Province's proposed transit changes spark fierce debate at Toronto city hall

Premier Doug Ford's plans to make sweeping changes to major Toronto transit projects as part of the Ontario government's planned subway upload highlighted deep divisions at city hall on Wednesday.

Council votes against walking away from transit talks with Doug Ford's government

In a series of letters to the city, the province outlined significant changes to four major transit projects. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

Premier Doug Ford's plans to make sweeping changes to major Toronto transit projects as part of the Ontario government's planned subway upload are highlighting deep divisions at city hall on Wednesday.

Toronto Mayor John Tory struck a placatory tone in his initial assessment of the province's intentions, but some councillors are already calling for the city to block the Ford government any way it can.

Coun. Joe Cressy, a vocal critic of the proposed upload, told CBC Toronto that the talks have not been transparent. He said two unexpected letters spelling out major changes to the city's transit plans, released Tuesday evening, make it "very clear" the province intends to "tear up the city's transit network and do whatever they want."

"That is a recipe for four more years of transit sitting in neutral and not being built," he added.

However, on Wednesday afternoon, city council voted against breaking off talks with the province. 

Councillors did pass a range of motions connected to the proposed upload, including calls for the province to recognize the relief line as an urgent priority and disclose details about any new technology it's planning to put in place. They also unanimously approved launching a public information campaign about the upload process.

The campaign is expected to include ads on TTC vehicles and in stations, as well as a series of public consultations to help residents better understand the consequences of transferring control of the city's subways to the province. 

Tory has made it clear he wants the talks to continue. "If you're not at the table then your views are not being heard," he said. 

Meanwhile, Coun. Michael Ford, the premier's nephew, accused his colleagues of "fighting and fighting and fighting" not because of the province's ideas but because of the person putting them forward.

Province eyeing major changes to city plans

The votes came at a critical juncture for the city's transit future. 

In two letters sent to the city manager and chief executive of the TTC, Ontario's special advisor on the upload, Michael Lindsay, outlined a number of possible revisions to four priority transit projects. The first was sent on March 22, and the other on March 26, with the content evolving between iterations. 

The vague letters have fuelled mistrust as the province and city work to hammer out the terms of a possible upload. Several councillors said they were not aware of their existence until Tuesday evening, the night before today's city hall debate.

"It is evident that we are not aligned on key issues related to the design/delivery of priority expansion projects," wrote Lindsay and Shelley Tapp, Ontario's deputy minister of transportation.

Speaking to reporters, Tory said the letters caught him off-guard, though he was not necessarily surprised by much of their content, he added. He cautioned that maintaining a constructive relationship with the province is critical to ensuring transit projects are built. 

Continuing to push for the city's priorities at the table is the most effective way to move forward, he added.

He also pointed to comments made by Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek during interviews with various media on Wednesday morning, in which Yurek repeatedly stressed that everything outlined in the letters is negotiable. Tory said he believes the province is still working in good faith. 

"We simply cannot build transit alone," Tory continued.

City concerned about potential delays

Tory did, however, express concern that the province's ambiguous proposals could result in significant delays for projects that are already underway in terms of design and planning.

During Wednesday's debate, several councillors raised concerns about the possibility for massive sunk costs already invested into different projects. 

The potential changes include a reversion back to a three-stop Scarborough subway, a "free-standing" downtown relief line, extending the Yonge subway line and potentially tunnelling a "significant portion" of the Eglinton West LRT line.

Staff repeatedly cautioned that more specific information is needed before they are able to draw any firm conclusions about the ultimate impact of the proposals on the timing and costs of various projects. 

Coun. Gord Perks, who opposes the upload and supports breaking off talks with the province, said that Torontonians should be "terribly alarmed" by the province's plans. 

"We're not going to see anything for years as a result of this," he said in a interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

You can listen to the full interview below:

With files from Lucas Powers and Lauren Pelley