Wednesday, February 8, 2012 brought the debate on the future of LRT in Toronto to the floor of Council for a Special Meeting. After a year waiting for Mayor Ford to get his act together on the transit file, to bring his Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Queen’s Park to Council for debate, to bring a credible plan for financing the Sheppard Subway extensions into public view, Council had enough.
TTC Chair Karen Stintz, the last person the progressive wing of Council would have expected, filed a petition with the City Clerk on February 6 for the meeting with the support of 23 of her colleagues. Two days later, Council would be in open revolt against the Mayor. The public gallery filled quickly, with overflow viewing by video in the rotunda of City Hall, and the Press Gallery had more reporters and camera crews than I have seen at Council in years. They stayed all day — this was not a story to cover in an hour or so.
Stepping back from the political drama, this was an astounding day for me as a lifelong advocate for Light Rail Transit. Here was Toronto Council spending an entire day debating transit planning, technology and funding with a level of detailed knowledge of the issues advocates could only have dreamed of years ago. At stake was not just $8.4-billion of provincial money, but the future direction of transit development.
The results are reported elsewhere. This article presents the flavour of the questions and speeches that filled the day together with a strong sense that LRT, forty years after the Streetcars for Toronto Committee’s victory, will finally have a fair chance in Toronto. I have included details of the questions asked by most Councillors in the interest of showing the range of the debate and the growing understanding, or lack of it, by various members of the details of the issues.
Mayor Ford is not known as a gracious loser, and long before the votes were actually counted, it was clear which way the issue would turn. The lowest point of the day came just after lunch when the Mayor’s team attempted to sabotage the meeting by breaking quorum. Council cannot meet without a majority of members present (23), and the Mayor’s folks actually seemed to think that by staying away, they could halt the meeting.
This shows the desperation of the anti-LRT side, and puts Ford’s later comment that Council’s vote was “irrelevant” in a different light. So relevant was that vote that he attempted to ensure it never took place. He failed.
[In the following text, I have generally placed my own observations in square brackets to distinguish them from statements by Councillors.]
The day began with presentations of petitions, 24,000 signatures strong, in favour of the “Metrolinx LRT Plan” by several Councillors representing either their own wards, or neighbouring ones with Ford-friendly representatives. The Mayor’s team managed a few hundred petitions, and even these were divided on the preferred outcome. Councillor Michael Thompson (Scarborough Centre), one of Ford’s loyalists, noted that there was confusion in what the public knew and wanted. His petitions were divided 50-50.
Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti (York West) sits to the right of Mayor Ford. He is best known for his thumb (used to signal Council followers on how to vote for each motion) and for his utter lack of good sense and taste. Once a union supporter and member of Mayor David Miller’s circle, “Mammo” turned hard right to join Ford’s gravy train. He is Chair of the Community Development & Recreation Committee, and thus a member of Ford’s Executive.
Mammoliti was very abusive of TTC Chief General Manager Gary Webster on the topic of a Finch West subway, a scheme that exists only in a few fevered and vote-hungry Councillors’ imaginations. Webster held his own on the lack of demand to justify a subway. When Mammoliti asked “what would you say to people who want a subway on Finch”, Webster replied that “LRT is appropriate”.
Frank Di Giorgio (York South Weston), another Ford ally, asked about the status of the Eglinton project, a bizarre request considering that his ward straddles Eglinton from the CN rail corridor at Caledonia to the CN/CP corridor at Weston. He should know the status without having to ask. Webster replied that the Black Creek launch shaft for the tunnel boring equipment was under construction, and that a two-year tunneling contract to bore east to the Allen Road would be let soon. A separate contract would handle the next section to the east.
Di Giorgio asked why a decision on burying Eglinton east from Laird and west from Black Creek needed a decision today. Webster replied that designers must know the mode and alignment they are working on. Is the TTC costing the alignments, and what will they do if the actual pricetag turns out to be $12b rather than $8b? Webster replied that the TTC knows the cost differences and has done enough work to be confident that the estimates are reasonable. As to the question of LRT being adequate for future demand, the TTC and Metrolinx believe that the corridor’s needs will be met out to 2050.
