Metrolinx Contemplates Ford’s Subway Plan

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?

About Steve

Steve thanks you for reading this article, even if you don't agree with it.
This entry was posted in A Grand Plan, Eglinton LRT, Finance, Finch West LRT, Scarborough RT/LRT/Subway, Sheppard East LRT, Transit. Bookmark the permalink.
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61 Responses to Metrolinx Contemplates Ford’s Subway Plan

  1. Kevin Love says:

    Andrew is quite right, I made an error in capacity calculations. Assuming a peak load of 175 persons per car, this gives a capacity of a little over 10,000 per hour. It would indeed require about three LRT lines to have the capacity of a subway.

    However, none of the TC lines is forecast to have that level of demand. LRT is the appropriate technology. It does have one advantage over subways in that it is not necessary to descend down into and then out of deep stations. There is a significant time savings there.

  2. Gordon says:

    Mystery solved! With one time development charges of about $20,000 per condominium, we would build 200,000 condominiums to pay for a $4b subway!!!!!

    Also look at all of the customers!

    Steve: This is, of course, the same Rob Ford who said that Toronto could not handle any more people living in it because the transport system was incapable of handling more traffic. Those folks in all the new condos on Sheppard won’t spend every trip on the TTC.

  3. Kevin Love says:

    Steve wrote about:
    “…the same Rob Ford who said that Toronto could not handle any more people living in it because the transport system was incapable of handling more traffic.”

    Kevin’s comment:
    Ironically enough, it looks like Mr. Ford may wind up doing the right thing (higher density) for the wrong reason (do whatever it takes to build a subway line).

    Wouldn’t it be crazy if Mr. Ford were to get his subway line off the ground without a penny of provincial government money. The province starts on a “tunneled all the way” Eglinton. Then the next mayor scales back the tunneled part of Eglinton to what was originally planned, freeing up (ta daa!) the capability of implementing the original Transit City. Less, of course, the Sheppard LRT.

    Of course, certain mathematical realities (like 2+2=4) mean that the Sheppard line will eventually have to be bailed out. Road tolls for private cars would be an excellent way of doing that.

    But if Mr. Ford can get the zoning changes and approvals in place in the next four years, we will be on track to create the density to support not only a subway, but a liveable city.

    Right thing. Wrong reason. Good outcome.

  4. Ron says:

    Thanks for clarifying the procurement arrangement in Vancouver. The important point was that Bombardier didn’t have a lock on the work, and that a truly competitive bid took place. Here in Toronto, they hoped to get the Eglinton line handed to them on the grounds that it was an “extension” of the SRT.

    Yes, in fact, the Request for Proposals prevented proponents from including synergies with the existing Expo/Millennium Lines in submitting their bids (i.e. combined vehicle purchases) – in order to have a level playing field.

    Ron, last I checked, the Canada Line is hardly frequent. The combined headway at the busiest portion is something about 3.5 minutes. If anything I would prefer slightly longer headways so that the system doesn’t run into constraints due to station dwell times.

    The reference is in relation to other systems of similar capacity – i.e. more frequent than the typical 10 minute headway seen with other driver-driven systems like Seattle’s LRT. (7.5 min peak, 10 min midday).

    WRT station dwell times, the short trains reduce the dwell time delays experienced by longer trains (more passengers, more doors).

    The Transit Capacity and Quality of Service Manual (2nd Edition) shows at Chapter 3, Page 5-20 that SkyTrain dwell times are very consistent throughout the day, whereas other systems experience dwell time delays during peak periods.

