Parties try to get on track with voters as transit emerges as campaign issue

As Ontario's political parties prepare for the start of the spring election campaign next week, transit issues have started to play prominently into the discourse among party leaders.

From subways in Toronto to rail service in the north, transit is a hot-button issue in Ontario

Transit issues have come under the microscope this week as Ontario's political parties prepare for the election campaign. (CBC News)

As Ontario's political parties prepare for the start of the spring election campaign next week, transit issues have started to play prominently into the discourse among party leaders.

Premier Kathleen Wynne was in Toronto with Mayor John Tory on Thursday to re-announce the province's funding commitment for priority transit projects in the city, including the desperately needed Downtown Relief Line, an extension to Line 1 Yonge-Spadina and the Waterfront LRT. 

The money itself was already laid out in the governing Liberals' 2018 budget. In all, Ontario committed $7.3 billion to projects province-wide, in addition to $8.3 billion from Ottawa. Wynne said Thursday that transit in Toronto will see some $9 billion of that total sum.

"It's real, it's happening," said Tory, who added that the commitments come after decades of transit planning negotiations between all three levels of government that failed to yield any results.

"At the end of the day, we now have $9 billion. It can be allocated across a list of priority projects given to the other governments by the City of Toronto."

Mixed grades on transit

Wynne and Tory spoke to reporters while an organization that advocates on behalf of public transit users in Toronto held a news conference of its own to release a "vote transit report card" that gave the parties mixed grades for their campaign commitments.

TTCriders, a grassroots group that says it represents the interests of some 1.8 million transit users, said that while no party managed an "A+ grade," the organization says the Ontario PCs is the only one that "failed." 

(Courtesy of TTC Riders)

Shelagh Pizey-Allen, executive director of TTCriders, said the reason for the low grade is that the PCs "have failed to turn in their homework," referencing the fact that the party has not yet released a costed campaign platform. PC Leader Doug Ford has said that one is coming but not until after the writ drops on May 9. 

In an emailed statement, a PC spokesperson defended Ford's record on transit issues and hinted that the party will have more to say during the campaign.

"Doug Ford has spent his whole career fighting to building more subways and transit in the City of Toronto. Folks across the province know that he supports the modes of transit that will actually relieve congestion and get people moving," the statement said.

"Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals can't be trusted when it comes to building transit. We will have a transit plan soon, stay tuned!"

Wynne's Liberals received mixed grades and were also roundly criticized by the group for floating the possibility of privatizing a number of current and future transit projects in the 2018 provincial budget. 

However, their promise to set a $3 fare for all GO Transit and UP Express trips for those using a Presto card — a commitment also made by the NDP — was lauded in the report card.

Toronto is set to receive some $9 billion for priority infrastructure projects. (Mike Wise/CBC)

The Green party scored top marks for their commitment to provide stable funding, as well as $1-billion annually to build new projects. The NDP's transit commitments also drew praise from the group, in particular, Pizey-Allen said the NDP's promise to fund 50 per cent of the TTC's net operating costs would be a significant step toward better service on the network (the Greens have made the same pledge).

According to the NDP's platform, the move would mean $330 million more for the TTC annually. 

TTCriders compared the parties based on three criteria that it says would best serve riders:

  • Fair funding for the TTC.
  • Expanding transit (funding for "sensible transit projects where they help riders most").
  • Maintaining public control over TTC assets.

The organization has called on all of the political parties to, at minimum, match the City of Toronto's annual TTC operating subsidy of $730 million. It has also come out against the controversial, multi-billion dollar one-stop Scarborough subway extension, which Ford has supported over the construction of a light rail transit network. 

Spotlight on rail in the north

During a stop in Kenora, Ont., this week, Ford made headlines when he promised to bring back the passenger rail service Northlander should the PCs form government in June. The service that connected Cochrane, Ont., to Toronto was shut down in 2012 after years of increasing operating subsidies and stagnant ridership numbers.

"It is time for real action, not more empty talk," Ford said in a tweet on Thursday.

"I heard you loud and clear. You want the Northlander, and I will deliver it."

The NDP has similarly committed to restarting the line, which served vast areas of northeastern Ontario that now rely almost entirely on diminishing bus service.

But Wynne reiterated her government's position that there is "no business case" for the Northlander to return. 

She added that Ontario Northland Railway, which operated the Northlander, was losing money "hand over fist" when service ended.

"For a business guy, who purports to understand how these things work, he's making a really irresponsible promise there," Wynne said.