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Trudeau, Ford and the complicated politics of transit in Toronto

As part of our federal election coverage, CBC News is assessing the truthfulness and accuracy of statements made by politicians and their parties.

The Claim: “But Trudeau refused to commit funding, citing a lack of a business case … But there happens to be a business case. They just won’t look at it.”

— Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer on the Liberals’ hesitance to commit federal funding for the Ontario Line, a major subway expansion in Toronto proposed by Ontario’s Progress Conservative government.

During a campaign stop in the Greater Toronto Area on Tuesday, Scheer committed to help pay for the Ontario Line and another proposed project called the Yonge Subway Extension. 

The Facts: Few issues in the GTA are more politically divisive than transit. Decades of myopic planning and partisan wrangling have pushed public transit systems in the region to a crisis point.

The Toronto Transit Commission’s subway network is so overloaded during rush hour that passengers put their personal safety at risk on crowded platforms. Meanwhile, Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency that oversees the expansive GO Transit network, has been pulled into scandals over planning and cost overruns.

Competing transit priorities among downtown city councillors and their suburban counterparts have contributed to project delays and the construction of costly infrastructure where it didn’t really make much sense to do so. Political expediencey has often trumped prudent planning.

It was against this backdrop that Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and the provincial government of Ontario Premier Doug Ford clashed during a chaotic year that could determine Toronto’s long-term transit future.

But first, some important history. 

Late last decade, in a bid to ease the growing burden on Toronto’s subway network, the city began studying and planning a desperately needed extension known as the Relief Line. The new line would ease pressure on the busiest stretches of track while connecting east-end communities to the city’s wider transit network.

As of early this year, Relief Line planning was well underway and construction was scheduled to begin in 2020, with projected completion in 2029.

But things did not go as planned. Enter Ford and his markedly different vision for transit in the GTA.

In April, Ford’s government  revealed plans for a sustantially longer, $10.9-billion project that would replace plans for the Relief Line. The so-called Ontario Line would run for nearly 16 kilometres, from Ontario Place in the west to the Ontario Science Centre in the east.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Tuesday that the Liberals have refused to consider funding the proposed, $10.9-billion Ontario Line subway expansion in Toronto. (CBC)

The Ontario Line was just one part of a nearly $30-billion package of transit proposals unveiled unilaterally by the Ford government on the same day without any input from city officials. Ford committed a total of $11.2-billion in provincial funds to the projects, leaving Toronto and the federal government to make up the rest.

The proposal proved to be a political powder keg. Some city councillors condemned the plan, saying it would lead to planning and construction delays. One councillor even dubbed it the “Mystery Line,” alleging that the province was keeping key planning documents from the city.

In June, two of Ford’s provincial cabinet ministers held a news conference to publicly urge Trudeau’s government to fund the Ontario Line. The move came amid escalating tensions between the two governments over other controversial issues like the federal carbon levy.

But Ottawa said that the province had failed to submit a business case with the necessary information to win federal approval. Trudeau’s government would not write “blank cheques” for the proposals without more details, a Liberal staffer said.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have had a rocky relationship. The two men have accused each other’s governments of holding up public infrastructure investments. (Paul Chiasson/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Adam Vaughan, Liberal candidate and MP for Spadina-Fort York in downtown Toronto, was a particularly vocal critic.

“All we have received in Ottawa is a crude map and guesstimates on cost. This ain’t no way to run a railroad … or a province,” Vaughan tweeted at MPP Caroline Mulroney, Ontario’s transportation minister at the time.

The province inititally said its business case would be ready by the end of June. But it wasn’t released until July 25.

Some design elements of the plan earned praise from transit engineers, while other experts questioned the province’s highly ambitious timeline and moderate cost estimates.

In a statement on Tuesday, Liberal candidate Marco Mendicino suggested that the timing of the release of the business case made it impossible for the government to assess possible funding before the election campaign.

“Andrew Scheer should call up his friend Doug Ford and ask why he didn’t submit a business case for these projects until August, on the eve of the election,” Mendicino said.

The looming vote did not, however, stop the Liberals from other transit-related commitments in August, like $1.2-billion for a new tramway in Quebec City or $1 billion to ease congestion at one of the busiest subway stations in Toronto.

Verdict: Partially true. Scheer is correct that a business case has been submitted, but the Liberals haven’t said they won’t consider funding the Ontario Line if they are re-elected. Given a number of important questions that persist around the Ford government’s unilateral plan for the Ontario Line and opposition to the proposal from some Toronto city councillors, it’s not surprising Ottawa didn’t rush into making a multi-billion dollar commitment to help pay for it.

Sources: Ontario Line Initial Business Case, Infrastructure Ontario and Metrolinx; Andrew Scheer announces support for Ontario Line and Yonge Subway Extension, Conservative Party of Canada; Ontario Line dubbed ‘Mystery Line’ as province plans to submit business case by end of June, CBC News; Province says it wants federal money for the Ontario Line. Ottawa says it needs more answers, Toronto Star; Critics slam reports of Doug Ford’s changes to Toronto relief line plan, CBC News; Ottawa rejects Ontario’s demands for federal transit-line funding, citing lack of information, The Globe and Mail; Experts cast doubt on deadline, budget in Ontario Line business case, Toronto Star; Business case for Ford’s proposed Ontario Line released; transportation engineer gives it a nod, CBC News