The Scarborough Subway Vs LRT Debate, Again (Updated)

Updated July 3, 2013 at 11:20pm: 

TTC Chair Karen Stintz, as reported by the CBC’s Jamie Strashin on Twitter, claims that Minister of Transportation Glen Murray has put $1.4b of the planned $1.8b SRT conversion cost on the table as a contribution to a subway project.

Jamie Strashin ‏@StrashinCBC

TTC Chair Karen Stintz tells me she just met with Provincial Transportation Minister Glen Murray. 1/2

2/2 Stintz: Murray indicated that if city shows clarity around subway option, province would be “open” to freeing up $1.4 slated for LRT.

There has been no confirmation from Murray whether this is true, or if Stintz/Strashin have misreported a conversation.  Such a proposal would violate claims about provincial support for a subway extension that were made in the Metrolinx letter to the City of Toronto.  Given Murray’s past history of freelancing on government policy, we will have to wait for clarification of what is really on the table from the provincial point of view.  An informed debate at Council requires that this be stated publicly and unambiguously from the Premier’s Office.

Meanwhile, Stintz offers her own version of the situation on her blog, but with no reference to her conversation with Minister Murray.  She repeats the canard that a four-year shutdown will be required to replace the SRT with LRT in the same corridor.  Moreover, she adds a sweetener about using the existing SRT right-of-way to expand trackage for the GO Stouffville corridor, something which is not actually necessary.

Mayor Ford has announced that he has asked the City Manager to report to the July16 Council meeting on the Scarborough subway option.  How definitive this report will be remains to be seen, especially if the TTC and Metrolinx cannot come to an agreement on cost estimates and the penalties involved in ending the LRT project.

The original article follows below.

Once more we see Metrolinx and City Council engaged in the eternal question of whether the Danforth Subway should be extended north to Sheppard, or the Scarborough RT converted to an LRT line.

I have written about this at some length before (May 2013, January 2013, October 2012, July 2012 , December 2010 among others) and will not belabour previous arguments.

After the recent Metrolinx Board meeting, during the press scrum, I asked how many responses had been received to the Request for Qualifications on the Eglinton-Crosstown project seeing that the closing date was mid-May.  CEO Bruce McCuaig was elliptical in his reply offering only that the names of the respondents would be published in due course.

It didn’t take long for us to learn that the uncertainty regarding Toronto Council’s intent on its signed agreement to support an LRT for Scarborough was upsetting the bidding process.  In a letter to the City Manager and others, McCuaig states:

To ensure value-for-money, we need to attract high quality bidders to our procurements, and this cannot be achieved if there is uncertainty about City Council’s support for the projects.

[Full text of letter]

This implies that the process to date has not been particularly successful, and Metrolinx is placing the blame on the City’s indecision.

All of this started because of an ongoing campaign by some politicians to portray Scarborough as somehow hard done by, fobbed off with a “streetcar” when everyone else, especially those downtown elites, have subways.  The fact that this “streetcar” would operate at close to subway speeds on a completely separate right-of-way is just one of the casualties of the misinformation campaign.

Part of this comes from the Ford faction and the premise that nothing but subways will do.  Part comes from Scarborough Councillors, notably Glenn De Baeremaeker, who sense a threat to their political survival in supporting anything but a subway.  Then there are the mayoral aspirants at least some of whom declare “My Scarborough includes a subway”.

Arguing for LRT in this context is a steep uphill battle.

What Does an LRT or Subway Give Us?

If the line is built as LRT, it will serve more potential riders directly as walk-in customers, notably the Centennial College campus, but also a future extension to Malvern Centre, than a subway would.  Demand models show more people choosing to ride the subway because the models favour a faster route with fewer stops and the elimination of the transfer at Kennedy Station.

The LRT would run almost as fast as the subway, and would extend further into Scarborough, but the transfer at Kennedy cannot be avoided.  However, the design for the new Kennedy Station places the LRT line on the same level as the ticketing mezzanine (the level between the bus loop and the subway trains).  Riders would walk from the new LRT platform directly into the existing station and down one level to the subway.  Current subway to SRT transfers involve a three-level change and a high probability that one or more escalator/elevator may be out of service.  It is unclear which degree of penalty was used in the demand model.

