Airport rail link may fly
Published: July 6, 2008
Source: By JONATHAN JENKINS AND ANTONELLA ARTUSO, SUN MEDIA

For years it's been the little engine that couldn't.

But high-level talks between Queen's Park and SNC-Lavalin are building steam, and construction could begin on a rail link from Union Station to Pearson Airport as early as 2009 -- more than a year after the long-sought after train was originally intended to start running.

A senior provincial government source told Sun Media that sensitive talks are under way with SNC-Lavalin and will continue throughout the summer.

The province is interested in proceeding with the project if negotiations go well.

"We'll be able to move forward," the source said.

If the timeline unfolds as anticipated, an environmental assessment would begin this fall and construction on the actual air-rail link could start as early as late 2009.

Dalton McGuinty's cabinet has instructed Infrastructure Ontario to work with regional planning authority Metrolinx and the company to see if there can be an agreement in principle by this fall.

SNC was picked to design, build, operate and maintain the service in 2003 in a deal that gave it the right to negotiate with Ontario, GO Transit and CN Rail.

The air-rail link is expected to figure prominently in a regional transportation plan being prepared by Metrolinx, originally slated for release at the end of this month but now expected after Labour Day.

The environmental assessment will also consider whether a stop should be built in the politically sensitive riding of York South-Weston, Sun Media has learned, a swing seat home to ardent critics of the Union-Pearson train link.

The air-rail link is seen as vital to the McGuinty government's $17-billion Move 2020 transit expansion plan. It's also critical to keeping Toronto a player on the world stage and capturing the 2015 Pan Am Games.

First announced in 2000, the plan to connect Union Station to the international airport 30 km away was intended to plug a massive hole in the regional transportation system -- a link almost every other major global centre has -- and firm up Toronto's ultimately unsuccessful bid for the 2008 summer Olympics, soon to kick off in Beijing.

When SNC-Lavalin was chosen in 2003 to build the line, it dubbed it Blue22 for the length of time the trip would take and pegged the fare at $20. The system was to be running by 2008.

GO Transit and SNC filed terms of reference for an environmental assessment of the scheme, along with other proposals for expansion of service along the Georgetown rail corridor in October 2006.

That document has remain -ed on the environment minister's desk ever since. Greg Ashbee, manager for rail expansion projects with GO Transit, said he would have expected the terms of reference to be approved and the assessment under way by now. "We need to hear soon because we need to expand service in the Georgetown corridor," Ashbee said.

Part of the de -lay could be sensitivity to the complaints of Weston residents resisting rail expansion through the heart of their neighbourhood,

Liberal MPP Laura Albanese, who opposes a high-speed train, said: "I think the fact that the terms of reference have been with the ministry for so long means that they are listening to the concerns of the community."

Now she believes winning a station stop for the air-rail link in Weston will mollify the community's concerns.

"It would slow the train down and it would be just like a GO train," she said. "It could put Weston back on the map."

In the meantime, potential travellers, suppliers and even the airport itself are left waiting on the platform wondering if the train will ever arrive.

Scott Armstrong, spokesman for the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, said work prepping the airport for the link is already done and is just waiting for a train.

"We're hopeful it will go forward, but we're not making any assumptions," he said.

Industrial Rail Services, the Moncton company lined up to refurbish the rail diesel cars SNC hoped to use on the run, said it could have had all the work done in less time than the province has spent reviewing the environmental assessment terms of reference.

"If they're still prepared to use refurbished (diesel cars) we have 25 of them sitting in our backyard," vice-president Chris Evers said. "(But) we would have to have a contract signed before we turn a wrench."

The torturously slow progress is also wearing on the federal government, which kicked off the plan when Jean Chretien was prime minister.

"The environmental assessment for this project has been bogged down for two years now, with no sign of any progress," federal Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon said in a December 2007 speech to the Toronto Board of Trade. "The lack of a fast, frequent connection to downtown from the airport in a world-class city such as Toronto is turning into an embarrassment."

His office issued a statement earlier this week reiterating his position and calling the delays "unacceptable".

"We continue to await information from Ontario with regards to the provincial environmental assessment and how the project can be advanced," the statement said.

That process may well be much easier now that Ontario has introduced a new streamlined regime for transit projects, ensuring a decision on approval is made within six months of the assessment being completed.

GO Transit is even considering withdrawing the terms of reference that were originally submitted in 2006 and submitting them again under the new rules, Ashbee said.

OBJECTIONS LIMITED

Besides giving a firm date for a decision, the new rules limit objections against a project to issues of province-wide concern, aboriginal rights or health issues.

"It can't just be 'I don't want trains in my backyard,' " Ashbee said.

Details of the service will be have to be thrashed out in talks now ongoing between the province and SNC.

Halton regional chairman Gary Carr, a board member of Metrolinx, said the agency is looking at three or four possible scenerios for transit improvements that would require different investment commitments.

"There has been talk about the link to the airport -- how would that fit in, how much is that going to cost and what's the time frame," he said.

Because the Metrolinx board brings together representatives from across the GTA region, it can look at transit improvements from a broader perspective, he said.

"For example, if we do do a link to the airport, that could be a hub for buses from Oakville and Milton, and so on ... So we're looking at the whole region, as opposed to in the past when it was just a link between the airport and Toronto."