A Few Questions About the Scarborough Transit Debate

The debate about whether Toronto should undertake a Scarborough Subway in place of the proposed LRT line will occupy a good deal of Council’s time this week even though it is likely to wind up with a subway endorsement.  We will hear a great deal of information, some of it true, some of it best described as creative fiction, and some just plain wrong.

Expecting the gang of 45 to understand all of the details is a huge stretch, and this is complicated by a critical lack of  information.  Many questions have not been answered, nay have not even been asked.

How Council can undertake a $1-billion or more project without being fully informed is baffling, especially for such a bunch of right-wing, penny-pinching fiscal conservatives.  The times, however, demand a political statement, and we’re going to start by giving Scarborough a subway, no matter what it takes.

Here are a few questions responsible representatives of we, the voters and taxpayers, should be asking.

To Minister of Transportation, Glen Murray:

  • Is Toronto going to get the full $1.8-billion originally budgeted for the LRT plan, or will the amount be $300m or more lower as stated in the letter from Metrolinx to Council?
  • Is the provincial contribution indexed for inflation to the point where spending occurs, or is it capped?  If so, at what value?
  • If Council approves the subway, but this is subject to Ontario providing $1.8b indexed for inflation, will the government say “no” and force Toronto to pick up the balance?

These questions are central to understanding just how much provincial subsidy the subway project might receive.  There is a difference of about $500m on the table, and this would have a substantial effect on any new financing scheme Council would have to approve.

Murray has been all over the map with comments about funding the subway saying he won’t negotiate, but also saying that he awaits Council’s position on the question.  Council needs his answer to make an informed decision.

To Metrolinx:

Until now, confirmation of the shutdown and reconstruction plans for the SRT/LRT conversion have been through private emails.  TTC Chair Karen Stintz repeatedly cites a four-year shutdown even though in recent correspondence, Metrolinx has confirmed that they want to finish the work in three years.  In private conversation, an even shorter term was discussed, but Metrolinx is unwilling to commit to this until they received detailed proposals from bidders on the project.

  • Will Metrolinx make a public, unqualified statement about the proposed shutdown period for the SRT including closing and opening dates for a period shorter than 2015 to 2020?
  • If the Scarborough LRT does not go forward, what is involved in making the Malvern segment north of Sheppard a spur from the Sheppard LRT?  What would be involved in adding this to the Sheppard project, and when could it open?
  • What is involved in building the northern segment of the so-called “Scarborough Malvern” line to extend the Sheppard LRT south to serve UTSC campus?

These questions speak to the actual effect of an LRT construction in the SRT corridor, or alternately, what might be done to increase the reach of the Sheppard LRT that will now be feeding into an extended Bloor-Danforth subway at McCowan.

To the TTC:

These questions speak to the accuracy of the estimated subway project cost, the margin of error in the estimate, and the future operating and capital maintenance cost of the subway extension.

  • The capital cost estimate for the subway option is stated with a ±30% range of possible actual values.  How much work is involved to narrow this margin considering that the upper bound would expose the City to an additional $1b in project costs?  Can the TTC provide a more accurate estimate before Council makes an irrevocable commitment to the subway project?
  • What is the operating cost of the existing subway system, and how much would this be increased by extending the BD line to Sheppard?  What are the capital budget implications for additional maintenance in future years?
  • If the capacity of the BD subway line must be increased to handle new demand from Scarborough, what are the implications for timing of the fleet replacement, expansion of the fleet, and storage/maintenance in a post-extension environment?
  • What will be the effect of added demand on the BD subway for the Bloor-Yonge and St. George interchanges, capacity problems on the YUS subway, the need for a Relief Line, and the timing of related capital expenditures?

To the City Manager:

  • Your report cites a recent demand estimate for the subway option based on new land use data, but does not include an estimate for the LRT option on the same basis, only the original 2006 value.  Why not, and what are the apples-to-apples demand comparisons for the two proposals?
  • What specific changes in the land use model caused a jump of roughly 50% in the projected demand on the subway?  Does this depend on major as-yet unapproved development or zoning changes?
  • What are the implications for future tax rates and development charges of each $1b of capital spending on this or any other project?
  • How close is Toronto to its debt target, and how much more transit financing can it afford within that target considering other known demands on City capital resources?

To TTC Chair Karen Stintz:

Both Chair Stintz and CEO Andy Byford are on the record saying that the TTC cannot absorb another flat-lined operating subsidy.  They are also on record supporting the (Downtown) Relief Line.  Their commitment to Waterfront transit improvements is not as clear.

