The Metrolinx Board, not the most talkative bunch at their infrequent public meetings, took the unusual step yesterday of discussing possible major changes in their regional transportation plan. Rob Ford’s subway plan can hardly be ignored, and Metrolinx directors need to engage in this debate lest they become irrelevant through inaction.
Both Chair Rob Prichard and President/CEO Bruce McCuaig went out of their way to speak positively about Ford’s scheme, while other directors were less inclined to accept the proposal. In this article, I will recap the discussion and then conclude with thoughts of my own.
On Tuesday, representatives of Mayor Ford met with Metrolinx with an updated version of Ford’s subway plan:
- Extend the Sheppard subway west to Downsview and east to Scarborough Town Centre (STC)
- Extend the Danforth subway northeast to STC
- Build the Eglinton LRT in tunnel from Jane to Kennedy
- Operate express bus service on Finch West
- Build a new subway yard at a location to be determined
The total cost for this plan is pegged at $13.3-billion of which two thirds is the original Metrolinx funding that would have gone to the Transit City routes and the remainder is new money the City would raise via development levies and tax increment financing.
Bruce McCuaig outlined five principles that would govern the evaluation. Any new plan should:
- meet regional transit objectives
- have no marginal cost for the Province
- avoid penalty payments or loss of investments to date
- minimize delay
- minimize traffic impacts
McCuaig stated that Metrolinx has already counter-proposed that the existing Scarborough RT alignment be retained and that the refurbished SRT be operated as an extension of the Eglinton route rather than of the Danforth subway. The benefits for such a line would be through service from STC south and across Eglinton, provision of an east-west connector across the city, and possibly some diversion of Bloor-Danforth demand north to the Eglinton corridor. Using the existing SRT corridor would be more cost effective than a completely new subway alignment to STC.
McCuaig said that Metrolinx is trying to be as responsive to the Ford plan as possible. There will be discussions with the Province, and he will get back to the Board as soon as possible with updates (no date was mentioned).
Vice-Chair Peter Smith asked what would happen to passengers when they reach the terminus at Jane. McCuaig replied that, for the time, they would transfer to local buses, but Metrolinx is looking at how they would improve connectivity to Mississauga and the Airport.
Director Joe Halstead asked about effects on the Pan Am Games. McCuaig replied that the Sheppard LRT was not intended to serve the Games, and that the only Provincial commitment was to the Air Rail Link to the Airport. The Games plan involved running express buses from STC to the UofT Scarborough Campus (UTSC). That answer dodges the fact that members of the Metrolinx Board have expressed a clear preference for the so-called “Morningside Hook”, an extension of the Sheppard LRT south via Morningside to UTSC. Indeed, this sort of minor addition to Phase I of Transit City might have been announced in the 2011 budget if the whole plan had not been thrown into the dustbin. To say that the new plan does not affect Pan Am plans is correct in the letter, but not the spirit of previously-held intentions.
Director Lee Parsons asked about the Finch LRT. McCuaig replied that the plan defers rapid transit in this corridor and would, instead, use express buses to Humber College. The capital intended for Finch would be repurposed to another corridor.
Parsons was concerned about the loss of accessibility in northwest Toronto. McCuaig replied that Metrolinx understands the importance of good transit and would prefer to continue the LRT plan. Putting a positive face on the situation, McCuaig was pleased that the Mayor had at least recognized the need for improved bus service.
Rob Prichard asked if, in effect, the money intended for Finch was being used to bury the eastern part of the Eglinton line. McCuaig replied that yes, this is was in keeping with the Mayor’s objective for grade separation.
Parsons was uncomfortable with the fact that the northwest part of Toronto loses service, and felt that more should be done for this major part of the city.
Director Paul Bedford agreed noting that the Finch West bus is among the routes with highest ridership on the TTC at 52k/day, greater than the Sheppard subway at 47k. Bedford argued that ignoring the Finch corridor is a serious problem, and more generally that surface transit routes carrying 60% of TTC ridership were an important part of the network. [Note: As of the 2008 Service Plan report, daily ridership on Finch West was 42k/day, not 52k.]
Bedford asked when the Mayor plans to take his plan before Council, but McCuaig has no information about the City’s plans and, indeed, still needs to understand the City’s process.
Director Douglas Turnbull asked about contract penalty costs. McCuaig replied that he did not want to overstate these numbers. $130m is the amount invested to date in all corridors. Now that Eglinton is back on the table, the sunk cost for the tunnel borers and vehicles is no longer an issue. McCuaig will report to a future meeting on details of these costs.
Vice-Chair Smith, himself a real estate developer, wondered about the viability of the private financing scheme. Today, if he were to build a condo at Yonge & Eglinton, it would attract development charges of about $12k. Presuming that this would be doubled to provide a premium for the Sheppard corridor, the cost would go to, say, $25k. All of this cost is borne not by the developer, but by the eventual purchaser, and the added cost would affect the affordability and attractiveness of the unit. (Smith did not get into the related question of the effect of a higher local tax along Sheppard on the carrying cost of a new unit, but that would also bear on a would-be purchaser’s decision.)