[This sequence was the first hint of the Mayor's strategy to come -- establish that further study is needed and that a decision is not pressing, all in aid of delaying the decision.]
Councillor Vince Crisanti (Etobicoke North) asked what would work best for speed on Finch including a subway. He spoke of a report on Finch options that was in preparation by TTC staff in which bus queue jump lanes would work almost as well as an LRT line. Webster contested the claim of comparable speed, and noted that the final report had been delayed by illness of its principal author. Crisanti continued by asking whether a subway or LRT would take more cars off of the road. Webster agreed that a subway would do more than an LRT, but that this was also a more expensive option.
[The Mayor's strategy is becoming even clearer -- suddenly a new subway on Finch West is the distraction from a Finch LRT, and of course we will have to study anything that hasn't been through the mill already.]
Cesar Palacio (Davenport) spoke about the St. Clair streetcar project whose western end lies in his ward. What was its budget? Webster replied that the TTC work was pretty much on budget at $69m, and challenged “apples to oranges” comparisons. Palacio attempted to interrupt when the answer was not to his liking, and alleged that some of the cost overrun was the fault of Councillor Joe Mihevc (St. Paul’s), former TTC Vice-Chair. That brought a point of personal privilege by Mihevc who noted that extra work for Hydro undergrounding had been added to the project at Palacio’s request. Palacio continued with claims about the effects on businesses and homeowners saying that “hundreds” had been driven out of business. Webster pushed back acknowledging the problems the project caused and that the project itself ran out of control, but noting that delays included the effect of an unsuccessful legal suit to halt the project after it was underway.
Palacio asked whether the St. Clair line was intended as a prototype for the City’s LRT network even though it was a total failure. Webster replied that he considered the line a success given increased riding and reliability. The new LRTs will have higher scheduled speeds than St. Clair.
[St. Clair comes up regularly in Ford's catalogue of TTC sins with words like "disaster" thrown around. Every LRT line in town will be a repeat of St. Clair according to Ford's camp despite changes to overall project management (consolidating responsibility in one manager to co-ordinate work and requirements of all agencies), new contracting practices (awarding work only to companies with the resources to adapt to unexpected schedule changes), and a clear recognition that interference for political expediency has a price.]
Councillor Shelley Carroll (Don Valley East) noted that the Yonge subway once ended at Eglinton where the buildings were only two storeys high. Later with the extension to North York, the presence of a subway was used at the Ontario Municipal Board to justify approval of new developments, although the build-out of North York Centre has taken 25-30 years. She wondered how a neighbourhood would respond if, when we asked about new transit lines we also asked where we should put the 40 storey buildings. On TTC operating costs, Carroll wondered about the extra cost of subway versus surface lines including the extra security required to monitor the stations.
Councillor Adam Vaughan (Trinity-Spadina) asked the Chief Financial Officer Cam Weldon about the projected funding shortfall for the Sheppard subway in KPMG’s report. Vaughan asked him to confirm that development charges would have to rise by 40%, extra taxes would be needed in the Sheppard corridor with a 20% bump to business tax and 8% to residences depending on how close to transit they were. Weldon replied that, no, this would only apply to TIF (Tax Increment Financing) charges that apply to new construction triggered by the subway. Vaughan asked, rhetorically, if all development charges out to 2062 would be needed for Sheppard with no money available for Finch. Staff replied that it would only be for 30 years. Vaughn pointed out that the level of funding proposed by KPMG would require 1,600 new condo units annually, or 1/10 of the GTA market.
Councillor James Pasternak (York Centre) asked what extra ridership is expected with the opening of Vaughan Centre station in 2015. Webster did not know the number offhand, and oddly neither did Pasternak. The argument he could have tried to make was that demand at Vaughan will be well below “subway” levels and, if so, why is it OK to extend the Spadina line but not to build subways on Finch or Sheppard. The answer, had this question been asked would be that Vaughan is out at the end of a line, while the numbers cited for the east-west routes north of the 401 are peak point values.
