A Few Delicate Questions About The Scarborough Subway (Updated)

Updated May 7, 2013 at 9:30 am:  The TTC has confirmed that the January 2013 cost estimate for the Scarborough LRT includes a $500m provision for a carhouse and yard.  As previously discussed in this article, the yard is not required for the LRT option because the Scarborough and Sheppard East lines will share space at Conlins Road Carhouse.

The City Manager’s Report on “Revenue Tools” to fund transit expansion may, or may not, find its way onto Toronto Council’s agenda on May 7/8 depending on the success of political manoeuvres to bring the item onto the agenda.  Executive Committee chose to defer the item to its May 28, 2013, meeting at which point the issue will be moot as Metrolinx will already have issued its recommendations to Queen’s Park.

In the run-up to a forced Council debate, it is not enough for some, including TTC Chair Karen Stintz, to simply appeal to a sense of democracy – six members of Executive should not be able to block debate by 45 members of Council on an important matter.  This became a chance to dust off the “One City” plan and pull together a Scarborough coalition by advancing the cause of a Scarborough Subway – an extension of the Danforth line east and north from Kennedy Station to Sheppard and McCowan.

No sooner was this scheme back on the table, but other would-be players began to mutter about their own pet projects.  That “extra half billion” the subway option in Scarborough may cost on paper could attract billions of add-ons, almost like the worst of pork-filled appropriations in the US Congress.  What might fall off of the table to pay for the Scarborough subway plus any other extras needed to bring reluctant Councillors onside is unknown.  Queen’s Park has been quite clear that there is no additional funding from that quarter, and so and extra must come from Toronto.

Queen’s Park can, of course, ignore whatever Council may try to add as conditions on approval of revenue tools, but if these undo the agreement to build LRT lines signed barely a year ago, this is no trivial discussion.  Regional planning will take a back seat to political aspirations just as it has for the past four decades, and momentum for actual construction rather than endless debate and delay will be lost.

The whole concept that the subway option is “affordable” turns on the premise that it is only slightly more expensive than the LRT, and brings benefits the LRT option cannot.  Some claims made for the subway option are, at best, misinformed, and at worst outright deceptions.  Unfortunately, the public agencies charged with providing accurate information are staying silent lest they be drawn into yet another political debate that could wreck professional careers.

Here are a few questions that should be asked and answered.

How Much Will The LRT and Subway Options Cost?

According to a TTC report from January 2013, and LRT line ending at Sheppard would cost $2.3-billion versus a subway at $2.8-billion.  The base year for these quotes is not given, nor is it clear whether inflation to completion is included.

However, as recently as the Stintz One City Plan of June 2012, the cost estimates were both half a billion lower at ($1.8b and $2.3b respectively).  These were quoted in 2011$.

Updated May 7: The TTC’s Brad Ross writes in an email today:

1. The costs for the SRT in the January report were 2011 dollars.
2. They included vehicles, plus $500 million for yard provisions.

Metrolinx continues to cite $1.8b on the Big Move website, although this is quoted in 2010$.  It is not clear what the cost base year is for the TTC figures, nor the presumed construction period for the TTC options which would affect the inflation to completion.

Fleet

At one time, the TTC was planning to replace the existing Scarborough RT with new “Mark II” RT cars similar to the second generation of cars used on Vancouver’s Skytrain system (not to be confused with the new “Canada” line that serves the airport and does not use the same technology).  This project included an expanded carhouse and maintenance facility east of McCowan Yard, and provision for this persisted in the plans even after the project became an LRT scheme.  It is unclear whether the TTC’s cost base includes this carhouse for the LRT option.

Updated May 7:  The TTC has confirmed that the $2.3b cost estimate for the LRT option includes $500m for a new carhouse.  This is not, in fact, required and therefore the cost of the LRT option is overstated by the same amount.

By contrast, no new storage or fleet is required for the subway option because the TTC has an embarrassment of extra subway cars.  This situation arises from an era when fleet planning assumed all subway cars were the same, and that even with some new equipment, the Spadina subway extension would operate in part with the current fleet of “T-1″ cars.  However, with a decision to move to the new “TR” unit trains on the Yonge line and a switch to automatic train control, the T-1 fleet will be relegated mainly to the Bloor-Danforth line.

However, the TTC owns more T-1 trains than it requires to operate both the B-D and Sheppard subways.  The surplus is available for an extension such as the Scarborough Subway.  This reduces the cost/km that would otherwise have to factor in yard and fleet requirements.

Stations

The subway extension will only add three stations to the network, and not serve as wide an area as the LRT line would have.  The TTC projects that the population close to rapid transit service will be roughly half the size with a subway as with an LRT (24k vs 47k).

