Transit money available: premier
Says province expects to put more into multibillion-dollar project
By Mohammed Adam, The Ottawa CitizenSeptember 19, 2009 12:01 AM
OTTAWA — Dalton McGuinty has given the clearest indication yet that the province will support Ottawa’s multibillion-dollar transit project, saying the Liberals will provide more money for the new plan.
The premier told reporters Friday that it is unrealistic to expect that the $200 million the province provided as its contribution to the cancelled north-south rail line will be enough to modernize the city’s transit system.
“I think any sensible assessment of our needs in this community when it comes to a modern transit system is going to require more than $200 million from the people of Ontario through their provincial government,” he said.
“Obviously, we want to be realistic … but being realistic requires that we recognize that $200 million is not going to cut it. We’re going to have to do more than that and, over time, we expect we will.”
McGuinty was in Ottawa to open the new $58-million Garry Cardiff wing at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario.
His declaration on the $5-billion transit project will come as great relief in Ottawa, where until now, no one was certain of provincial support.
The McGuinty government was excited about the $800-million north-south project, which collapsed in December 2006 after then-Treasury Board secretary John Baird pulled the plug on federal funding, saying he wanted a new council to make the final call. Baird’s decision, in the middle of a municipal election campaign, was seen
by many as an attempt to undermine then-mayor Bob Chiarelli, a Liberal.
When the new council, under conservative Mayor Larry O’Brien, killed the plan, it was seen as a political move, casting serious doubt on the willingness of the McGuinty Liberals to back a new plan.
After council passed the $5-billion plan, Queen’s Park expressed only lukewarm support, with ministers such as Jim Watson, the MPP for Ottawa-West Nepean questioning whether it was affordable. Provincial support was uncertain, and the plan seemed to be in limbo despite brave talk from city politicians.
However, hopes were raised this week when Infrastructure Minister George Smitherman said definitively for the first time that Ontario is willing to provide more than the $200 million set aside in 2004. McGuinty has now put his own stamp of approval on additional funding, suggesting the Liberals have moved on from their 2006 disappointment.
Officials say what may have turned minds was a recognition by the city that a plan with a significant bus component would not cut it with the province. In 2006, provincial transport officials were as keen as their political masters on the north-south rail line. In discussions with city officials, it became clear that the new plan’s significant extension of busways into the suburbs didn’t grab the province.
It was not surprising that the city eventually included an option for provincial funding that would see a reduced, but recognizable, version of the original north-south rail line as an early part of the new plan.
Friday, Watson dismissed suggestions that the city included the north-south link to appease the province. But he said everyone recognizes that for the transit plan to pass muster, it must meet the approval of all three partners — the city, the province and the federal government.
McGuinty also refused to be drawn into a discussion of a resuscitated north-south link, saying he will not “insinuate” himself into the discussion under way between his bureaucrats and the city’s.
“I think it is an important part of the conversation to have between the city folks and the ministry folks,” he said.
Still, the premier warned that the province doesn’t have “an endless supply of money” to pour into the project, and Watson stressed that the plan must still meet two important tests: First, it has to show that it will increase transit ridership and move people from their cars, and second, it has to make financial sense.
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