A mayoral debate focused on public transit went ahead on Wednesday night without John Tory.

The debate, which took place on the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, was jointly put on by the transit advocacy organization TTCriders, the Scarborough Civic Action Network and the student union at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

While organizers of the debate had initially planned for Tory to square off with former chief planner-turned mayoral candidate Jennifer Keesmaat in a one-on-one discussion on transit issues, that format was scrapped after he declined their invite.

Tory’s team tells CTV News Toronto there was a scheduling conflict, and he is instead attending a fundraiser tonight.

The debate, meanwhile, went ahead with Keesmaat and fellow mayoral candidates Sarah Climenhaga and Saron Gebresellassi.

Keesmaat addressed what she plans to bring to the table in terms of transit if elected as mayor.

“We know that the province has stalled on delivering integration with GO so that you can get on the TTC and get on the GO without having to pay multiple fares,” she said. “We need to press the province to solve this issue and that’s a Metrolinx issue. We also need to work with the mayors to provide inter-municipal fare coordination so that you’re not paying twice from the city of Toronto to Mississauga or to Vaughan or to Oshawa – it should be a consistent fare that makes it affordable for students.”

“The third thing that we need is a transferable pass so we can have fares function the way people actually move in, which is on a regional basis.”

Climenhaga also commented on the need for fare integration within the GTA.

“We need to pressure the province, we need to talk to the municipalities and we need to make that integration happen,” Climenhagasaid. “It’s just ridiculous that taking the Yonge Street bus or the Bathurst Street bus and you’re going five blocks past Steeles Avenue, which is a hostile pedestrian environment, costs you whatever that fare is to go those extra blocks.”

“I think we need to absolutely address that fare integration.”

Tory was given the questions posed at the debate and provided his answers via email to CP24.

In his answers Tory touted his implementation of the King Street pilot project, the PRESTO system and the Fare Fair Pass.

“I was the first mayor to take a real, concrete step toward fare integration by negotiating a co-fare agreement with the province and Metrolinx,” Tory said. “For the first time, TTC and GO riders are offered a discounted fare if travelling between the two agencies.”

“Ensuring the TTC remains affordable is also a key priority for me. This is why I introduced free rides for kids 12 and under, which saves families hundreds of dollars a year, and introduced the hop on hop off transfer, which means riders like students can make multiple stops and only pay once. Students can now stop for food, run errands and get to class on one TTC fare.”

Meanwhile, Gebresellassi added that she would like to see the low income pass “extended universally.”

When responding to the idea of the province uploading the TTC subway system, Tory said he will “fight vigorously to ensure the City’s interests are protected.”

“I have always said that the TTC belongs to the residents of Toronto,” he said. “I would not support any plan to upload the subway unless there were significant benefits to TTC riders, TTC workers and the Toronto residents on the whole.”

Tory added he plans to continue the transit projects he has been working on, including the downtown relief line north and south, the LRT on Eglinton east and west, and the waterfront LRT.

During a speech at the Canadian Club over the lunch hour, Keesmaat suggested that in refusing to attend the debate, Tory is showing that he “doesn’t want to be held accountable” for what she said is his failure to deliver on his ‘SmartTrack’ proposal.

“’SmartTrack’ promised fancy new London-style commuter trains. None will ever be bought. And it promised 22 stations, which would be built at no cost to Toronto through a special levy on developers. Instead, we may add six stations to the GO system – at a cost to Toronto taxpayers of $1.4 billion, on a system that is otherwise fully paid for by the provincial government,” she said. “That is John Tory’s transit plan. And he is desperate – so very desperate -- not to talk about it. He’s going to be an empty chair at tonight’s transit debate, because he doesn’t want to be held accountable for what became of ‘SmartTrack.’ But the results are there for us all to see.”

Mayor’s office says SmartTrack is moving ahead

The mayor’s office said on Tuesday that Environment Minister Rod Phillips has signed the necessary regulations which will allow the city to “proceed with the construction of the new SmartTrack stations.”

In a news release, Tory called it “an important step in getting SmartTrack up and running to provide real transit relief for Toronto residents.”

Keesmaat, however, took issue with that assessment. In her speech, she said that the plan was “drawn on the back of a napkin” by Tory’s political strategists.

“It made no sense as anything but an election slogan. And almost none of it is happening,” she said.

Speaking with reporters at a campaign event earlier on Wednesday, Tory said that he stands by his record on transit.

He conceded that his opponents will likely take shots at him during tonight’s debate but said they would do so whether he was there or not.

“That is what goes with being in the job. But I will just tell you I have a plan and it is a plan that has been approved by city council and funded by other levels of government to the tune of $9 billion and I am for getting on it with it, which is what we are doing,” he said. “Ms. Keesmaat has little changes she wants to make, big changes actually. She wants to move something here, take a line out there and shuffle some money around over there and we all know what the result from that is. If you start opening up a plan that has been approved and funded, you are going to have years of discussion and debate.”

In a statement provided to CP24 on Wednesday afternoon, Tory’s campaign pointed out that Keesmaat endorsed the plan for SmartTrack back in 2016 when she was the city’s chief planner and only began criticizing it after launching her mayoral campaign.

“Now that she's a mayoral candidate, Ms. Keesmaat wants to cancel SmartTrack stations and pull apart the council-approved transit expansion plan. Re-drawing and re-debating the transit plan means nothing gets built. It means more congestion. It means even more packed buses and subways,” the statement said.