Pasternak asked how a Sheppard extension to Downsview would help travellers going from Vaughan to Scarborough. Webster replied that this particular flow was small and the demand could be handled by ensuring convenient transfers. He pointed out that there were other routes to STC that did not involve using a Sheppard West subway (including the proposed second phase of the Finch West LRT to Yonge Street) and concluded saying that investment in the Sheppard corridor was not warranted.
Councillor Jaye Robinson (Don Valley West) appeared confused about the options under study for the Eglinton line even though it runs through her ward. Webster replied that details of the subway and surface options are not yet final beyond the section from Keele to Laird station. There are two perspectives to consider — engineering challenges and cost — including the choice of bridges or underground construction. Robinson asked about the Don River crossings, and Webster replied that that the east branch will likely be at grade. The west branch is still under study. Robinson asked whether it would be a “nominal cost” to extend the tunnel from Don Mills Station all the way to the east side of the DVP. Webster asked that Council not dictate the manner of construction.
Robinson asked about the comparative environmental impacts of LRT versus subways. Webster replied that either mode has its effects and one needs to weigh the factors. Robinson asked if there had ever been a cost-benefit analysis of Transit City versus the MoU network. Webster replied that, no, there had not been, but that it was always more expensive to maintain a subway than a surface LRT. This line of questioning follows directly from some of the claims put about by Mayor Ford regarding the supposed additional costs and side effects of the LRT option.
Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker (Scarborough Centre) asked about the frame of reference for the two schemes, the 2009 Memorandum of Agreement and the 2011 MoU. If we don’t tunnel, do we save $2b? Webster replied that the number is $1.9b, but yes. How many more riders would the MoA scheme yield? 130k. Does this network have the best cost-benefit? Yes. Does the MoA plan get more cars off of the road? Webster replied that the Metrolinx 5-in-10 plan from the MoA would get 11 million more per year, and “we say” (the TTC) that the plan is the better value for money.
[By now, it is clear that Gary Webster is going to be quite forceful in supporting the LRT plan. It is no secret that the Fords are out for his blood, and he has nothing to lose by supporting the scheme advanced by TTC Chair Stintz.]
Councillor Raymond Cho (Scarborough-Rouge River) noted that there are limits on how much the City can build. He asked about the penalty for sunk costs, and Webster replied that it was $65m, possibly more, according to Metrolinx. Cho wondered how we would pay this bill, would we pass it on to the taxpayers? He asked how many more riders an SRT extension to Malvern (which is in his ward) would yield. Webster replied that ridership would go up, but he didn’t have the number.
Councillor Maria Augimeri (York Centre) asked whether Council would be able to get any new technical information if this item were deferred today. Webster replied that all the issues are understood now and not much would come from further review. Augimeri asked when work first started on the Eglinton Subway. Webster replied that this was in the 93/94 era, but the project never reached the point of buying tunnel boring machines. All that was built was a launch shaft and some utility work at a cost of $80m including project close up. Augimeri asked jokingly if the subway now under construction (Spadina) is the same one she voted for years ago.
Councillor John Parker asked CFO Weldon about the financing of the Sheppard project and the proposal to use most TIF and Development Charge revenue for this. Weldon replied that the TIF zone is 800m either side of the Eglinton, SRT and Sheppard corridors. [Note that the benefits from provincial spending on Eglinton and the SRT would be used to finance the Sheppard line.] Parker asked how long these charges would apply given that KPMG proposed 50 years. Weldon corrected one point by saying that the Development Charges would apply city-wide, not just to the TIF zone.
Parker asked what kind of development would be required to generate the projected returns. Staff replied that this would take about 1,700 residential units per year, plus 250k square metres of office space plus 60k of retail. Even after this, there would be a gap of $800m to $1b in project funding.
Parker asked the TTC what their preferred vehicle would be for a route that was all in tunnel. Webster replied that they would not recommend an underground, low-floor LRT because of the lower vehicle capacity and extra cost for crashworthiness in surface operation. If the line is to be fully grade separated, it should be a subway or a “mini subway” (e.g. ICTS). LRT would be the more expensive option in this case.
