The province's decision to cut back funding for the Transit City project is a huge blow to Mayor David Miller's legacy projects, but how should mayoral candidates respond?

Miller, who isn't running for a third term in the Oct. 25 election, was still furious on Friday when talking about the province's decision in its 2010 provincial budget to delay about $4 billion in work on the light-rail-transit expansion program.

"I understand difficult fiscal positions. The city's been in one for years," Miller told reporters. "But you don't balance budgets by stopping building the future. That's the job of a government. I mean, were all those announcements just to make announcements?"

There wasn't much angst evident in the people running to replace him. Here is a summary of reaction as reported by the Toronto Star:

  • Coun. Giorgio Mammoliti: He thinks the TTC should be uploaded to the province
  • Coun. Rob Ford: Welcomed the delay, saying he didn't support the Eglinton and Finch Avenue West lines. He cited the St. Clair Avenue West project's problems, which suffered from delays and cost overruns 
  • Former Liberal cabinet minister George Smitherman: Thought Transit City should be slowed down, also mentioned St. Clair Ave. W.
  • Former federal Liberal insider Rocco Rossi: Said he will use the campaign to talk about a transit plan that is realistic, achievable and affordable, adding he agreed the city needed the province to partner with it on transit
  • Publisher Sarah Thomson: Used the opportunity to tout a subway system funded by a rush-hour toll system on roads.

Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone, the lone candidate running specifically on preserving the Miller legacy, was dismayed by the cancellation. He was the only one to mention the spectre of the Mike Harris years.

The Harris-led Progressive Conservatives came to power following the June 8, 1995 provincial election, replacing the NDP government of Bob Rae (now a Toronto Liberal MP) and inheriting a poor provincial fiscal situation.

Toronto public transit expansion was an early casualty in the Harris government's harsh approach to getting the province's books in order .

Deals had been signed with the province in 1993 to fund expansion of the subway system, with new lines planned for Eglinton Avenue and Sheppard Avenue -- the culmination of a 10-year battle.

Construction had actually begun on the 4.4-kilometre Eglinton West line when the project was cancelled slightly more than a month after Harris won power. The Sheppard line proceeded, with its official opening in 2002.

However, some call it the Sheppard stubway line, as it only runs 3.4 kilometres from Yonge Street eastward to the Fairview Mall. It had originally been planned to stop at the  Scarborough Town Centre.

And that was the last major expansion of public transit capacity until Transit City.

Transit City

In 2007, the city unveiled its $6-billion Transit City plan to build seven new Light Rail Transit (LRT) lines totalling about 120 kilometres in length.

"Once implemented, the Transit City LRT lines will support local economic development and reduce greenhouse emissions by allowing people to choose public transit as a convenient alternative to the private automobile," the TTC says on its website.

"Each line will provide seamless connections with the existing TTC subway system, GO Transit, other Transit City LRT routes and regional public transit networks."

Several months later in 2007 (a provincial election year), Premier Dalton McGuinty unveiled MoveOntario 2020, a $17.5-billion rapid-transit plan for the GTA and Hamilton. It specifically included Transit City.

The next year, Metrolinx unveiled The Big Move, which was to be a regional rapid transit plan.

On April 1, 2009, McGuinty held a news conference, with Miller applauding vigorously in the background, to announce $9 billion in funding for the following priority projects:

  • Eglinton Avenue, from Kennedy station to Pearson International Airport
  • Finch Avenue, from the Yonge subway line to Humber College, and east to Don Mills station
  • Scarborough Rapid Transit upgrading and extension
  • Improvements for York Region's VIVA Bus Rapid Transit

In the March 25 budget, those were the projects being identified for delay, to produce $4 billion in savings on capital spending.

It is believed the extension of the University-Spadina subway line to York University is a go, as is the rail link between downtown and Pearson International Airport. Such a rail link has been talked about for decades, but the 2015 Pan-Am Games give a reason for finishing the job.

On Friday, McGuinty appeared defensive about the backlash.

"I can't be there as quickly as he (Miller) would like us to, because my world has changed. We've been hit by this recession. Our revenues plummeted, but our expenditures skyrocketed. We had to invest in stimulus," he said.

"Understand what we're saying: We're not saying we're killing a single one of these projects. All we're saying is we're going to take a bit more time to make these investments."

Transport Action Ontario's Natalie Litwin noted Friday that McGuinty didn't cut funding for a new highway in Windsor, or for an extension to Highway 407, the toll highway that Harris privatized.

Things change

While there's no guarantee the McGuinty Liberals will be in power after the October 2011 election, there will almost assuredly still be a huge deficit. A different party in power will almost certainly have different priorities.

It can be hard to regain lost momentum on big, expensive projects such as transit.

"When you say 'losing momentum,' you've really captured the essence of the (problem)," MP Alan Tonks (Lib., York South-Weston), who was Metro chairman when the Harris government pulled the plug on the Eglinton subway, told

Grand plans for public mass transit go back more than a generation.

For mayoral candidates out on the hustings, Tonks urged them to consider the regional picture when constructing transit policy and to show some vision.

"If we want to deal with congestion, and quality of life, and air quality, and development and planned growth, we have to get on with building those systems that will reach and feed those needs," he said.

But if they're talking about going in a brand-new direction from Transit City, one risk is they might find themselves in a brand-new fight for funding from the province, he said. 

"That has happened before. It can happen again. All I'm saying is an election campaign would be a good opportunity to forcefully keep the province at the table and to commit to building a system that serves the needs of the citizens."