  • What are your plans for the 2014 operating budget, and more generally for improvement of transit service in coming years?
  • What new or improved bus services do you plan to operate in Scarborough in the ten years leading to the opening of the subway extension?
  • What currently unfunded transit capital programs cited by the Chief Planner as top priorities for the City do you intend to support, and when will this support appear by way of “above the line” budget proposals?

We can have an informed debate about transit options for Toronto, or we can have a great deal of sound and fury leading to a pro-subway vote that settles nothing because there will be so many unknowns.  Stay tuned.

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58 Responses to A Few Questions About the Scarborough Transit Debate

  1. L. Wall says:

    I am perfectly willing to be convinced that LRTs are the best option for Toronto. But the efforts to convince me so far have been laughable.

    Much like your effort to convince us that underground tunnels are cheaper than surface rails James?

  2. Nick L says:

    James I. Hymas said:

    I suspect these politicians have started to listen to their (potential) constituents.

    I take it that you have never heard the expression “bribing people with their own money” before.

    with inferior options for long range transit trips.

    Interesting how GO transit is considered an inferior option for long range transit trips even though trains on the Lakeshore East line reach downtown faster than any subway and wouldn’t require that much relative to subway construction costs to increase service to once every 15 minutes.

    Also, I find your use of “a vision of a pastoralized Scarborough” to describe those who are in favour of LRTs amusing since you are the one implying that there is no employment, education, entertainment or even communities in Scarborough and thus subways are needed for people to escape from such a bleak environment.

    Steve said:

    … in any event just skipping Lawrence East isn’t going to make a huge difference in running time.

    But then, people want to spend over a billion dollars to supposedly save a few minutes and eliminate some stairs.

  3. @Steve Munro:

    The question is whether a larger area of Scarborough including Sheppard East, Malvern, UTSC, Kingston-Galloway are going to get an improved form of transit, or if every penny will be spent on the subway extension.

    Well, the question is: what does “improved” mean?

    Do the residents of Scarborough consider that “improved” means local access, or do they consider that it means faster access to downtown?

    And what does “improved” mean with respect to the city in general?

    You are not going to get a network of subway lines where the LRTs are planned.

    I’m not sure why you’re pointing this out – I never suggested such a thing.

    And the time spent waiting for a feeder bus, or for a transfer from the BD to YUS line, doesn’t count?

    Certainly it counts. The problem is that it has never been counted – not as part of any benefits analysis I’ve seen.

    How many times do I have to say this: Subway tunnels may last for 100 years, but the stuff inside them — trains, track, signals, ventillation, drainage, station fixtures, escalators and elevators — do not.

    You really don’t have to say it at all, although saying it once will serve as a good introduction to a thorough analysis. The question is not whether tunnels and their associated hardware require capital maintenance and operating expenditure – of course they do. As a matter of fact, my statement specifically complained that the reports whence we are expected to make a decision do “not address operating costs or capital maintenance costs in any way whatsoever.”

    Still, despite the immense amount of work that went into crafting this sentence, I would still like to see some actual numbers.

    Also, if you don’t trust the city staff, who do you trust? Metrolinx? A consultant — and hired by whom to validate which opinion?

    That’s easy – I don’t trust any of them; not to the extent of writing any of these groups a blank cheque and blindly following whatever recommendation they happen to make.

    As I say – I want to see a debate, with the numbers laid bare and subject to scrutiny by anybody with technical expertise. Once I’ve read the arguments over each line item, then I’ll decide who is more credible.

    Please note that we have beaten this issue to death, and I will not take the time to respond (and possibly may not even publish) further comments in this vein unless you have something new to say.

    I regret that we are retreading old ground; but you will note that in my posts in this thread I have attempted to concentrate on the “benefit” side of the cost/benefit relationship. My reference to the Chong Report arose only as a response to your remark that “I still fail to understand how your remarks about cost effectiveness square with support for a subway.”

    All pieces of TTC infrastructure require capital maintenance, from the sump pump in the tunnels to the chain-link fence outside most stations. For example, the expected life of a streetcar road-bed is variously estimated at twenty five years and about thirty years; it is not clear whether these figures include an allowance for utility operators tearing up the street in the interim. After the end of their expected life … they have to be completely rebuilt, essentially from scratch, requiring a capital maintenance budget to match.