Despite the relatively bad station locations, the TTC projects slightly higher ridership for the subway (36m annually for subway versus 31m for LRT) in part due to the elimination of the transfer at Kennedy Station.

The One City plan cites daily ridership of 44k (present) for the SRT versus 125k (future) for the subway, but winds up with a similar total subway ridership of 38.9m/year.  This misrepresents the two options by comparing an existing, shorter, capacity constrained RT line to a new subway.  As we see in the TTC estimates, the extended and improved LRT would carry almost as many as the subway line.

For the LRT option, Kennedy is to be reconfigured, but the proposed Metrolinx design has not yet been published.  The TTC’s version included in the EA for the line shows the new SRT station beside the subway station to allow a simpler interchange via an expanded mezzanine area.

The LRT option includes a future extension to Malvern, something that is not possible with the subway and would, instead, need to be a spur off of the Sheppard LRT if and when that line is actually built.

Closing The SRT

The length of a shutdown for reconstruction of the SRT along the same right-of-way has been cited at various lengths ranging from 3 to 5 years.  Generally, the larger numbers are used when someone wants to advocate for a no-shutdown option.

In July 2012, I received the following email from Jack Collins, Metrolinx Vice-President, Rapid Transit Implementation:

Your recent blog posting implies that Metrolinx or the Province has increased the duration of the SRT shutdown period from 3 years to 3 to 4 years.

This is not the case. The first time we heard 3 to 4 years was during the City Council debate on Wednesday concerning the One City Plan.

This duration did not come from a Metrolinx representative and in all our discussions with the TTC staff the shutdown has been three years, and hopefully less if we put our minds to it.

I wanted to assure you and your readers that even with an AFP type contract, the current Metrolinx plan is:

  • SRT will stay in service until after the 2015 Pan Am/ Para Pan games
  • The AFP contract will have a condition that will limit the shutdown period to no more than 3 years
  • As part of the AFP contractor selection process, contractors will be encouraged to come up with plans to reduce the shutdown period to less than 3 years

Scarborough Subway advocates routinely claim that the SRT will shut down for 5 years (the One City plan cites a value of “4+ years”).  What the subway advocates do not address is the question of the existing SRT’s longevity.

In the Transit City Plans, the SRT conversion would already be underway with the new LRT line to open before the Pan Am Games in 2015 and a roughly 3-year shutdown period.  When Queen’s Park stretched out the funding for Transit City and forced the TTC to keep the SRT running until after the Games, the TTC reluctantly agreed, but was concerned about whether the technology could be kept alive that long.  As things stand, the SRT service has been downgraded so that the existing fleet and control system can achieve the scheduled performance.

No detailed design nor EA has been conducted for the Scarborough Subway, and given past experiences, it would be astounding if such a line could be in operation by 2020.  There is a high likelihood that the existing SRT will simply stop working well before then forcing a shutdown even with the subway option.  The implications of keeping the SRT running until a subway line opens have not been explored or costed.

Although Metrolinx is on the record with an estimate of three years or less for the SRT shutdown (see above), the longer five year number is often cited because former Minister of Transportation Bob Chiarelli published a timetable for transit projects showing the SRT being completed “by 2020″.  Relative to a fall 2015 shutdown, this is read in some circles as “five years”.

Metrolinx does its own plan a disservice by staying so quiet on the subject when publicly aiming at 2018 would improve the LRT plan’s credibility.

In fact, Metrolinx plans to begin construction on the Conlins Road Maintenance Facility in late 2014 along with track on Sheppard East and the portion of the LRT line east of McCowan Yard.  A pause to have the LRT-vs-Subway technology debate all over again, especially if this is founded on a dubious comparison of the costs, could further delay transit expansion in Scarborough.

Concluding Thoughts

All of this debate has surfaced thanks to repeated delays to Toronto’s transit plans both by Mayor Ford and by Queen’s Park who, for a time, played along with Ford even in the absence of Council’s agreement.  TTC Chair Karen Stintz wants to see her plan implemented and thoroughly wrest control of the transit agenda from Ford, but she needs Scarborough’s support to achieve this.

What has been lost here is an overall sense of what the City needs from its transit system than yet another set of lines drawn on a map and the political horse-trading that goes with such an exercise.

Council should debate which revenue tools it feels comfortable supporting as part of a provincial transit scheme, but the debate about the network layout and content belongs elsewhere.

Postscript

I originally made this remark in the comment thread, but it belongs here in the main post.

