Cutting a Deal on Subways


City Council has been riding the rails in circles this month. The problem: Premier Doug Ford made a campaign promise to upload TTC subways, copying two previous Progressive Conservative leaders who made the same promise. This would shift responsibility for repairing subways and building more over to Queen’s Park. The Premier says he’d prefer to negotiate the upload if the City is willing.


In reply, many City officials insist Ford wants to “steal” the TTC. It’s a strange reaction, given how often City Hall has told the Province that it doesn’t have enough financial room for more transit, public housing repairs or other infrastructure problems.


Mayor Tory and many councillors insist part of the problem is that they can’t negotiate yet because they aren’t sure what the Premier is actually offering. When presented with this problem in business, many negotiators step up and make an offer first. When the debate was over “revenue tools,” the lack of a provincial offer never stopped city councillors from announcing their own wish list. Why not do the same here?


Nobody outside of Queen’s Park knows what Premier Ford’s exact plan is, but given his public statements so far, and given City Council’s existing (and far from fully funded) transit plans, it isn’t hard to see where a middle of the road deal could be found.


Step one: the province would agree to take on the City’s subway debts, in exchange for the subway assets that come with those debts. This would free up enough City debt room to end 100% of the repair problem at Toronto Community Housing in one go, and still leave room to build more of it without raising taxes (to pick just one example of what’s possible).


Second, the province can agree that the existing TTC would operate the subways on a contract, on the understanding that TTC systems would continue to connect with GO Transit and other municipal systems as regional transit plans grow. If building the Relief Line first is a priority, City Council can always propose that as a condition, too, instead of waiting for the Province to propose priorities first.


This brings us to the toughest sticking point: “air rights,” or the right to develop over and beside transit stations. Many at City Hall insist it’s unfair for Queen’s Park to get the value of these air rights, even though the City did next to nothing to develop them for decades. Toronto even built most of the newest York subway extension stations to be architectural statements rather than as spaces for homes and businesses.


There’s a compromise here, too. If the province agrees that every dollar raised from subway air rights development must go to build transit and affordable housing inside the City of Toronto, everyone wins, since this will help to fund priorities shared by both governments.


Councillors who oppose negotiation should explain what their politically practical alternative is to get current transit plans fully-funded. The problem is urgent. “Waiting for a new government” doesn’t respond to that urgency. And remember, the Wynne government was paying 100% for new transit lines while rejecting City “revenue tools” like tolls long before Ford was elected.


Whatever the alternative, we need a more rational, regional, provincially-funded model to get more transit funded, built and repaired in the Toronto region. The upload can be a starting point to deliver that model.


Jan De Silva is President and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade