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Opening relief line before Yonge subway extension ‘makes sense,’ Ontario transportation minister says

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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 Elgin-Middlesex-London, and was elevated to the transportation portfolio in Premier Doug Ford’s surprise cabinet shuffle in early November. Before that, the 47-year-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.

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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