McCuaig replied that Metrolinx needs to understand the City’s financing details, and that it was very important for City staff and Council to review the viability of this plan. The Mayor proposes Sheppard as a City project, while Metrolinx would look after Eglinton. McCuaig mused whether Metrolinx would want to delve into the market’s response to this proposal implying this would be left to the City.
Lee Parsons worried about the time frame. Additional density will require changes to the Official Plan, and considerable lead time is needed just to reach a point where a development agreement is possible. There would be an implied commitment by the City to increased density. McCuaig replied that the Mayor understands this and the issue will feed into the pending review of the Official Plan.
Parsons began to ask how this process related to the “no delay” principle cited earlier, but Chair Prichard cut him off. Prichard was happy that the Mayor will let Metrolinx get on with the Eglinton/Scarborough proposal. Metrolinx needs to focus on The Big Move and let their partners “do their thing”.
From my viewpoint, it is clear that Rob Prichard prefers to speak as kindly as possible of Ford’s plan and to leave the Mayor and the Sheppard project to their own devices without Metrolinx commenting on the details. Fighting Ford about LRT is not worth Metrolinx’ effort, especially without a shiny new line running somewhere as a counter-example. Personally, I would love to see the Hurontario line built, and built well without the bungling Toronto projects stand accused of whenever LRT is proposed. Toronto needs some “LRT envy” of a line close enough that it cannot be ignored.
Depending on who is in power at City Hall and Queen’s Park in four years, the question of LRT in Toronto may be revisited, but neither Metrolinx nor Queen’s Park has the appetite for a technology war with the City.
The proposed financing for Sheppard is laughable. The 2011 City Budget foresees $61-million in development charges for all of Toronto. How enough revenue could be generated just on Sheppard Avenue to pay for a $4b subway while leaving the street financially attractive to developers is a great mystery.
For now, northeast Scarborough has been abandoned — no Malvern, no UTSC “hook” — and Finch will have to make do with buses. I could not help contrasting the anti-LRT stance in Toronto, and the visceral objections to the taking of road space with a presentation later in the same meeting of a York VIVA status update. This included a photo of a brand new BRT station, one that would look right at home on St. Clair Avenue or on Sheppard East with an LRT train.
Will the Eglinton line ever be continuous to the airport, or is it doomed to end at Jane and connect there with an extended Mississauga busway? How would the good folks of Etobicoke along Eglinton react to a busway in the Richview Expressway lands? This proposal, which goes back twenty years, would, if built, take over the very land the TTC does not want to use for LRT. It will be amusing to see the flip-flops on what is “possible” to make an alternate plan work.
Whatever happened to Business Case Analysis, that hallmark of Metrolinx planning? Has the Eglinton LRT subway been re-evaluated given the extra cost, or are we back to the days of shuffling whatever money might be available between projects without regard to alternatives analysis? An all-underground Eglinton loses the benefits of LRT in a mixed surface/tunnel alignment.
Indeed, will we see a bait-and-switch on technology and have Eglinton wind up as ICTS, not LRT, just as its predecessor the SRT did a quarter-century ago? After all, Bruce McCuaig already kindly provided the press with an aerial photo of a Skytrain station, and this suggests that Metrolinx may be on its way to ditching conventional LRT completely. Bombardier, I am sure, would happily cancel the LRV contract for an untendered Eglinton project.
Everyone wants their lines built “now”, and I can’t help remembering what we were told when the original Transit City Phase I was stretched out over 10 years. Metrolinx claimed that the original faster plan might not have been possible because the construction industry could not absorb this much work at the same time. Strange how that constraint has disappeared now that additional or accelerated funding from Queen’s Park is not an issue.
During the era of “Metrolinx I”, the board filled with politicians, Mayor Miller had an ongoing fight to get recognition for Transit City and LRT, and he won out in the end. Indeed, there are now Metrolinx-backed proposals for LRT in Mississauga and Hamilton, and LRT plans are afoot in Ottawa and Kitchener-Waterloo. The proposals are not perfect, but they have, at least, political respectability. When we got “Metrolinx II”, a board of business people and transit experts, politics was supposed to be banished from the room. Now Mayor Ford, not even a member of the Metrolinx board, is driving major changes in the plan and fundamental principles of The Big Move may be ignored. Distant, ghostly laughter from the original Board might be appropriate here.
Finally, I cannot help commenting on the irony of so much funny money sloshing around the meeting room. I almost expected to find sheets of photocopied $100 bills stuck to my boots on the way out the door. The TTC has a huge funding crisis on its capital budget thanks to a city that would rather freeze taxes than spend on investment, and a Provincial government that wants us to make do with a paltry $150-million or so in gas tax revenue. Meanwhile, there are billions for new construction, and not a word about who will pay to actually run these lines once they begin operation.
2012 will almost certainly bring more TTC service cuts, and who knows what “system” will exist by the time the first of the new routes opens for business. Metrolinx and Queen’s Park treat local operations in Toronto as “not their business” while professing that better transport is vital to the GTA’s economy. Must the stench of overcrowded, unreliable, unsafe service brew under Queen’s Park before this changes, or will we continue to see only monuments, billions of construction spending, while the TTC rots around us?