    Steve: You have to be careful about cause and effect on dwell times. If the door open times for an automated system are based on peak period conditions, then of course the dwell times will be consistent throughout the day regardless of the train length. The chart for SkyTrain shows that a considerable amount of the “door open time” has no accompanying passenger movement. For the Toronto data, there are also some trains with long dwells while there is no passenger movement. Given that this is southbound at King where it is quite possible to be held by a backlog of trains to Union, this is not surprising. This quote from the preceding page is also worth reading:

    The proportion of dwell time productively used for passenger movements ranges from 31 to 64% of the total dwell time. This presents a challenge in determining dwell times from the passenger volumes. Dwells also vary depending on the operating practices of each system. Several North American light rail and heavy rail systems are notably more expeditious at station dwells than their counterparts, contributing to a faster — and so more economic and attractive — operation. Ironically, several automatically driven systems have sluggish station dwells in which expensive equipment and staff sit and wait — long after all passenger movement has ended.

  5. Misha says:

    Do you know about the Metrolinx BIG 5 update for the February 18th meeting last week? the status of the Big 5 Transit lines?

    Steve: You have asked this question three times, and I have replied that this discussion was in private session, so, no I don’t know what the update may have included. Please don’t ask again.

  6. Phil Piltch says:

    Came across this opinion piece in the Star from Richard Gilbert on the subways vs. LRT debate.

    I still don’t see the case for a subway along Sheppard. He brings up Hong Kong as an example of something similar to Ford’s proposal but that seems like an “apples to oranges” comparison, as I’m sure the population density in Hong Kong is far higher than even our central core. TC was flawed for sure, but at least would have delivered some notable improvements. At this point I doubt we’ll see anything major in the way of transit expansion started by the end of Mayor Ford’s first term. Indeed I wonder what the state of the existing system will be like in four years? Will we still have the existing CLRVs lumbering along (assume most of all of the existing routes are not axed or replaced by fewer buses)? Will the SRT still be running or shut down with the TTC scrambling with bus shuttles or beefed up bus routes between Kennedy and STC? Will the TTC have sufficient funds to maintain the existing subway lines? Enough working buses?

    Phil

    Steve: I tire of Richard Gilbert’s constant muddying of the waters comparing a very dense city like HK where the transit system is either given, outright, publicly owned land to finance its operations, or given the power to act as a development agency. The densities available to HK developers, and the rate at which their market will absorb new construction are completely off of the scale relative to Toronto.

  7. Denis T says:

    Given that Metrolinx has ordered TBM’s for the Eglinton line, what are the chances of Tim Hudak pulling a Mike Harris-style cancellation if elected come October? It’s bad enough that Harris axed the Eglinton West subway, having it happen the 2nd time around would be a complete catastrophe.

    Steve: I think Hudak would need to think very seriously about the implications of a repeat cancellation. We know the Tories are anti-transit, but just how badly do they want to prove it?

  8. Jacob Louy says:

    Have you ever submitted any articles to The Star? This must be the 3rd Star article I’ve seen from Richard Gilbert, and his material is very incoherent for the average citizen to read (and as you’ve pointed out, some of his generalisations are flat-out wrong).

    If people like him can reach a large population of Toronto, would you consider doing it yourself?

    Steve: Getting an article in The Star is not the easiest thing to do. They have their favourite writers, and Gilbert seems to be one of them.

  9. Jacob Louy says:

    Commissioner Crisanti writes:

    “The previous mayor and council approved a light rail-based public transportation plan that would have increased capacity and reduced travel times along the Finch West corridor, but at a cost unacceptable relative to its long-term benefits.”

    Rob Ford has been saying something similar:

    “While they are cheaper in the short term, the full life-cycle costs do not outweigh the benefit of doing it right the first time.”

    We may have the logic to explain that subways require higher subsidies than surface LRT, but if only we had the numbers to further back our claim…

    If only we had the numbers to prove him wrong.

    Also, you’ve said:

    “Meanwhile, on the subway system, the TTC spends an inordinate amount of time and money plugging leaks and fixing structural problems in tunnels. Just look at the North Yonge line where a poor design choice in the tunnel liners has triggered a multi-year job to correct the gradual “squashing” of the “round” tunnel by the weight of earth above it.”

