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City vs. province: Who can build transit faster?

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But while the argument could sound persuasive to the thousands of Toronto commuters who spend their mornings packed into overcrowded trains, whether the controversial subway upload would actually result in the rapid delivery of transit projects is far from clear.

Although there’s no question the province can exert greater financial muscle than the municipal government to pay for big infrastructure projects, experts say uploading the subway to the Ontario government is no guarantee projects will be delivered sooner.

And while city council debates can appear messy at times, critics of the Conservatives’ proposal say the provincial government has shown it’s just as adept at delaying or even cancelling vital Toronto transit projects.

“There are very few restraints on a motivated provincial government,” said Siemiatycki, who is researching the factors that determine how fast transit gets built.

“If the provincial government wants to go quickly and if they have the money available or they’re willing to borrow, at least constitutionally their powers (allow them to build transit fast),” he said.

The province has more tools to raise revenue, including income and sales taxes, and unlike the city, the provincial government can run deficits, giving it more flexibility to borrow and fund big projects.

The city’s revenue raising powers are mostly restricted to the property tax base, and by law it can’t run a deficit. The city also has a council-imposed debt limit that says it can’t spend more than 15 per cent of its property tax levy servicing debt, which further restricts how much it can borrow.

While the current arrangement allows the province to give grants to the city to fund new lines, the Conservatives argue that if Ontario had the subway on its books as an asset, it could amortize the cost of projects over time, freeing up larger investments.

But Siemiatycki notes the Ford Conservatives have made reducing the debt a top priority, which makes it unlikely his government is going to leverage the province’s greater borrowing ability to build transit. If so, it will have to find the money elsewhere.

The province’s three priority subway projects — the Relief Line, the Yonge North Extension, and the Scarborough subway extension — would cost at least $16 billion, an amount that would likely be split by all three levels of government.

Yurek has proposed reducing the direct cost to taxpayers by enlisting the private sector, which he contends would help fund new lines in exchange for development rights above or near stations.

Experts have expressed grave doubts the market-driven scheme could generate enough funding to cover the huge costs new lines, however.

And while the minister has argued that securing funding from developers could let the government start projects sooner, Siemiatycki argued the type of alternative funding model the Conservatives are contemplating could slow down the completion of transit.

Implementing financing arrangements with developers and changing zoning rules to allow for the increased density at station sites would be complex and take time, he argued.

“The more that you look for these alternative funding approaches, and the more a government tries to walk that line of investing in transit without really having to dig into the provincial coffers and borrow the money to invest in it,” the greater risk of delays, Siemiatycki said.

The province’s other main argument for the upload is what it describes as city hall’s indecisiveness on transit, a reputation Toronto representatives have been saddled with at least since a series of high-profile votes when Premier Ford was a councillor and his brother was mayor.

After Rob Ford declared the planned Transit City light rail network dead in 2010, council voted to resurrect the lines in 2012, only to change course a year later and replace one of them with a subway to Scarborough Town Centre.

Councillor Gord Perks, a vocal critic of the Fords when they were at city hall, argued the premier is in no place to blame council for holding up transit projects.

“The only time I have ever seen council reverse policy on a transit project was when Rob and Doug Ford stopped Transit City and therefore stopped transit expansion in the city of Toronto,” Perks said.

He noted that in 1995, during the last time Conservatives held power at Queen’s Park, the party cancelled a four-stop subway on Eglinton that was already under construction.

“The history of Conservatives and transit in Ontario is filling in the hole of a subway that was under construction,” he said.

Perks argued that if the province wants to use its financial power to speed up projects, it could merely increase the funding it provides to the city.

During their 15 years in power the Ontario Liberals also had trouble keeping provincially-owned projects on time and on budget. In 2012 when Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, signed a deal to build the $1.2-billion Finch West LRT, it was supposed to open by 2020. It’s now expected in 2023.

The $5.3-billion Eglinton Crosstown was also supposed to open by 2020, but now is scheduled for 2021, although the consortium building the line took Metrolinx to court last year seeking an extension to the deadline. Metrolinx agreed to pay $237 million to keep the project on schedule.