I could reluctantly be brought around to the subway point of view if only the cost figures could actually be compared on an apples-to-apples basis and remain only “moderately” more expensive for a subway, and if the subway advocates would address the issue of the SRT shutdown period through either option. As things stand, the rosiest possible picture is painted for the subway, and that sort of argument arouses suspicion.

Local boosterism coupled with a “to good to be true” argument for a transit proposal should raise questions.  Whether they will be asked, let alone answered, remains to be seen.

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Steve thanks you for reading this article, even if you don't agree with it.
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54 Responses to A Few Delicate Questions About The Scarborough Subway (Updated)

  1. Edmund O'Connor says:

    Robert Wightman:

    “Have you ever tried to walk from the hospital to the entrance that is manned? The station should be the Ikea Station, not Leslie.”

    Especially when your wife is over 9 months pregnant, and trying to get her from the station to the maternity ward in the shortest possible time. North York General is *in the vicinity* of Leslie station, but it is not an easy transfer, especially for many people who need to get to the hospital to use their facilities.

  2. Michael says:

    Robert,
    That is very defeatist. It does not matter when cities started building rapid transit.
    Under that logic, Toronto would never have built the subway network we have.

    Vancouver and countless other world cities show that elevated structures can and do work in new build. Not to mention the tons of underused railway corridors and hydro corridors, which the much touted LRT plans of the 60′s and 70′s for suburban Toronto wanted to use.
    None of the LRT plans from before had in the middle of the street operation planned. It was all on rights of way away from the streets.

    Steve: The problem with hydro corridors is that they don’t necessarily go where transit capacity is needed. When the original 60′s network was proposed, those corridors ran through empty suburbs and could have shaped the growth of neighbourhoods. Now we are stuck with travel and population patterns as they have developed along roads because that’s where the cars (and associated destinations) are.

    Elevated structures can work in selected locations, but they can also be extremely intrusive. The GO Urban plans of the early 70s included elevated guideways on Queen Street through downtown. A mockup photo showed one in front of Metropolitan United Church, and even that was composed as if one were standing well back in the park, not under the structure. The visual blight of elevated structures was never shown for major corridors like Eglinton.

    At a particularly memorable community meeting, the then Minister of Transportation, Gordon Carton, attempted to defend the elevated structure proposed for Scarborough. He wanted to describe it as “light”, but the word that came out was “flimsy”.

    I will believe that Vancouver is really committed to elevated structures when they propose a Skytrain line down the middle of Broadway rather than under it.

  3. Michael says:

    The hydro and railway corridors still touch major travel destinations. And with feeder bus service, which Toronto is very well known for, it does not matter if the rapid transit stations are right on the corridor they are serving.
    The Finch Hydro Corridor being a few hundred meters behind Finch Ave does not matter when we are talking rapid transit lines.
    A proper interconnected transit network with rapid transit and feeder buses will overcome the issue.
    This is the success of the current TTC.

    The Scarborough subway alone will bring vastly more auto competitive transit to Scarborough. It will mean that Yonge-Bloor will be under a 30 minute transit ride from Scarborough Town Centre.
    The Scarborough subway could be extended through elevated structures, to north east Scarborough. Again, bringing vastly improved travel times for riders.
    It is a clear win win that future generations will be happy we built.

  4. Robert Wightman says:

    Michael says:
    May 16, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    “Robert,

    “That is very defeatist. It does not matter when cities started building rapid transit.
    Under that logic, Toronto would never have built the subway network we have.”

    No Michael, it is realistic. I am not against building rapid transit but Toronto has been held hostage for many years by NIMBYs who demand that all lines be buried when it would be cheaper to use open cut. The line across the Don at York Mills should have been on a covered bridge, the extension from Warden to Kennedy should have been open cut, so should most of the TYSSE. But no, we must bury everything and this raises the costs drastically.

    As long as we insist on subways, true subways, everywhere we will not build much rapid transit. Have you ridden “subways” in London, New York, or Washington? They have a lot of lines that are in the open. There are a couple of rail corridors, Weston Sub in particular, that would make a good rapid right of way. Elevated is a non starter politically in most of Toronto. The good burghers of York region are not going to accept an elevated line when the rich b******* in Toronto get theirs buried.

    Steve:

    “At a particularly memorable community meeting, the then Minister of Transportation, Gordon Carton, attempted to defend the elevated structure proposed for Scarborough. He wanted to describe it as “light”, but the word that came out was “flimsy”.

    In Carton’s defence I believe that he was sold a load of goods by the technocrats behind Maglev. At a Thursday night meeting in Don Mills he forced the engineers to answer my “too technical” questions on its efficiency. He appeared quite surprised by the low numbers for it. On Wednesday he was a back bencher.

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