Parker spoke about the binding MoA from 2009 and its effect on TTC bus requirements as Sheppard and Finch routes would have been replaced by LRT.
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Don Valley East) asked about the cost of a subway option. Webster replied that the actual cost to build and maintain a subway is higher than LRT. Minnan-Wong asked for comments about numbers in the 1992 Environmental Assessment done by the City for the Sheppard project, but Webster passed on the question because it is not his report and he doesn’t know them off hand. Minnan-Wong asked if the 2009 plan fits with Metrolinx needs for the accounting treatment with provincial ownership. Webster replied that yes, it did, although there is some discussion about how rights-of-way in city streets would be handled. Minnan-Wong asked about the cost of bus lanes on Finch. Webster replied that this would be $48-50m, but that LRT is needed to handle projected demand and queue jump lanes for buses would not.
Councillor Peter Milczyn (Etobicoke-Lakeshore, also TTC Vice-Chair) asked how much money will be left over from the Eglinton surface option. Gary Webster replied that it could be as much as $1.9b, but discussions are still underway with Metrolinx. The number could be somewhere from $1.0 to $1.5b. A Finch West LRT would be about $900m, Sheppard LRT would be $1b, the SRT extension to Sheppard $300m, to Malvern another $300m, Finch carhouse $250m, Sheppard carhouse $300m. Milczyn asked what the TTC’s priority would be among these, and Webster replied Sheppard.
Councillor Anthony Perruzza (York West) asked what the sunk costs, spending on lines that won’t be built, would be if Council approves the MoU plan. Webster replied that this would be $48m to $65m plus whatever penalties there might be on the vehicle contract. The TTC is acting as an agent for Metrolinx, and spending on the MoU plan is running $1.5m to $2.0m per month. [Part of this relates to the tunnelled portion of Eglinton which is common to both plans.]
Councillor Mary Fragedakis (Toronto-Danforth) asked CFO Weldon who paid for the KPMG report on the Sheppard Subway? Weldon replied that the City paid for it, and it cost $150k. Does the City have TIF authority under current legislation? No. Would the City get the increased education tax from new development? No. Does the legislation enabling development charges allow the City to finance bonds? No. What about other tools such as tolls? Alternate revenue tools do not have legislative authority. All the City did was to have a study of tools used in other jurisdictions.
Councillor Michael Thompson (Scarborough Centre) asked what the daily vehicle counts were between Brentcliffe and Birchmount or Kennedy (the section of Eglinton that would run on the surface). Staff replied that at the Don Valley Parkway there are 40k per day, with 49-50k west of Don Mills Road. Hourly peak counts at Brentcliffe are 3,900 in the am and 3,700 in the pm. Thompson asked where the $8.4b will come from. Webster replied that Ontario would borrow the money using the long-term asset (the LRT line) as backing. Thompson felt that there was confusion about what exactly would be built. Webster replied that the issue to be understood is the difference between the 2011 MoU scheme (mostly underground) and the 2009 Metrolinx 5-in-10 plan (subway-surface).
Councillor Mike Layton (Trinity-Spadina) asked about the development implications. Chief Planner Gary Wright replied that on Eglinton, the City plans to bring in as-of-right zoning for higher densities. This will be affected by station locations. Layton asked about the difference in zoning with subways (high density at station nodes, midrise between) and LRT. Wright replied that LRT would give a more spread-out development pattern. Layton asked how this fit with the Official Plan and the Avenues Plan [a city policy to concentrate development on certain key main streets], and Wright replied that subways increase the density at nodes.
Layton asked Gary Webster about the density needed for subways. Webster replied that in the range of 15-30k passengers per hour, subways are appropriate, but below that LRT would be used. The LRT plan can handle demand out to 2050, and that we would be spending on demand that isn’t there if we overbuild. Layton noted that every year the system operates without the needed density, it runs a deficit. Webster noted that the SRT has the highest density around the line and it has its own dedicated corridor.
