TORONTO – It’s unfair for the Liberal government to subsidize public transit in southern Ontario while planning to privatize train service in the north, New Democrat house leader Gilles Bisson said Thursday.
The government is willing to subsidize GO trains for commuters in the south but insists it can no longer afford to subsidize train travel in the north and will sell off the Ontario Northland Transportation Corporation, complained Bisson.
“Northern Ontarians want to know why it’s OK to subsidize public transportation in southern Ontario, which we fully agree with, but it’s not OK to do a $24-million subsidy to a train in northern Ontario,” he said in an interview. “People are scratching their heads.”
The government said it gives Ontario Northland $100 million a year in subsidies, but Bisson said that is for capital improvements that have been put off before by previous governments. It costs the province $24 million a year to actually operate the train service, he said.
Northern Development Minister Rick Bartolucci said the government provides far less of a subsidy to GO Transit and its millions of riders.
“GO Transit has 57 million riders and a subsidy of approximately $2 per ride,” Bartolucci told the legislature.
“The ONTC has a ridership of 320,000, on average a year, with a subsidy of $403 a year — that’s a $2 subsidy (per ride) compared to a $403 subsidy.”
It cost a lot more to provide public services in the north because of its small population and large geographic area, countered Bisson.
“Running an ambulance in northern Ontario costs ten times as much as running an ambulance in Toronto, but do we stop running ambulances? Hospitals in northern Ontario cost more money to run. Do we shut down our hospitals?” he asked in the legislature.
The government should drop plans to sell the Ontario Northland railway because it will hurt communities, said Bisson.
However, the government said private companies may step up and provide an even better service in some northern towns.
“We are now in the process of putting together a package that will allow the private sector to bid on all the lines, or some of the lines, so we don’t know how negative or positive that’s going to be until we study each of the proposals that come in,” Bartolucci said in an interview.
“We will divest to a model that is far more realistic that is sustainable and … that will meet the present and future needs in northeastern Ontario.”
Teamsters Canada, which represents 200 Ontario Northland Railway workers, said the government is flouting its own law by selling the 106-year-old railway service, which it warned will “kill jobs and adversely impact thousands of lives in the north.”
The union said Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Act requires an environmental study whenever a project affects “the social, economic and cultural conditions that influence the life of humans or a community.”
“This proposed sale obviously impacts thousand of people in northern Ontario,” said William Brehl, the union’s Rail Conference president.
“It was Dalton McGuinty himself who called ONTC vital to the north and once promised that ‘we will not allow it to be privatized.'”
Bartolucci said he’s confident the government is fully in compliance with the law in selling the railway.
“The reality is we’re operating completely within the law, both the spirit and the letter of the law,” he said.