    Steve: Actually, no. The tracks that are built today (as I have discussed here on several occasions) are constructed so that only the top layer (of three) needs to be removed — the one actually containing the rails. The middle layer (ties) and the bottom layer (foundation) stay in place. We have only just caught up to poor track construction methods of the 70s and 80s and have very little regular track left to rebuild to new standards. The intersections moved to a modern standard more recently, and they will take over a decade to get through the cycle to a similar condition. This has been discussed here many times, but you choose to ignore it.

    And, of course, the vehicles themselves need to be replaced, as the new fleet of streetcars has an at least a thirty year lifespan; probably not much more given that the current fleet is only 24-36 years old. It’s not clear how much capital maintenance is required in the interim.

    So what happens in thirty years, when every single penny spent on LRTs has become a write-off, together with its interim capital maintenance? We don’t know. It never gets talked about. The SRT is a complete write-off after thirty years.

    Steve: Two points here. First, you have misconstrued the longevity of the roadbed, not to mention the power distribution system. The TTC is still replacing overhead and feeders, and upgrading substations, that date back to the first half of the 20th century.

    Also, the shops built to house and maintain the fleet will last much longer than 30 years. Hillcrest was built in the 1920s, and Greenwood shops dates from the 1960s. Ronces and Russell are from the 1920s (the original Ronces was older, but that building is long gone).

    Second, to build a subway requires vastly more infrastructure be built in the first place simply because it is underground. The 100-year tunnel isn’t needed for an LRT line.

    Capital maintenance adds up: according to the City Manager’s Report: “The 2014-23 Capital Plan already identified $2.5 billion in new TTC capital needs (mainly state of good repair)”. Nevertheless, this enormous cost is ignored in transit planning: “The annual capital maintenance requirement for a subway extension has yet to be determined”

    This [question regarding Centennial College] shows up in the City Manager’s report in the issue of station access and walking distances,

    Yes, it’s very thorough: “Apart from serving the development of Scarborough Centre, the LRT line would support development in the Kennedy-Midland corridor, provide rapid transit service to Centennial College”.

    I never said that it was thorough, only that it was mentioned. The fact that the LRT line serves Centennial is documented in far more detail in other background studies.

    You have really been trying my patience here with a refusal to accept that we simply disagree on the purpose of a “Scarborough” line and the appropriate technology, but you wrap this in the almost mystical cloak of requiring a more thorough analysis to your exacting standards.

    No further comments of yours will be published.

  4. Isaac Morland says:

    Steve, I saw the “subways last for 100 years” canard somewhere in the comments section on a newspaper recently, and seeing it here reminded me: it seems to me that everything in the tunnels is roughly the same as what an at-grade LRT line has — track, vehicles, signalling, power — so the only part of a subway that lasts longer than an LRT line is the tunnel itself, and even that needs repair before the 100 years is up. Is this right?

    Steve: Yes, that is correct. And even tunnels need repairs. In many locations there are problems with water penetration that causes premature failure of the concrete. This is commonly seen on the ceilings of stations where the TTC has made many repairs, but also on the walls and floor. Currently there is a section of the eastbound tunnel just west of Broadview Station being repaired, and work has been underway just west of upper Bay Station for months. Some of the problems with noise on the BD line between Old Mill and Royal York were caused by spalling of tunnel floor concrete. Photos of rusted through track bolts near York Mills (which is always a wet area being under the Don River) were among the more striking evidence of longevity problems found after the Russell Hill accident when the North Yonge subway was less than 25 years old.

    If the only component of subway which lasts longer than LRT is something LRT doesn’t have (assuming the LRT is not also in a tunnel), then using the same standards it seems that it would be reasonable to say that an LRT line can be expected to last 10000 years (based on a guess as to when glaciers can be expected to advance again and scrape away everything we’ve built), or possibly less if it is in an area where the trackbed is subject to erosion.

    This is a bit like the 25-year warranty that is common on dryers. It’s only applicable to the drum, of course, which has an approximately 0% chance of failure, given that it’s just a big piece of stainless steel. They might as well offer a 100-year warranty, given that the chance of the rest of the dryer still being around for the drum to fail is nil.

  5. While this was said here by James I. Hymas, it is a point that I have heard from some pro-subway people:

    So what happens in thirty years, when every single penny spent on LRTs has become a write-off, together with its interim capital maintenance?

    Like the mis-application of the St. Clair right of way to LRTs, the end-of-life of the SRT’s ICTS technology is often mis-applied to LRTs. The current SRT is only obsolete because it was shoe-horned into a plan that it wasn’t meant for (in addition to the fact the technology does not work well for our climate). The shoe-horning made the Mark-I cars just fit, to the extreme that they didn’t even do that for the Kennedy loop. When the manufacturer moved on to a new generation of vehicles, the die was cast.