Councillor Josh Matlow (St. Paul’s) asked whether Sheppard meets the test for a full subway. Webster replied “no”. Eglinton east of Brentcliffe? No. Does it make sense t bury the line? No it does not. Has the TTC given advice on this to the administration? No. [This last question refers to the report on technology choice and alignment that the transit commission voted not to seek from staff at its recent meeting.]
Councillor Michelle Bernardinetti (Scarborough Southwest) asked where the Eglinton line would come above ground. Webster replied that it would be east of Brentcliffe in the 5-in-10 plan. There could be a bridge or underground construction in selected locations. If underground, there would be no station at Leslie. Don Mills would have an underground station no matter which option is chosen. If bridges are used over the valleys, this will affect the vertical and horizontal alignments. Bernardinetti asked about the $1.9b and the money originally allocated to the Sheppard and Finch routes. Does the TTC have assurance from the Queen’s Park that savings on Eglinton would be available for reallocation? Webster replied that Metrolinx has not indicated any other plan. [Bernardinetti is suggesting that the money might go elsewhere despite repeated assurances from the Province to the contrary. This is a common theme among Ford supporters.]
Councillor Doug Holyday (Etobicoke Centre, also Deputy Mayor) asked about the traffic effects of new road layouts on Eglinton, especially the use of hook turns, and the effect of future growth in demand. Staff replied that growth is tending to spread out the peak period, not the peak volume. Holyday asked if we are just imagining the growth in congestion? Staff replied that this varies by corridor but the main effect is a longer peak. There is no new road capacity and so transit must do the work. If transit takes road space this will further limit growth.
Holyday asked Webster why we would change from older subway plans to LRT on Eglinton. Webster replied that in 1986, the primary mode for the Network 2011 plan was subway. Now the projected demand is lower, and LRT is the predominant mode world-wide to handle middle capacity demands. With a semi-exclusive right-of-way, LRT can handle 8-12k capacities. This was not recognized in the mid 1980s, but it is today.
[I cannot help noting that it may not have been recognized by the TTC who were still fighting against LRT tooth-and-nail, but the move toward LRT was already well-established. The TTC concentrated on subway plans to the exclusion of all else.]
Councillor Mark Grimes (Etobicoke Lakeshore) asked about subways and development. He felt that the major developments would happen in areas served by subways and asked how far ahead Toronto should look. Webster replied that the regional plan looks out to 2031, and that the TTC and Metrolinx have looked to 2051. The LRT plan still works out in 2051. Subway assets (tunnels) last 75 to 100 years, but vehicles and many other components only last 30 years. Grimes asked if we would talk about LRT if we had double the funding available. Webster replied that extra funding should be directed first to state of good repair, and that building subways everywhere is not a good idea. Grimes asked about subway shuttles or express lines [thinking of New York's 42nd Street line, but on a scale connecting more distant points in Toronto]. Webster replied that Toronto’s subway does not have the capacity for this. [I would add that point-to-point shuttles only work with significant demand between nearby locations lest we spend a fortune trying to link everyone's pet origin-destination pairs.]
Grimes asked whether Council could get more information if Metrolinx staff attended [this was another ploy to get the item deferred]. Webster replied that the TTC has done all of the work for Metrolinx and has all of the information. Should a future meeting be arranged with Metrolinx? No, the TTC has been working on this and has all the facts.
Councillor Pam McConnell (Toronto Centre — Rosedale) asked for a comparison of York University busway and the planned service to Queen’s Quay East. Webster replied that the TTC went for the busway as an initial stage of improved service to York U for capacity and speed. This was a case of the best of mode used for the need. McConnell observed that money then dropped from the sky for the subway extension to Vaughan. Webster replied that there was a lot of discussion on the business case for the busway, and that the TTC expected to get the benefit of BRT for several years making the spending worthwhile. McConnell asked about the funding needs for the new line on Queen’s Quay. Webster replied that more money is needed, but the current plan is bus based. Is the TTC’s plan a step-by-step increment from one mode to another? Yes, they will make do with a lower capacity mode as an interim service.