Murtaza Haider, an associate professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University, contends neither level of government has a perfect record when it comes to following through with transit plans.

“It’s a crisis of trust regardless of who you look at, the city or the province,” Haider said.

“But the province has the advantage in that they have the ability to raise debt, they have the much larger tax base, and they have the experience of building large infrastructure projects,” he said.

“If you want to force me to reach a conclusion, it is that. (The province) is the lesser of the two evils.”

City vs. Provincial Transit Projects: Who builds it faster?

Finch and Sheppard LRTs

Owned by: Province

Status: Delayed by years.

What happened?: The province agreed to fund the lines as part of the Transit City plan and in 2009 said both would open in 2013. Rob Ford declared Transit City dead in 2010, only to see council resurrect the LRTs in 2012. The province now says Finch will open by 2023, and there is no completion date for Sheppard.

Toronto York Spadina Subway Extension

Owned by: City

Status: Delayed two years and $1.7 billion in increased costs

What happened?: Originally the TTC planned to extend Line 1 to York University, but the province pushed them to bring it all the way to Vaughan. The longer extension plus the death of a worker and disputes with contractors pushed the budget from $1.5 billion to $3.2 billion, and delayed the opening date from 2015 to 2017.

Eglinton Crosstown

Owned by: Province

Status: Scheduled to open 2021, one year late

What happened?: Initially slated to enter service in 2020, the province pushed that back to mitigate construction disruption. Last year the consortium building the $5.3-billion line took Metrolinx to court seeking more time. Metrolinx agreed to pay $237 million to keep it on schedule.

Scarborough subway extension

Owned by: City

Status: Scheduled to open 2026 at earliest

What happened?: Council resurrected the line in 2013 after Rob Ford killed the Transit City light rail plan. As projected costs soared, council voted in 2016 to remove two stations from the three-stop plan. The provincial Conservatives have said they want to take over the $3.35-billion project and add back two stops funded by the private sector, which would likely delay its completion.

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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‘We’re back’: Montreal festival promoters happy to return but looking to next year

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In downtown Montreal, it’s festival season.

In the city’s entertainment district, a musical act was conducting a sound check on stage Friday evening — the second day of the French-language version of the renowned Just For Laughs comedy festival. Tickets for many of the festival’s free outdoor shows — limited by COVID-19 regulations — were sold out.

Two blocks away, more than 100 people were watching an acoustic performance by the Isaac Neto Trio — part of the last weekend of the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique, a celebration of music from the African continent and the African diaspora.

With COVID-19 restrictions continuing to limit capacity, festival organizers say they’re glad to be back but looking forward to next year when they hope border restrictions and capacity limits won’t affect their plans.

Charles Décarie, Just For Laughs’ CEO and president, said this is a “transition year.”

“Even though we have major constraints from the public health group in Montreal, we’ve managed to design a festival that can navigate through those constraints,” Décarie said.

The French-language Juste pour rire festival began on July 15 and is followed by the English-language festival until July 31.

When planning began in February and March, Décarie said, organizers came up with a variety of scenarios for different crowd sizes, ranging from no spectators to 50 per cent of usual capacity.

“You’ve got to build scenarios,” he said. “You do have to plan a little bit more than usual because you have to have alternatives.”

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MELS new major movie studio to be built in Montreal

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MONTREAL — MELS Studios will build a new film studio in Montreal, filling some of the gap in supply to meet the demand of Hollywood productions.

MELS president Martin Carrier said on Friday that MELS 4 studio construction will begin « as soon as possible », either in the fall or winter of next year. The studio could host productions as early as spring 2023.

The total investment for the project is $76 million, with the Quebec government contributing a $25 million loan. The project will create 110 jobs, according to the company.

The TVA Group subsidiary’s project will enable it to stand out « even more » internationally, according to Quebecor president and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau. In the past, MELS Studios has hosted several major productions, including chapters of the X-Men franchise. The next Transformers movie is shooting this summer in Montreal.