The subway will give a direct ride for Bloor-Danforth passengers through Kennedy to stations mainly on McCowan leading up to Sheppard.  An important design issue, as yet unanswered, is the connection to Scarborough Town Centre as the new station would probably be under McCowan, not within the mall as the SRT station is today.  This will be good for people in walking distance of the east side of STC, but worse for everyone else.  McCowan Station is not the busiest place on the TTC’s network.

The alignment of the subway is such that an extension to Malvern will never happen.

How Much Will This Cost?

Many numbers have been cited for the cost of the LRT and subway proposals.  At one point, the subway was pegged at over $3-billion, but this included provision for a new yard and expansion of the subway fleet.  Neither of these is needed for an extension of the Danforth subway as I discussed in a previous article.  In January 2013, the subway estimate was set at $2.8b by the TTC in 2011$, but quite recently they have discovered that this value included inflation.  When that is corrected, the subway is down to $2.3b.

The same January 2013 report claimed that the LRT line would cost $2.3b, and this led to the claim by subway supporters that their option would only cost half a billion more.  (That was when the subway still cost $2.8b.)  However, the LRT estimate included $500m for its own carhouse and yard, a leftover from the plan when Mark II Skytrain technology was on the table.  Correcting for this brings the LRT line down to $1.8b.  This also happens to be the Metrolinx estimate (in 2010$) for the project.

So far, we have the commonly reported half-billion dollar spread ($1.8b vs $2.3b).  The fact that both estimates were off by a huge amount might give one pause in believing any of the numbers in this debate, especially considering the importance of the discussions for which the original estimates were prepared.

Metrolinx, however, has additional costs that abandoning the LRT project would bring:

  • The design costs for the LRT fleet for the (now) four LRT lines has been allocated among the budgets for each line.  The Scarborough line’s share is $21m and this would be transferred to the other project budgets, not be reclaimed for a subway project.
  • Planning and design work on the LRT line has cost $41m to date, and a further $23m has been spent on program management.
  • Bombardier would likely invoke a penalty clause for a reduction in the LRV fleet order especially considering that the TTC does not need any more subway cars for the BD line that could be used as a trade-off.
  • A new subway would not likely open until at least 2021.  The TTC estimates that it will cost $60m to keep the SRT running for the extra period.
  • The existing structures will have to be dismantled at an unknown cost.
  • The biggest single charge relates to cost sharing with the Eglinton-Crosstown project.

Metrolinx has chosen to book the entire cost of the new interchange between the Eglinton, Bloor-Danforth and Scarborough lines at Kennedy Station to the Scarborough project’s budget in the sum of $320m.  Why they have done this is not clear, as with a lot of Metrolinx accounting, but this cost does not disappear if the Scarborough LRT is replaced by a subway extension.  Some work at Kennedy Station will still be needed for the Eglinton LRT line.  How much is a point of debate between the TTC and Metrolinx.

By Metrolinx estimates the difference between the LRT and subway proposals could be over $925m, money the city would have to find on its own hook and which would likely displace many other projects.  To put this in context, the rehabilitation of the western half of the Gardiner Expressway is about $500m.

Now we come to another piece of Metrolinx accounting.  When Queen’s Park took total control of the Transit City lines and funding, they did so in a way that allows them to defer the cost on their books and thereby bring the date of a “balanced budget” forward.  (All governments use this sort of trickery and while it might be satisfying to blame it all on former Premier McGuinty, he is not alone in the practice.)  Here is how it works.

  • In a conventional transit funding scheme, a subway tunnel, say, is paid for by various governments but winds up as a municipal asset.  (The Spadina extension is a good example of this.)  When this happens, audit rules require that the subsidies be expensed in the year when the money changes hands because Queen’s Park (or Ottawa) receives nothing in return to balance off the payment.
  • If the province holds title to the subway, then it shows up on their books and can be depreciated as a capital asset.  On paper, although the same money has gone from the Treasury to the builder, the difference is that there is something on the books to show for it beyond the fleeting goodwill of municipal politicians and voters.

