Ontario’s Finance Minister, Dwight Duncan, yesterday announced that the province will run a half-billion dollar deficit thanks to the international financial upheavals and declining economic outlook. In this context, I spent the day at a Metrolinx “stakeholders’ meeting” where we discussed details of the Draft Regional Transportation Plan and Investment Strategy. The whole discussion has a surreal air because nobody is quite sure where the billions to pay for this plan will come from.
There is reasonable agreement about the need for better transit, but much suspicion of whether this plan will join its predecessors on library shelves.
In the informal post-meeting chats, I was asked what I would do if the promissed $11.6-billion MoveOntario money didn’t materialize, if we had to cut back the scope of the “top priority” projects to fit a tighter budget. This is too big an issue for a short chat, and it deserves a post of its own.
Any budgetary cutback discussion must first consider whether to make the “death of 1000 cuts” or to look hard at big ticket items. If you need to defer or cut spending, there is more money to be found in large projects than small ones, but we may skip reviews of smaller items that really don’t belong at the top of the pile.
A major problem lies in the dearth of information Metrolinx has published about the detailed performance projections and roles of each component in the plan. We have demand forecasts only for year 2031 where the combined effect of future job and population growth interact with a completed network. The published data show only peak point counts, not the demands for each network link. There is no way to understand which links are cost-effective, and there is no data for intermediate states (such as after the “first 15” are built) to show whether they are an appropriate use of whatever resources might be available.
Metrolinx must publish this information as soon as possible. Meaningful discussions of cutbacks are impossible without it.
This brings me to the “Business Case Analyses” that are in progress already for some of these lines. These analyses are proceeding in the old, worn-out style of looking at each project individually rather than collections of projects for their combined effect on the network. From the 2031 projections, we can see that the regional express rail lines and other new major elements have a big impact on demand on the existing network. Notably, the forecast overload of the subway system doesn’t materialize because there are other high-capacity lines where the demand can flow.
Meanwhile, the TTC’s report on the north Yonge extension to Richmond Hill raises an old, hare-brained scheme to add a third platform at Bloor-Yonge station for increased capacity. I won’t go into a detailed discussion here beyond saying that this is horrendously complex and expensive, but at least the TTC finally recognizes that subway capacity involves more than new signalling and more trains.
The real question, however, is whether the money would be better spent on alternate services to divert riding with new options for travel to the core area. Should some projects — the Richmond Hill regional express and/or the east leg of the Downtown Relief subway — be moved up as alternatives or as key pre-requisites? That’s the kind of comparative analysis Metrolinx and the TTC are not doing, but should.
Next we come to project phasing. Do we really need a line all the way to Richmond Hill? Is there a shorter “phase I” that will have significant benefits without the cost of the full line? Analysis on an all-or-nothing basis doesn’t give us staging options.
We need to be open about “the untouchables”, the projects with political clout that soak up billions of dollars because someone wants to see them built. There is no point in talking about fiscal restraint if billions in proposed spending can’t be reviewed. A related question is how that “top 15” list came into existence in the first place.
Some time ago, the Metrolinx Board approved this grab-bag as likely top candidates that should be analyzed in more detail. However, that analysis isn’t even started for many of them, and there is every possibility that the analyses may show that some projects don’t pull their weight, at least in the short term. I may be splitting hairs, but that “top 15” has gone from candidates for early study to the definitive list of first projects without benefit of formal approval. If we are to have a spending review, we must stop assuming that this list has the force of detailed review and blessing.
Oddly, it’s almost an afterthought in the Draft RTP — Metrolinx doesn’t even include a map showing the network with only these lines completed.
The subway to Vaughan is a special case. There is supposed to be a trust fund holding the funding from Queen’s Park, Ottawa, York Region and Toronto. Is this money really sitting in a bank somewhere? Does the provincial share come out of the $11.6-billion MoveOntario pot? Can we step back and ask questions about why this line is so important? For starters, someone has to reconcile demand projections in York Region’s own EA that would make the Sheppard subway look busy with the impetus to build this line. Metrolinx does not break out the section north of Steeles as a separate project, and the published demand for the line gives only the peak point value (likely just north of Downsview Station).
The TTC is already studying alternatives to the SRT including LRT conversion of the existing line. The original recommendation to keep Skytrain technology only made sense for a line that remained at its existing length or had a short extension. The further north it goes (Markham is a mooted destination), the less practical and more expensive Skytrain is relative to LRT. Keeping the RT was a bad recommendation skewed by a desire to preserve Bombardier’s showcase technology, and we cannot afford to avoid this debate.
On the Sheppard/Finch corridor, current thinking is headed toward an eastward extension of the Finch LRT to Don Mills (where it would connect to the Don Mills line) and a westward extension of the subway to Downsview. These may be viable projects in the long term, but we have to consider them separately from the original Transit City proposals. Indeed, the Don Mills LRT isn’t even in the “top 15”, and there isn’t much point building the Finch line east of Yonge until it has something to connect with.
At Finch Station, there are big problems with the bus terminal and with the design of a future LRT interchange. What happens if the subway extension gets underway and much of the bus operation shifts north?
On Eglinton, a line whose projected peak ridership is similar to both of the subway extensions, but whose extent provides rapid transit service to a far larger area, we are faced with an expensive central tunneled section that cannot be avoided. Indeed, the size of this project requires that it be started sooner rather than later so that its benefits as a key part of the overall network can be available.
In the Don Mills corridor, should the DRL end at Danforth or continue north to Eglinton with a major transit hub linking the Eglinton and Don Mills LRT lines to the DRL subway? This won’t be part of the “top 15” list, but the Don Mills Transit City study would make a lot more sense if the TTC stopped trying to shoehorn an LRT right-of-way into Pape or Broadview. That scheme (and related alignments) are holdovers from the days when this was a BRT study, and this nonsense has to stop.
On the Weston/Brampton rail corridor, why do we persist with the fantasy of the Toronto Air Rail Link (TARL, formerly called “Blue 22”) that will chew up track space for a premium fare service on the same route as a proposed regional express service to Brampton? How much does the private sector-proponent of the line hope to make from this service? Can they be bought off? Is it cheaper to not build Blue 22 and devote the resources to upgrading GO in the same corridor?
What are the possibilities for the CPR North Toronto Subdivision? What options do we have for cross-region service via this corridor especially as an alternative way for riders from the north-east to get into the city without using the RT/subway network? Negotiating with CPR won’t be easy, but doing nothing may condemn us to building rapid transit capacity elsewhere we might not actually require.
If there is a common thread in all of this, it’s a simple message: Metrolinx started off designing a network, and they must not lose sight of the network view of any solutions. Look at revisions to the plan as a whole, look at where the benefits are greatest in the short term so that we spend what money is available on projects that will show real improvements for transit.
Toronto has decades of making wrong, expensive choices, and transit suffers a well-deserved reputation as an “also ran” thanks to those decisions. Provincial belt-tightening is just the opportunity we need to focus on what really works, on what we really need.