Matthews throt­tles back on re­gion’s fast rail hopes

The Chatham Daily News - - FRONT PAGE - PA­TRICK MALONEY

From “game changer,” to not-so­fast. Or, so it seems.

Deputy Pre­mier Deb Matthews is tap­ping the brakes on dreams of a high-speed rail line link­ing Toronto through South­west­ern On­tario, say­ing her Lib­eral gov­ern­ment promised to study — not nec­es­sar­ily build — the project.

The qual­i­fied sup­port from Matthews, who along with other Lon­don MPPs met with city coun­cil mem­bers Wed­nes­day, drew crit­i­cism from New Democrats as proof the Lib­er­als pitched the plan to win votes in the 2014 provin­cial elec­tion.

“We never said we would build high-speed rail. We promised we would do the home­work,” Matthews said in re­sponse to ques­tions from Coun. Harold Usher. “None of us wants to build a white ele­phant. I just want to be clear on the com­mit­ment.”

Weeks be­fore the 2014 elec­tion, then-trans­porta­tion min­is­ter Glen Mur­ray out­lined the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment’s plan for a high-speed rail sys­tem — start­ing later that year with an en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ment and busi­ness case — in an ad­dress to Lon­don busi­ness lead­ers.

“If peo­ple think this is out of scope or pos­si­bil­ity, it is not,” he told the Cham­ber of Com­merce.

Late that same year Matthews, the Lon­don North Cen­tre MPP, said “this is a real game changer for Lon­don,” af­ter the prov­ince an­nounced it would be­gin the en­vi­ron­men­tal as­sess­ment for a high-speed line link­ing Wind­sor, Lon­don, Kitch­ener-Water­loo and Toronto.

Wed­nes­day, Matthews said she be­lieves a high-speed link to Toronto would “change Lon­don’s for­tunes en­tirely,” bring­ing it into the com­muter or­bit of Canada’s big­gest city. But she was cau­tious about a study on a Toronto-to-Wind­sor sys­tem, which is led by for­mer fed­eral trans­port min­is­ter David Col­lenette and could be re­leased this spring.

“My con­cern is about rid­er­ship,” she said. “Will peo­ple get out of their cars (and) onto high-speed rail if it’s avail­able?”

Those com­ments — not nearly as con­fi­dent as Lib­eral min­is­ters sounded in 2014 — could stoke con­cern the mas­sive project, talked about for decades, may not ac­tu­ally hap­pen — or, more painfully for Lon­don, it could only go as far west as Kitch­ener-Water­loo, leav­ing Lon­don on the out­side of a po­ten­tial eco­nomic surge.

Kitch­ener-Water­loo is the outer limit in Western On­tario of the On­tario gov­ern­ment’s own com­muter rail ser­vice to Toronto, the GO sys­tem.

The Fi­nan­cial Post also re­cently re­ported that an air­line is of­fer­ing 18-minute flights be­tween K-W and Toronto, pos­si­bly start­ing by June.

NDP MPP Peggy Sat­tler ex­pressed “sur­prise” with Matthews’ high­speed rail com­ments. In a post­meet­ing in­ter­view, she said Matthews struck a much dif­fer­ent tone than the pre-elec­tion Lib­eral com­ments.

“As I re­call, about a month be­fore the last elec­tion, all of a sud­den high-speed rail was held up as a shiny ob­ject,” the Lon­don West MPP said.

“I would want to make sure the re­lease of Col­lenette’s re­port and what­ever en­sues is not used again as an elec­tion gift go­ing into the (2018) provin­cial elec­tion.”

Late Wed­nes­day, Matthews’ of­fice is­sued a clar­i­fi­ca­tion of her com­ments through her press sec­re­tary, say­ing “high-speed rail truly has the po­ten­tial to trans­form the way we travel in our re­gion,” and that “our gov­ern­ment has proven” its com­mit­ment to the project by launch­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal study and ap­point­ing Col­lenette as a spe­cial ad­viser on the project.

“Mr. Col­lenette re­cently tabled his re­port with us and we look for­ward to pro­vid­ing an up­date on this im­por­tant project in the very near fu­ture,” Matthews said in the state­ment.

Wed­nes­day’s meet­ing be­tween city politi­cians and Lon­don MPPs touched on a num­ber of is­sues, but there were two ar­eas of fo­cus — trans­porta­tion and hous­ing. The lat­ter was timely, given that 12 hours ear­lier, coun­cil put $1.6 mil­lion of sur­plus cash into af­ford­able hous­ing.

Coun. Josh Mor­gan sug­gested cities like Lon­don need more “flex­i­bil­ity” with fund­ing to help the most vul­ner­a­ble, a call Sat­tler ap­plauded.

“The great­est need (in a lot of pub­lic hous­ing) is sup­ports for the peo­ple who live there,” Sat­tler said.

“The city has iden­ti­fied a place where, rather than rigid fund­ing streams, it would be use­ful (to have) some flex­i­bil­ity . . . to ac­tu­ally meet the needs of peo­ple.”

City politi­cians also met with Lon­don’s fed­eral MPs Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, where BRT was among the is­sues dis­cussed.



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