For the Scarborough LRT, Queen’s Park was to be the owner through Metrolinx, but this arrangement will not work for a subway extension that would be operated and maintained as an integral part of the TTC network.  Trading in the Scarborough LRT money for a subway creates accounting challenges, and Metrolinx mutters darkly that the City may have to pony up some of its own money to paper over this problem.

That’s not a convincing argument because it had far more to do with Premier McGuinty’s desire to push transit expenditures into the distant future than with expanding the transit system.  The same consideration is responsible for the long delays in completion of the first Transit City lines.  An accounting dodge to keep the Provincial Auditor happy is no way to run a major transit project.

We have a “new” Liberal administration at Queen’s Park, and it should revisit and jettison this sort of hocus-pocus.  Are we going to spend money on transit or not?  Something is out of whack if we have to agonize over the bookkeeping.

How Long Will This Take?

For the subway option, a rough estimate from the TTC and Metrolinx is at least eight years from the point of project approval.  There is no detailed engineering for the subway, no Environmental Assessment, none of the interminable process of haggling over where the stations will go (and you can be sure that some will be added at $150m a pop before the project is finished).  Preliminary design, EA and final design leading to construction will take three years.  Building the line will take another five.  This means an opening date in 2021 at best, and another eight years of dealing with the declining fortunes of the SRT.

For the LRT option, the construction period is expected to be under three years according to Metrolinx, and they would like to get it down to 2.5.  Meanwhile, subway advocates (including TTC Chair Karen Stintz in a Tweet a few hours before this article was completed), claim that there will be a four-year shutdown of the SRT.  This longer period was based on two claims that were, generously speaking, misinterpreted:

  • At one point, the SRT project was spoken of as starting in late 2015 and being completed “by 2019”.  In a worst case interpretation, that’s four years.
  • In the original construction plans, the time needed to build the extension was included in the shutdown, but obviously this is not required.  Metrolinx plans to built the north end (McCowan to Sheppard) before shutting down the SRT and this shaves time off the shutdown period.

Without question, 2.5 years of a replacement bus service will be no picnic for Scarborough.  (Although I live downtown, I worked at STC from 2000 to 2009 and know well the joys of the SRT and its frequent replacement by bus shuttles.)  The question, then, is “can the shutdown be justified as a tradeoff for a less expensive replacement line that directly serves more riders and is better positioned for extension”.

The Politics

That is both a planning and a political decision, one made all the more difficult by Mayor Ford’s subway monomania and the concerted effort to sell the subway to Scarborough by convincing them that nothing else comes up to their aspirations of civic grandeur and respect.

Some members of Council, including the Mayor, are at least consistently for subways, and there is a pro-LRT faction that is even a tad more radical than I am.  These I can respect for consistency, if not for the content of their positions.

Meanwhile, we have TTC Chair Stintz who has been both pro-LRT and pro-subway as it suits the season.  She sold LRT with fervour when it meant wresting control of the transit agenda from the Fords, but then decided that buying votes in Scarborough was more important and flipped to the subway camp.  Her position, and that of others supporting the subway option, is a bit vague thanks in part to the uncertainty of the dollar value of a subway decision.

The irony here is that the very people who ridiculed Rob Ford for paying for a subway network with “pixie dust” now have the same vague promises of how they will fund a Scarborough subway.  What other projects will fall off of the table?  What else in the municipal budget will be pillaged to pay for a subway extension?  Will Liberal members of Council and the Queen’s Park caucus sing the government’s tune on staying the course with LRT, or will they play to their Scarborough constituents hoping that a higher power (The Premier) will rescue them from having to deliver?

Once again, transit plans may be tied in knots in Toronto thanks to the delays of Mayor Ford and Premier McGuinty.  “Momentum”, the sort of thing one needs in large scale plans, is not the word of the day, and Toronto risks losing out completely depending on political winds at the municipal and provincial levels.