    Are there any figures available to indicate how much money is lost to this maintenance?

    Steve: The short answer is “no” because so much of subway maintenance is “routine” and its cost is sprinkled through many departments. It’s worth mentioning that the design flaw on North Yonge was not repeated on more recent construction (Sheppard). As subways age, many subsystems start to wear out and require renewal or complete replacement. We see many examples of this in the capital budget today (I am working on an article about this), and “state of good repair” is a growing, important, but un-sexy part of the transit funding problem.

    The point about life cycle costs would be valid if a line like Finch was expected to grow to true subway riding volumes reasonably soon, but that would be based on the comparative operating cost (and practicality) of surface LRT versus grade separated technology of any kind. Finch does not meet this test.

  10. Jessica says:

    I was wondering if you could provide the source link for the reference to the expected 61 million in development charges? Also, do you know if the current Sheppard line is funded partially through higher development charges around the line?

    Steve: The Development Charges show up in the budget presentation that was made by City staff in February. Scroll down to page 25.

    As for Sheppard, there were supposed to be development charges, but cleverly the bylaw to implement them was passed after many of the developments that would benefit from the line were approved, and so they were not subject to the surcharge.

    We know from other sources that the average charge in Toronto is about $12k per unit. If we are generating $60m in revenue, this translates to about 5,000 units per year for the entire city. You can imagine how many years of development and market uptake would be required to fund subway construction at even a modest $300m/km.

  11. Keith says:

    Not that I think Ford is brilliant. But I fail to see how development charges for units near the subway is any different from the impact of the transfer tax Miller had imposed.

    Quibble with Ford’s math if you like, but the concept is reasonably sound. People want to live near subways. They’ll just pay a bit more (or compromise by accepting smaller and cheaper units). And the development charges will just eat a bit more of the developer’s profits.

    It could also lead to developers building even higher to get the same bang for the buck from their given property. All in all, I see this as a good thing.

    Even if it does not fund the entire length of the subway. If it builds a few more km, it will have been worthwhile. And really, if they get the subway to Agincourt, Sheppard East really does not need much than curbside bus lanes east of McCowan, which could be built for a few million per km, and completed in a year or two.

    Steve: A development charge is applied on a per unit basis and raises the price of each unit. Building higher just means more units and more development charges, not a lower charge/unit. Also, the charge only applies on the original sale, not each time a property changes hands.

    Let’s do a bit of math here. A subway station, based on the quotes for the Spadina Subway Extension now under construction, will run you from $120-150m depending on how complex it is. Current development charges in Toronto are about $12k (they are higher in the 905). If we double the fee, then we get $12k/unit more with which to build subways. At the low end we have to pay for $120m worth of station construction, or build (and sell) 10,000 units.

    That’s a lot of units to be in the catchment area of one station. Looking at older apartment buildings with fairly large floor plates, you might have 10 units/floor, but for condos probably less because there will be proportionately more large units. Anyhow, that would be 1,000 floors of condos.

    Finally, the entire GTA market for condos is something like 16k units per year, and I doubt there would be takers for a vast number of condos in the Sheppard corridor.

    At this point, we have only talked about paying for the stations. The parts in between have to be paid for too, not to mention trains, signals, maintenance yards, etc. In Ford’s scheme, there is no city money on the line. Who is going to finance this?

    You yourself say, well, this may build a few more km of subway line, but we would have a very large expenditure of public funds to pay for the rest of it. The situation would not be unlike having Queen’s Park come to the table with 1/3 and leaving Toronto to pay for the rest. Our 2/3 drives up the City’s borrowing and crowds out other needed capital works on the TTC.

    Once you have learned how to pull an entire rabbit out of a hat, not just a foot, or maybe a nose wriggling over the brow, then we can talk. Meanwhile, you are trying to make Ford’s scheme look far more doable than it really is.

    And we have not even talked about whether it’s a good investment!

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