Péladeau insisted that local cultural productions would also benefit from the new facility, adding that the studio ensures foreign revenues and to showcase talent and maintain an industry of Quebec producers.

STUDIO SHORTAGE

The film industry is cramped in Montreal.

According to a report published last May by the Bureau du cinéma et de la télévision du Québec (BCTQ), there is a shortage of nearly 400,000 square feet of studio space.

With the addition of MELS 4, which will be 160,000 square feet, the company is filling part of the gap.

Carrier admitted that he has had to turn down contracts because of the lack of space, representing missed opportunities of « tens of millions of dollars, not only for MELS, but also for the Quebec economy. »

« Montreal’s expertise is in high demand, » said Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, who was present at the announcement.

She said she received great testimonials from « Netflix, Disney, HBO and company » during an economic mission to Los Angeles in 2019.

« What stands out is that they love Montreal because of its expertise, knowledge and beauty. We need more space, like MELS 4, » she said.

There is still not enough capacity in Quebec, acknowledged Minister of Finance, the Economy and Innovation Eric Girard.

« It is certain that the government is concerned about fairness and balance, so if other requests come in, we will study them with the same seriousness as we have studied this one, » he said.

Grandé Studios is the second-largest player in the industry. Last May, the company said it had expansion plans that should begin in 2022. Investissement Québec and Bell are minority shareholders in the company.

For its part, MELS will have 400,000 square feet of production space once MELS 4 is completed. The company employs 450 people in Quebec and offers a range of services including studio and equipment rentals, image and sound postproduction, visual effects and a virtual production platform.

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Birdhouse Wingerie & Bar is the Latest to Hatch in West Island’s Bubbling Restaurant Scene

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Wings are the thing at the latest restaurant to make its mark on Montreal’s West Island: Birdhouse Wingerie & Bar.

At the buzzy new Dollard-Des Ormeaux eatery, the bird limbs come aplenty, with a menu listing eleven “wet & messy” wings, including smoked apple habanero, sriracha lime, and cherry cola BBQ; and four — cacio e pepe, ketchups chip, Nashville hot, and the garlicky, lemon pepper “vampire slayer” — dry rub flavours. They come 10 for $18 or 20 for $34, plus the option of ranch, parmesan, or blue cheese dipping sauce.

Tacos, nachos, poutines (one made with bone marrow, another with tater tots), smashed burgers, salads, and a classic buttermilk fried chicken dinner are just sampling of the other dishes that round out the offering. On the drinks side, there are cocktails, sangrias, and spiked milkshakes in popular chocolate bar flavours: After Eight, Skor, Bounty, or Reeses.

Opened on July 5, Birdhouse is among a recent influx of restaurants to grace the island’s western end, including birria taco slinger Tacos Don Rigo and barbecue joint Smoke Box — a double whammy in the same Pierrefonds area strip mall. That comes in addition to plans for Fairview Pointe Claire’s incoming “District Gourmand” (slated to usher in Tommy Café), and, of course, a number of the area’s longer-standing stalwarts — from southern belle Bistro Nolah to old-school casse-croûte Smoked Meat Pete — that have helped bolster the West Island’s culinary credentials.

The brand-new Brunswick Boulevard restaurant is the brainchild of Montreal entrepreneur Lorne Schwartz, restaurateur George Massouras (of Madisons and Arahova Souvlaki), and among the other partners involved, Brahm Mauer, son of the founder of beloved buffalo hot wings expert Wings ‘n’ Things. Mauer has tried his hand at reviving the original Wings ‘n’ Things recipe — the restaurant originally opened in 1986 — over the years, including with a Royalmount Avenue location in 2012, then as a roaming summertime food truck and NDG pop-up. That same truck has now been made over with a Birdhouse-branded livery to be deployed for private events.

A likely draw to many, Birdhouse is reprising the “famous flavours, untouched” of the once-upon-a-time NDG staple, represented on its menu as “The Legendary WNT Buffalo” chicken wing.

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