McConnell asked about comments from Scarborough that they would lose lanes on Eglinton with a surface option. Webster replied that there will be a significant increase in transit capacity with some decrease to the road. [This happens because an existing HOV lane on Eglinton that also sees some use by non-transit traffic would be replaced by the LRT right-of-way in Scarborough.] Did the TTC look at its plan through a “connectivity lens”? Yes, the original network plan had a network perspective on meeting travel plans.
Councillor Mike Del Grande (Scarborough-Agincourt) asked whether Metrolinx does due diligence on advice from the TTC, or do they just accept what the TTC says. Webster replied that Metrolinx is accountable to the Province and has staff and consultants who can verify TTC work. Did Metrolinx take a position on the underground version? They agreed with TTC staff on the 5-in-10 plan [subway-surface option]. What about the MoU with Mayor Ford? The TTC was not involved with the MoU. Would someone at the Province do due diligence? That was not the TTC’s role. What about previous studies of the Sheppard Subway? Webster replied that when the TTC chose to support the LRT network [Transit City], this trumped the subway plan. Is there a plan to link from Don Mills Station to Scarborough Town Centre? No, the demand is better for a line on Sheppard itself with the extended SRT providing the link between STC, Sheppard and Malvern.
Councillor Frances Nunziata (York South — Weston, also Speaker of Council) asked whether the proposed plan is really Transit City. She was interrupted by Deputy Speaker Parker who noted that the proposal is not yet actually on the floor for debate. Webster replied that the LRT lines are in the 5-in-10 plan, but with Transit City the scope was different. 5-in-10 is the first phase of four lines. Nunziata replied that this is Transit City resurrected, and invoked the names of former Mayor Miller and former TTC Chair Giambrone. Does the St. Clair right-of-way cause emergency vehicle delays? Webster replied that emergency vehicles can and do use the r-o-w.
Councillor Gord Perks (Parkdale — High Park) asked the CFO whether using funds as suggested by the KPMG report for the Sheppard Subway could affect Toronto’s credit rating. Yes, that needs to be investigated. Would the need for $800m in new money plus taxes dedicated to one project affect other capital plans? Yes.
To the Chief Planner: The Yonge and Bloor-Danforth subways grew out of what mode, streetcars, with the pre-existing surface demand leading to subways? Yes, there was gradual growth plus the existence of fixed rail systems before the subway.
To the TTC: Do the 40 to 45 largest cities in North America have or plan to implement LRT systems? Yes. When the Yonge subway opened, did it replace three streetcar corridors (Bay, Yonge, Church)? Yes. Is it typical to build up capacity through different transit modes? Yes. So that’s what the TTC would look at for Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough? Yes.
Councillor David Shiner (Willowdale) asked what the 2009 MoA plus an interim funding agreement covered, was it only a design phase? City Manager Joe Pennachetti replied that this was intended as an interim step leading to a master agreement that the City does not yet have. What is Toronto’s rapid transit plan, did the former Metro government approve a new rapid transit system. Staff replied that they approved Network 2011 including a subway link from North York Centre to Scarborough Town Centre. An Environment Assessment was completed, and the line was built to Don Mills, all that could be afforded within the $1b funding available.
Councillor Doug Ford (Etobicoke North) asked about the speed of subways versus LRT. Webster replied that the LRT will do better than streetcars. Wouldn’t it be better to build a subway? No, we will save on construction costs. Ford spoke about short-term band-aid solutions and the greater economic benefit of subways. Webster replied that LRT is an economical mode up to a capacity of 8k/hour, not a band-aid, and it would work out to the projected 2050 demand levels. Ford spoke of the St. Clair “disaster” with cost overruns plus bad management. Webster replied that this was a joint City and TTC project with both scope and management problems and challenges including interventions by politicians. [Ford became abusive in his remarks at this point and was hissed by the gallery.]
The clock had reached 12:30 pm. Time for the lunch break.