Andrea Horwath: NDP leader sought to clarify party’s stance on high-speed rail Friday

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If the Ontario New Democrats aren’t sure about their own commitment to high-speed rail running from Toronto to Windsor, how can Southwestern Ontario voters be?

Friday, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was unequivocal in her pledge to match a Liberal promise to construct the line, which could be among the hottest issues for this riding-rich region in next year’s provincial election.

“It’s something I absolutely recognize is necessary,” Horwath said in a phone interview.

But 24 hours earlier, during a Thursday swing through the area, things weren’t quite so clear. In an interview with reporters in Sarnia, Horwath equivocated, suggesting the Liberals were really only studying the project – not fully committing.

To seek clarity Thursday, The Free Press contacted senior NDP staff, who said Horwath wouldn’t commit to building high-speed rail until an environmental assessment now under way is complete.

Hours later, after the story was published online – under the headline ‘NDP leader unsure on high-speed rail’ – NDP staff backtracked, claiming they’d been confused about their own policy and Horwath was, indeed, committed.

The leader sought to clear the air Friday – indicating she, unlike Tory leader Patrick Brown, is committed, like the Liberals, to building high-speed rail through Southwestern Ontario.

But the Liberals had already pounced, seizing on the initial NDP-provided information as proof only Kathleen Wynne is willing to invest in the massive transportation project.

“Unfortunately, Andrea Horwath’s refusal to support high-speed rail puts her in the same camp as (Progressive Conservative) Leader Patrick Brown, who has also dismissed this ambitious infrastructure project and also refused to commit to a high-speed rail corridor,” the governing Liberals wrote in a Friday media statement.

There’s plenty of cynicism around the Liberal promise, with critics saying it’s a campaign Hail Mary they’ve actually made before.

But the Liberals have removed any equivocation from their political promise.

In a June interview with The Free Press, London North Centre MP Deb Matthews – the deputy premier – was clear on the party’s commitment.

“It’s no longer if we’re going to build it. It’s how,” Matthews said. “We’re moving forward on this.”

Asked to make it even clearer – if re-elected, will the Liberals build high-speed rail from Toronto to at least London, if not farther west? – Matthews said: “Yes. . . . High-speed rail will be coming to London and then on to Windsor after that. The first phase is (Toronto’s) Union Station to Pearson Airport to Guelph to Kitchener-Waterloo to London.”

Brown, the Tory leader, stopped short of matching that political promise during a recent swing through the area.

“I do think (high-speed rail) is valuable, I do think it’s a worthy goal and under this Liberal government it will never happen,” he said.

“What I will commit to is making sure that we actually get shovels in the ground, that we spend our infrastructure dollars wisely . . . What I promise you is that we’ll get better value for infrastructure.”

The Liberals have committed $15 million to an environmental-assessment study for the rail line that would go as fast as 250 kilometres an hour. At that speed, a London-Toronto trip would be less than an hour, bringing the Forest City within the commuter orbit of Canada’s largest city.

Such a project could entice people to leave Toronto for other Southwestern Ontario communities, without having to leave their jobs. That would ease the population pressure that creates gridlocked traffic and other issues in Toronto.

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