Mind the gap: A journey to rapid transit at York University

We have arrived.

York University officially, formally, and most definitely has a subway station, and thereby, a permanent fast-moving underground channel in to and out of the dense metropolis and outlying regions of Toronto.

The extension of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) subway to York University (and a few stops beyond) will be a transformative addition to York’s Keele campus. It will be a conduit of change, of accessibility, of growth, of sophistication – all key mechanisms in moving the University forward.

It’s certainly momentous, and it’s certainly something to celebrate.

It wasn’t always a smooth ride getting here, however. There were bumps along the way that steered the subway off track, and unexpected obstacles to navigate. There was a delay, actually several delays, adding up to more than three decades long. There was victory, and then defeat, and then victory again.

But, if you ask York University Chancellor Gregory Sorbara, he’ll tell you it was a ride worth waiting for – even if it did take 32 years. In Sorbara’s view, the subway has arrived, but the journey is really just beginning; and, what an exciting journey it will be.

Destination station: Travelling through time

Imagine this: it’s 1985, and the population of the City of Toronto is growing towards 2.2 million people. Gregory Sorbara, at this time, is the MPP for the constituency of York North, and holds the position of Minister of Colleges and Universities for the province. The riding he served then was just north of York University.

Gregory Sorbara

His dream, as he describes it, was to use the subway system to link the two universities he represented in parliament. At that time, the subway line ended at Wilson, and Sorbara felt strongly that expanding the subway to York University would be a valuable investment.

Sorbara’s seatmate in parliament was Ed Fulton, at that time Minister of Transportation and MPP for Scarborough East. Who better, thought Sorbara, to pitch his transit idea to.

“I’ll never forget suggesting to Ed Fulton that the next piece of the subway should be connecting the two universities,” recounted Sorbara. “He kept saying I was crazy – but he came back to me one day and said ‘You’re right’.”

By 1990, the subway extension into York University appeared to be moving along nicely; the Peterson government had approved a subway loop up to York’s Keele campus.

But before plans got underway, the Peterson government lost the election and Bob Rae was voted in as Ontario’s 21st premier. That, said Sorbara, who was then serving as MPP for the riding of York Centre, changed things drastically and was the beginning of a series of starts and stops for the project.

“Rae came in and invested in the Eglinton West subway plan, but that was shut down after Mike Harris was elected in 1995,” said Sorbara. “After that, the York subway plan really fell by the wayside for quite a long time.”

But just like a subway car’s hum builds as it drives toward its destination, Sorbara’s resolve to see the project through continued to gain momentum. There were, as he remembers, a variety of forces at York University who were also committed to the project and he kept close ties with these allies.

Though he stepped away from politics after his term ended in 1995, Sorbara was re-elected to parliament in 2001 as MPP for Vaughan-King-Aurora, and two years later, under the Dalton McGuinty government, he was named Minister of Finance.

“I realized then, that I was in a very good position to make this happen,” he said.

And he did. The McGuinty government made an $800-million plus commitment in the 2006 budget for a subway extension encompassing York University, and looked toward the municipal and federal governments to secure the remainder of the funding to set the project in motion.

“My job as the Ontario Finance Minister was to get David Miller (then Toronto mayor) and Jim Flaherty (then federal Minister of Finance) on side,” said Sorbara.

In early 2007, the three levels of government made a commitment to get ‘on board’ and the plan began to take shape. It was a major coup, and the subway would be coming to York University after all.

York University Chancellor Gregory Sorbara (second from left) during the official opening on Dec. 15 of the Line 1 subway extension
Next stop: York University

“When it comes to politics and policy, the greatest virtue is patience.”

This, said Sorbara, was his mantra during those uncertain years. He always believed the subway extension would happen, and that to get the critical mass necessary for the project to be blessed by all three levels of government, he just had to be patient.

Sorbara retired from politics in 2012, and in June 2014 he was appointed York University’s 13th Chancellor. In this new post, he brought with him a wealth of experience to support York University: his lengthy career as a politician; his own personal connection to the University (he is an alumnus of York’s Glendon College (BA ’78) and Osgoode Hall Law School (LLB ’81), and recipient of an honorary doctor of laws (LLD ’13)); and his steadfast advocacy for York (including the subway extension) and the York University community.

York University Chancellor Gregory Sorbara

He was reappointed in 2017 for a second three-year term, and will see his 32-year dream of building a subway at York University come to pass. He’ll even go down in history as one of the first passengers on the new route, having taken a ride on Dec. 15 with the Prime Minister and other government officials.

And though it was his dream, it’s not just his victory – it’s a triumph for everyone.

“This is transformative,” he said of the TTC Line 1 extension that has six new stops beyond Shepphard West. “This puts York University right in the centre of the GTA, and opens up the University to hundreds of thousands of people who otherwise might not consider it a destination.”

Students, staff and faculty will have easier, faster transit to campus – but the extended line offers access to people who want to visit York University for non-academic reasons. There’s theatre and art here, there are premiere events, there is the annual Rogers Cup – all of which will now bring thousands of people to and from campus via subway.

“It invites an entirely new population to participate in the York story,” said Sorbara. “It makes an already attractive University significantly more attractive.

“That opinion of ‘York – yes, but it’s hard to get to’, well, that’s changed forever,” he said.

Asked to comment on his feelings leading up to his first subway ride into York University, he said he feels relief and joy.

“I’ve been waiting for this ride for a very long time,” he said.

Written by YFile Deputy Editor Ashley Goodfellow Craig