Are we mak­ing tracks or still go­ing in cir­cles?

Toronto Star - - CANADA - Martin Regg Cohn’s po­lit­i­cal col­umn ap­pears Tues­day, Thurs­day and Satur­day. mcohn@thes­tar.ca, Twit­ter: @reg­gcohn Martin Regg Cohn

It’s not ev­ery day — nor even ev­ery year — that Toronto opens six new sub­way sta­tions. More like ev­ery other decade.

That’s a long wait for har­ried com­muters. And an eter­nity for politi­cians in a hurry.

None of the politi­cians cut­ting the rib­bons this month were in power all those years ago to cut the cheques. A timely re­minder that they only ever ben­e­fit from the short-term elec­tion cy­cle, and rarely re­main for the long-term in­vest­ment hori­zon re­quired to build sub­ways.

Against that back­drop, the backand-forth tra­jec­tory of tran­sit con­struc­tion in the GTA is eas­ier to ex­plain. Politi­cians come and go ev­ery few years, while their pet projects zigzag to their fi­nal des­ti­na­tion: For­mer fi­nance min­is­ter Greg Sor­bara drove the much-needed York Univer­sity ex­ten­sion all the way to his own rid­ing of Vaughan, a du­bi­ous ter­mi­nus; ex-mayor Mel Last­man gave us the lit­tle-used Shep­pard stub; the late Rob Ford be­gat the over­built Scar­bor­ough sub­way, with fund­ing from his fed­eral pal, then-fi­nance min­is­ter Jim Fla­herty; and Dal­ton McGuinty bankrolled much of it be­fore bail­ing as premier.

A sup­port­ing role goes to Brad Duguid, the Scar­bor­ough cab­i­net min­is­ter who warned that any sub­way changes would be “over my dead body.”

Like other tran­sit con­tor­tion­ists and ex­tor­tion­ists, Duguid isn’t run­ning again, so he will be long gone by the time his legacy be­comes our al­ba­tross.

Two public ser­vants who have danced around the Scar­bor­ough de­bate are also out of the pic­ture — chief plan­ner Jen­nifer Keesmaat has quit, and the TTC’s nim­ble CEO, Andy By­ford, is New York-bound.

Who, then, will cut the next set of rib­bons years from now?

A new cast of char­ac­ters is driv­ing the tran­sit de­bate — Premier Kath­leen Wynne, Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive Leader Pa­trick Brown, the NDP’s An­drea Hor­wath and Mayor John Tory.

De­spite their dis­parate ide­olo­gies, they have a shared al­le­giance to the du­bi­ous Scar­bor­ough sub­way ex­ten­sion that de­fies log­i­cal tran­sit plan­ning and fis­cal pru­dence.

How did the three ma­jor par­ties bond over this boon­dog­gle? So much money for one soli­tary Scar­bor­ough by­elec­tion race in 2013, when they shame­lessly out­did each other in bid­ding for voter sup­port.

To­day, as the price keeps ris­ing (more than $3.3 bil­lion), and the num­ber of sta­tions keeps de­clin­ing ( just one at Scar­bor­ough Town Cen­tre), how much longer un­til one of these politi­cians has the wit to get off this train and re­store the orig­i­nal LRT de­sign that would pay for seven more sta­tions serv­ing far more com­muters closer to where they live?

The gov­ern­ing Lib­er­als long ago made their pact with the elec­toral devil. Now, Brown’s PCs have opted to one-up them by promis­ing to al­lo­cate even more money to fu­ture cost over­runs in Scar­bor­ough, dig­ging them­selves in even deeper.

Ac­cord­ing to his cam­paign plat­form, Brown will bankroll the mis­guided sub­way tun­nelling with a new form of fi­nan­cial en­gi­neer­ing: If elected next year, the Tories plan to bring all TTC sub­way routes un­der pro­vin­cial own­er­ship, to take ad­van­tage of On­tario’s abil­ity to amor­tize the ex­penses (the TTC would still op­er­ate the sys­tem).

It’s an in­ter­est­ing ac­count­ing ex­er­cise, with­out any greater po­lit­i­cal ac­count­abil­ity. The PC tran­sit vi­sion prom­ises some­thing for ev­ery­one — a Scar­bor­ough sub­way ex­ten­sion, a Shep­pard sub­way link­age (al­ready re­jected by city coun­cil), and an ex­ten­sion to Rich­mond Hill — with­out the money to pay for it all.

On his way to New York, By­ford has be­come more can­did about the fu­ture of the fal­ter­ing Scar­bor­ough sub­way. As costs keep ris­ing, cer­tain to ex­ceed the city’s bud­geted cap, he has sug­gested coun­cil would have to re­open the de­bate.

Keesmaat, the for­mer plan­ner, also noted in re­tire­ment that there is a tip­ping point be­yond which the un­jus­ti­fi­able be­comes un­sus­tain­able.

All this sec­ond-guess­ing at city hall leaves an open­ing at Queen’s Park for some­one to turn the Scar­bor­ough gravy train around. With the Lib­er­als hun­ker­ing down and the Tories dou­bling down, will the New Democrats not take a sec­ond look at ev­ery­one’s tun­nel vi­sion?

The NDP’s Hor­wath touts her­self as the leader look­ing out for the lit­tle guy against vested in­ter­ests and po­lit­i­cal boon­dog­gles. Her party is as guilty as the oth­ers in play­ing by­elec­tion pol­i­tics four years ago by join­ing the Scar­bor­ough sweep­stakes.

But on the eve of a pro­vin­cial elec­tion what bet­ter way for the NDP to res­onate with all Toron­to­ni­ans than by re­vert­ing to the orig­i­nal LRT that would de­liver sev­eral more sta­tions in­stead of one for a lot less money?

Is there no politi­cian will­ing to get se­ri­ous about mak­ing tracks, rather than lead­ing us in cir­cles?

As the price keeps ris­ing and the num­ber of sta­tions keeps de­clin­ing, how much longer un­til one of these politi­cians has the wit to get off this train?

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