on a new way of transferring funds to municipalities that involves smaller amounts over periods of 20 to 30 years, allowing cities to borrow against the promised revenue stream.

Thursday’s announcement included new details about how the fund would work. Ottawa has agreed to requests from municipalities that the federal share of project funding increase from 25 to 33.3 per cent. However a private partner is mandatory in order to qualify for funding.

“This is transit by the seat of your pants,” said Beaches-East York MP Matthew Kellway. The NDP’s critic for infrastructure and urban affairs said the federal government needs to get away from picking and choosing projects and should simply transfer more infrastructure money to municipalities.

Trinity-Spadina Liberal MP Adam Vaughan said Ottawa should be working with cities and the province on a comprehensive approach to transit.

“It’s a typical election announcement,” he said. “It looks like $2.6-billion but you show me a transit project that is costed before it’s designed.”