Toronto Star

Minister understand­s the need for relief

Transporta­tion head says opening subway line before Yonge extension ‘makes sense’ Minister Jeff Yurek said Ontario is reviewing all major transporta­tion projects.


Ontario’s transporta­tion minister says the TTC subway system is overcrowde­d and it “makes sense” to ensure a relief line enters service before a new subway extension to Richmond Hill.

The comments by Jeff Yurek are the closest he has come to acknowledg­ing the primacy of what Toronto officials have said is the city’s top transit priority, and come as the Ontario Progressiv­e Conservati­ve government moves to take ownership of the municipal subway system.

Last year, city council passed a motion declaring that the relief line must be operationa­l before the proposed extension of Line 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina) to Hwy. 7 in York Region enters service.

Yurek didn’t commit to honouring that decision and said there’s no reason why constructi­on of both projects couldn’t proceed at the same time, but signalled he understood the importance of opening the relief line first.

“It makes sense. It makes sense to ensure that the Yonge relief line is up and operationa­l prior to the Yonge extension being built,” he said in an interview at his office last week.

The first phase of the relief line would cost more than $6.8 billion and connect Queen and Osgoode stations downtown with Pape on the eastern end of Line 2 (Bloor-Danforth), taking pressure off of Line 1. Line 1 regularly operates above capacity, and the Yonge extension, which is backed by PC political allies in York Region, would only add more riders.

Yurek is a three-term MPP for ElginMiddl­esex-London, and was elevated to the transporta­tion portfolio in Premier Doug Ford’s surprise cabinet shuffle in early November. Before that, the 47year-old from St. Thomas, Ont., who owns a pharmacy business, was the government’s minister of natural resources.

Although he maintains a residence in his home riding, Yurek said he rides the TTC when he’s in Toronto. “It’s very crowded, especially during the rush hour,” he said. “I really understand the need for improvemen­ts or relief.”

Yurek fuelled concerns at city hall last week when, in a speech to the Toronto Region Board of Trade, he spoke about plans to expand the subway network to suburban municipali­ties in Durham, York and Peel, but made no mention of the relief line.

In the interview, he rejected the idea that the province’s plan to take ownership of the subway amounts to a suburban takeover of the network that would starve the system within Toronto, saying if existing lines become too crowded, “that makes the whole system not function to its best potential.”

Yurek also defended the government’s proposal to use the TTC subway to serve the suburbs outside of Toronto. Critics argue the GO Transit network, which is already owned by the province, was designed to serve those regions.

He said that after uploading the subway, the province would use a mix of the TTC and the GO network to serve the entire Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. GO trains may work best in some contexts, he said, but in others “it makes sense to build subways, either above or below ground.”

The mandate given to the government’s special adviser on the upload plan states that, in addition to the subway system, the province is contemplat­ing taking ownership of “other strategic transit/transporta­tion assets in Toronto.”

Yurek wouldn’t reveal what those additional assets could be.

The minister denied accusation­s made by the Ontario NDP and the largest TTC workers’ union that the Progressiv­e Conservati­ves intend to privatize aspects of the subway system. “That’s something that I haven’t looked at,” he said, arguing that the province is simply better positioned than the city to plan, fund and build new subway lines, but would leave operations to the TTC.

The province plans to introduce legislatio­n early next year that would enable the upload, but Yurek said there would be a period of negotiatio­ns with the city before any assets are transferre­d.

On Thursday, the minister sent a letter to Mayor John Tory, seeking his written consent for the city to enter into an informatio­n sharing agreement with the province to advance the upload plan. Tory has told the city manager he believes taking part is the best way to protect the city’s interests, but critics on council have said he should stonewall the province and not co-operate in anything that could lead to the province taking over the rail network. Council is expected to debate the issue Dec. 13.

After their election win in June, the Conservati­ves inherited a host of expensive transit projects from the previous Liberal government. The new regime’s efforts to cut costs to address a $15-billion deficit has led to speculatio­n that some planned new lines will be cancelled, including the $1.2-billion Finch West LRT, which is in the early constructi­on phase and is set to open in northwest Toronto in 2023.

Yurek said the government is conducting a review of all major projects, and did not rule out cancelling Finch.

As of January, Metrolinx had already spent $236.3 million on the light rail line, and ripping up contracts with constructi­on companies and vehicle suppliers would likely result in expensive financial penalties for the government. Yurek said cost would be a factor in the decision on Finch.

“We don’t want to waste any money. We don’t see making decisions that are going to hurt the taxpayer,” he said.

The Conservati­ves have introduced legislatio­n to give the minister of transporta­tion more direct control over Metrolinx, which was establishe­d in 2006 as an arms-length agency of the province. The proposed changes come after the Star revealed in 2017 that then Liberal transporta­tion minister Steven Del Duca interfered in Metrolinx’s planning process to secure approval for two politicall­y sensitive GO stations, including one in his own riding in Vaughan, that weren’t supported by evidence.

Yurek said the location of his hometown, some 90 kilometres from the nearest GO line, made it unlikely he would become embroiled in that kind of controvers­y.

“You know, that’s the best thing about being from St. Thomas — I’m not going to want a GO station or a subway in my riding,” he said.


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