    Either we pay to have more of the old cars made (which will need replacing again at some point), or we pay to alter the clearances for the current model, or we pay to alter the infrastructure to use off-the-shelf, tried-and-true LRT vehicles.

    The worst part of the argument above is that it applies to subway vehicles as well, but nobody sees them being such a “write-off” because they run in a 100-year tunnel (except, of course the tunnels on North Yonge and a few other places).

  6. Kristian says:

    Re: SRT Mark I cars:

    If we need more to keep the system going I hear the city of Detroit just filed for bankruptcy – perhaps they would like some cash for their trains (12 cars total).

  7. Dean Girard says:

    To James I Hymas who, although you won’t be able to respond on this thread, has nonetheless created an abundance of responses on this thread:

    You are preaching to the choir.

    And you appear to be a gadfly who seems to delight in raising a whole pile of “what if?” questions and badgering fellow posters about their lack of thought, or information or imagination or … Note that these are more often than not posters who have no “official” status in the transit development portfolio of the City or the Region and therefore no direct say into the processes followed or information collected for or provided to politicians. Nonetheless, they are quite imaginative in considering other options for and the shortcomings in the current transit conversation.

    What you need to be doing is writing to the Mayor, your Councillor, the Toronto Transit Commission, the local newspapers and – if possible – attending any TTC meetings or public fora or whatever to express your point of view or your frustration with the “process.” As I said in an earlier post on this site, Toronto City Council has reinforced to me that it does transit planning on the fly on the back of a matchbook.

    This is possibly because some – many? most? – of them don’t USE the public transit system to any extent where they would realize that it provides different services to different people in the City and that it NEEDS TO BE ADEQUATELY FUNDED by all levels of government to keep the region functioning. A “get-somewhere-quick” service (downtown? work? school?) is great if that’s what you need at the time but that service frequency and volume COSTS MONEY both to build and maintain and operate. And what if the TTC feels it has to offer more of a coverage-based service in some areas (for seniors, to out-of-the-way hospitals or other public institutions where access is an issue)? The get-somewhere-quick folks would just say, “Oh, too bad – take a cab – more buses are too expensive” but aren’t these riders taxpayers too – those folks the Mayor loves to say he respects? (Read Jarrett Walker’s book “Human Transit – How Clearer Thinking About Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives”) for his discussion about Ridership vs. Coverage.

    If transit in this city is going to offer a reason for car drivers to get out of their cars and use it, it needs to do many different and often conflicting things at the same time: run frequently enough while still not being too expensive for the users or for those hard-done-by taxpayers who feel they unfairly subsidize the system through their taxes and gas premiums (never mind that drivers get road maintenance, free/low cost parking at many malls, get to carry only one person while polluting the air and giving wear-and-tear to the roads). It has to deal with budget restrictions from a “war-on-the-car” attitude Mayor who scrapped without public discussion a TransitCity plan that had been in the works for a while – shortcomings or not, at least it was SOMETHING working towards serving the citizenry vs. two years later and where are we now?

    I suggest that, instead of picking apart everyone’s arguments line by line and showing where you perceive their “shortcomings” to be, you use your energy to show the Mayor, Councillors and even the Commission why THEIR (non-existent transit planning) “process” is faulty.

    There is a difference between criticism and critique.

  8. Richard L says:

    It’s becoming a popular urban myth that subways outlive LRT by many years. In a recent Globe & Mail article, Marcus Gee wrote:

    “subways last 75 to 100 years, as opposed to about 40 for LRTs”

    I think Marcus should know better; however, many readers would accept that statement. Some commentators to the article challenged Gee’s statement.

    Today, a letter to the editor made a similar statement in NOW magazine.

    I suspect that the SRT is being used as example of LRT having a short live. People may not understand that the SRT is a light metro rather than LRT. Also, they see streetcar tracks being torn up during the day for replacement, but they don’t see subway rails being replaced at night.

    Steve: When the lower Yonge subway closes for a WEEK in the fall for the signal project, people will learn that subways don’t last 100 years. Meanwhile, they see lots of station repairs, escalator escalator rebuilds and brand new subway cars. It’s a case of willful ignorance and the spin coming out of Ford’s office.

    Marcus Gee should be ashamed of parroting that drivel, and I went after him for it via Twitter.

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