Metrolinx Reviews the Richmond Hill Subway Extension

On August 7, Metrolinx released the Executive Summary of an Interim Benefits Case Analysis for the Richmond Hill extension of the Yonge Subway.  The most important text appears on the introductory page:

This interim BCA appraisal of the project raised a number of key network related considerations.  Considering this, Metrolinx, in close collaboration with the City of Toronto, TTC and York Region, will undertake additional analysis to more comprehensively understand these matters and how they impact the network and project scope. The analysis will include:

  • Possible adjustments in project scope, timing or phasing;
  • Consideration of the extent to which improved service levels on the parallel GO Richmond Hill rail corridor to off-load some of the demand on Yonge Subway corridor (existing and proposed extension); and
  • The cost impacts of the various options on the subway yards strategy, Yonge-Bloor subway station improvements; and a future Downtown Relief Line to bypass the Yonge-Bloor congestion pinchpoint.

The BCA process for this project has identified a range of development and congestion pressures along the Yonge Subway corridor. In partnership with York Region, TTC and the City of Toronto, Metrolinx will be carrying out the work above and report back to the Metrolinx Board on the resolution of key project issues in late 2009.

This statement is the first official recognition outside of Toronto Council that the Richmond Hill subway must be reviewed in the larger context of network performance and the stress that additional loads will put on the system.  When Toronto gave guarded approval to the subway extension, but with a long list of pre- and co-requisites, many complained that this was just Toronto being obstructionist, the sort of behaviour that led to politicians being kicked off of the Metrolinx board.  Things have changed.

The Benefits Case Analysis clearly had its origin in simpler times when Metrolinx projects were considered in isolation.  Page 1 of the BCA lists only three alternatives for consideration:  two subway versions (differing only in the number of stations) and a BRT scheme.  There is no mention of alternatives such as GO improvements or LRT, but at least the potential for overloading the existing subway system is acknowledged.  Later, the report acknowledges that it is part of a larger collection of studies (as noted in the introductory text above), but this is not reflected in the options that were evaluated.

In a bit of accounting sleight-of-hand, only part of the cost of Bloor-Yonge Station improvements are charged to the extension project on the ground that other factors will increase demand and the cost should not all be charged to the extension.  This misses the basic point that the extension would be the trigger, and indeed has already been used to justify upgrading capacity on the existing subway system.

The options shown on page 2 show that demand in the corridor between Finch and Richmond Hill would place roughly 9,000 peak hour passengers on the subway, about 3/4 of the total travel in this corridor.  Most of the rest would be on an infrequent GO service (every 30 minutes) in this scheme, even though Metrolinx’ own plans call for substantial improvement in service to Richmond Hill.

BRT is rejected as an option because its capacity is only 3,000 per hour, and the demand is well above this level.

Footnote 2 of this table states the obvious, that demand peaks before implementation of Richmond Hill Express Rail service currently planned for the 2021-2031 timeframe.  Why would we spend a fortune on expanding capacity of the existing subway system if the demand will be siphoned off by another future project?

Page 3 tells us that the benefit-cost ratio for the subway options is 0.7.  We have to take this with a grain of salt given the underlying methodology.  The lion’s share of the benefit comes from reduced auto commuting (“Transportation User Benefits” on page 4), but this would also occur with improved GO service.  The benefit of those redirected trips would no longer be available as an offset to the cost of the subway extension, and the benefit-cost ratio for the subway proposals would be much lower.  This is masked by the absence of an option which includes significantly improved GO service to which much of the “user benefits” would be assigned.

One major flaw in the Metrolinx BCA methodology is the inclusion of “economic impacts during construction”, in other words, the job creation of building the line.  This “benefit” can only be assigned to a specific project if the money would not otherwise be spent elsewhere.

However, in any evaluation of network alternatives, we can reasonably assume that we have “X” billion dollars to spend on something, and the real question is where we get the best return for the investment.  Claiming an economic benefit from construction skews the evaluation of projects to those that cost the most and therefore provide the greatest short-term job stimulus.  One could argue in the extreme that not spending billions on public transit would be beneficial because the money would be available for other uses such as reduction of provincial debt or tax relief.

This “analysis” is a farce.  Clearly, Metrolinx sees that an isolated review of the Yonge Subway extension misses the bigger picture.  Oddly enough, they didn’t bother to publish the full analysis, only the summary.  I suspect that the complete report would be far too embarrassing given the superficial work visible here.

We must now await the outcome of several other studies, notably those for improved GO service and for the subway options into downtown.  This work should have been underway long ago, but at least, finally, it is started.  Is the era of “I want a subway” planning finally over?