Postscript: What Would I Build?

If, in fact, Toronto wants subways and nothing but subways, we need to have a very serious discussion about where and when these will be built and how we will pay for them.  The much touted “private sector” has lots of money, but they want to invest, not to simply hand out cash for corporate goodwill.  The bloom is off PPP’s (private public partnerships) at least in part because politicians awakened to the fact that investors want to be paid back, and the overhead of managing a third-party owner-operator is not trivial.

All the talk of reducing congestion and improving transit will be meaningless if we cannot agree on and afford to build a network.  Talk of “only” $2b a year in new taxes has not been received warmly “out there” by the folks who would benefit, and it must be remembered that the most expensive parts of The Big Move are the subway lines within the City of Toronto.  If we really do want “subways subways subways”, then Toronto should be prepared to tax itself to pay for the extra cost of building and operating them.

I am often asked “so, Mr. Big Shot Critic, what would you do here”.  My answer is quite simple, although the problem is a challenging one: build an LRT network.  The fundamental problem with Toronto’s transit planning has been the premise that subways will go on forever and ever.  We simply cannot afford this, and at some point there must be a transition to less expensive, lower capacity modes whose network can be more spread out.

The hardest decision is to say “this is where the subway ends”.  Somebody will always be beyond the last station, and LRT (or BRT if capacity permits) must take over where the subway leaves off.  That boundary should not mark the end of high-quality transit, so often the experience that makes people yearn for subways at any cost.

103 thoughts on “The Scarborough Subway Vs LRT Debate, Again (Updated)

  1. Build it and they will come questioned my point:

    The radius of a subway curve has to be 700 metres?

    I am terribly sorry, 700 metres is not correct.

    The minimum specification for operation at up to 80 km/h is 750 metres, according to the Subway Operations Report written back in 2006 for the Spadina Extension.

    A tighter curve is possible with speed restrictions, but doesn’t that counter the rapid benefits of a subway that are gained by having fewer stations?

    Steve: It is important to distinguish between the curve radius that can technically be operated at low speed and one designed for 80 km/h. The slower speed to which you refer would only apply to operation around the curve (think of Union to King), not to the entire line.


  2. Steve: It is important to distinguish between the curve radius that can technically be operated at low speed and one designed for 80 km/h. The slower speed to which you refer would only apply to operation around the curve (think of Union to King), not to the entire line.

    Where (if any) are the “fast” (though maybe not 80km/h) curves in the system? I can think of gradual curves between Old Milk & Jane, Sherbourne & Castle Frank, Queen’s Park & Museum, and College and Wellesley … but I’ve no idea how “fast” they are. I just know they’re not as slow or as noisy as Museum-St. George-Spadina and St. Andrew-Union-King.

    Cheers, Moaz

    Steve: The College to Wellesley curves are not 80km/h and are controlled by timing signals. The long curve east of Victoria Park is operated at full speed, but even that is time controlled westbound because of the grade. Years ago, when the M-1 cars still operated, they would sometimes overrun the timing signals because they were faster than the H-series trains. The subway does not operate at 80km/h. One reason the TTC has resisted moving to “high rate” is that this would require better track maintenance.


  3. I agree that not every point on the line must run at 80 km/h nor does this slow down the entire line, but there must be some other technical reason for this to be the design specification.

    Maybe someone more in the know might be able to clarify this, but is there a minimum curvature for bored tunnels? I suspect there is a limitation that is more restrictive for bored tunnels than what can be built by cut-and-cover, where tunnel width can be increased for sharper curves.

    Steve: Actually, in discussion about the tunnel boring machines the TTC and Metrolinx has owned for various projects, the question of building a wider tunnel to allow for curves on the Spadina line did come up. There is a point where it is not practical to build an entire line “wider” just for a few curves, and these should be done cut-and-cover if possible. Much depends on the overall geometry and terrain to be covered.

    If anyone knows the technical limits of curves on bored tunnels, please add to this thread.


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