The Day The Big Move Died (Update 2)

Updated December 2, 2010 at 11:55 pm:

The Globe and Mail has a story by John Lorinc echoing the sentiments here with quotes from sundry people weightier than I am.

The Star reports on provincial reaction to Mayor Ford’s move.

Updated December 2, 2010 at 1:50 am: The Globe and Mail reports on a poll of Councillors regarding support for Transit City or subways.

  • Pro Transit City:  14
  • Transit City + Tweaks:  4
  • Subways:  11
  • Unknown:  15

Original article from December 1, 2010:

Toronto’s new Mayor Ford, acting with a haste uncharacteristic in Toronto affairs, and without even bothering to consult his new Council, has directed the TTC to stop work on Transit City.  The “war on the car” is over, and all new rapid transit will be underground.

The deafening silence from Queen’s Park shows us how much Metrolinx and its regional plan, The Big Move, depend on political agreement among GTA municipalities.  Removing the pols from the Metrolinx Board may have centralized important announcements at Queen’s Park, but it did nothing to blunt the effect any local Mayor or Council can have if they don’t play ball.

The Big Move has both a 15-year and a 25-year component, although the likelihood either of these would see substantial construction was compromised the moment Queen’s Park’s budget priorities trumped a scheme to build major transit improvements first as a prelude to new revenue tools.  Nobody wants to talk about taxes or tolls, but money for transit, whatever the technology, won’t come from the tooth fairy.  It won’t come from the private sector either, at least not without a guaranteed return on their investment.

Ford, whose aggressive tactics on Council are well known but whose character was carefully controlled during the election, has shown that he has a plan, and feels that his mandate gives him carte blanche to implement whatever he wants.  The voters have spoken.  Those who voted for 44 Councillors might beg to disagree, but that’s for Council to decide in weeks and months ahead.

The real problem is the lack of leadership on the transit file from Queen’s Park.  The Big Move was cobbled together from many local plans, including Transit City, and flawed though it might have been, there was general agreement about the shape of the plan.  Changing Toronto’s focus to subways unbalances the plan’s scale and benefits, not to mention the huge change in net cost.  Mayor Ford’s concern for taxpayers’ dollars appears to end when someone else is expected to pay the bill, and this could deprive Toronto of transit improvements while growth proceeds on smaller-scale projects in the 905.

If we can rip Transit City out of The Big Move with only the barest of response from Queen’s Park, how safe is the rest of the plan?  Will expansions in Mississauga, Hamilton, York Region and Durham be subject to the whims of whoever is in power, or will a semblance of regional planning remain?  Will provincial efforts dwindle to supporting GO Transit, an organization whose forced marriage with Metrolinx is still quite shaky.  The bride and groom are still arguing over decorations, and they almost certainly have separate bedrooms.

Readers who know me well will appreciate that today is not the brightest day in my history of transit advocacy.  It would be easy just to write a bitter rant against the incoming regime.  That would be a waste of time — they won’t read it anyhow, any more than they will listen to editorial boards at the Globe and Star.

That regime is not stupid, although many would paint Ford and his crew as a bunch of bumbling hicks.  They know what they want to achieve and they appear ready to push as hard as possible until, no, even if someone pushes back.  That’s the role of Council and of Queen’s Park if they really believe in Transit City.

There is a place for LRT and for subways in Toronto, and if we are to remake the transit plans, this process deserves more than the midnight YouTube announcement of Ford’s election campaign.  It also deserves a concerted effort by transit supporters everywhere to fight against slurs of downtown elitism, and to argue strongly for better, cost-effective transit.  We need to ensure that the “war on the car” is not replaced, stealthily, by a war on transit.

As for Metrolinx, I can’t help wondering what, exactly, its purpose is.  The Board rarely meets in public, and doesn’t discuss much of substance when it does.  Major announcements come from the Premier or the Minister, and many of these deal with GO plans that were in the pipeline before the Metrolinx amalgamation.  Now we see a Mayor can just tear up part of the plan, an ironic situation considering the grief David Miller endured for trying to get Toronto’s interests recognized at Queen’s Park.  If the Tories win the fall 2011 provincial election, Metrolinx and its hoard of consultants may find themselves out of work, and transit may be relegated to a desk at the back of the Ministry of Transportation offices in Downsview.

Meanwhile, my box of “Big Move” documents can join the many other plans in my archives.

LRT vs Subway — A TTC View

Before Mayor Ford took office, the TTC briefed his transition team on the comparison between LRT and Subway options for the Sheppard and SRT projects, as well as on the status of Transit City.

This article presents a condensed version of the information.

TTC Briefing Summary

The Briefing Summary contains three tables consolidating information scattered through many pages of the briefing documents.

The first page shows the committed and spent funding for the four projects:  Sheppard East, Eglinton, Crosstown and Scarborough.  An important note here is that the lion’s share of the money is in the period from 2015 to 2020.  Queen’s Park expects to raise this via whatever “Investment Strategy” Metrolinx comes up with, but the funding machinery is not yet in place.  Only the $3.1-billion for 2010 to 2015 is “money in the bank” for Toronto.

This is the first of several potential drags on any plan to revise or accelerate transit construction.  Queen’s Park has not planned to spend most of the money until after not just one, but two coming Provincial elections.  Moreover, they have not yet engaged voters and taxpayers with a debate over the exact source of funds be they tolls, taxes or the Tooth Fairy.

To the end of September 2010, just over $129-million has been spent, although there are commitments for considerably more.  At this point, we have no idea of the “break fees” involved in closing down these contracts.

The second table consolidates the status information on the four projects.  An important point here is that the extended construction period is determined by Provincial spending priorities and the desire to shift as much as possible into the “Investment Strategy”.  The original plans for both the Finch and Scarborough lines would have seen them completed years earlier.  The constraint is financial and political, not technical.

The third table shows the cost estimates for two variants on the Scarborough line as a subway (one ending at Scarborough Town Centre, the other at Sheppard), and for a Sheppard East line running to STC.  Schematic maps for each line are linked below.

TTC Scarborough Subway

TTC Sheppard Subway

It’s worth remembering how little of Sheppard Avenue in Scarborough would actually be served by the extended Sheppard Subway.

A critical point for the SRT is that in the subway scenario, it would have to remain in operation until 2022.  The TTC was concerned about making it last to the Pan Am Games in 2015, and a 2022 date is not credible given past TTC comments on the declining reliability of that line.

The presentation materials end on a summary page that concludes that the segment from Kennedy Station to STC is the “best candidate for a subway”.  This reiterates the TTC’s long-standing anti-LRT position for the Scarborough RT by comparing only the portion of the line from STC south.  The whole purpose of an LRT conversion was to reduce the cost of reaching Malvern, but with a subway plan that will never happen.

TTC staff is expected to produce some sort of subway plan in about six weeks, probably in time for the January 2011 Commission meeting.  We will see how much is a fair presentation of options, and how much is creative writing.

The big issue for me is that if we are going to have a subway-oriented plan, then it should be a plan that serves the emerging needs of the whole city.  Just building as much as you can with the money now earmarked for Transit City will give the impression of movement, but most of this will be to the benefit of the construction industry, not transit riders.  We need to know where demands are growing to the point where some form of rapid transit is needed, what form that would take, and how much it will cost.  Otherwise, voters will have a big surprise when they see how little they get for a substantial outlay.

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