Ford Proposes Privately Built Sheppard Subway (Updated)

Updated February 17, 2011 at 10:00 am:

Councillor Doug Ford talked to Matt Galloway today on Metro Morning.  Listen to how he slides all over the place without giving specifics of how the money would be raised and simply says that such schemes have worked elsewhere.  No details, but the usual put-downs of “nay sayers” as if anyone with the nerve to criticize is a foe of progress.  Sounds very 50’s to me.

In a separate interview, MPP Greg Sorbara, former Minister of Finance and heavyweight proponent of the Spadina Subway, explains that, while the proposal may look interesting, the devil is in the details, and at the end the public pays.

Original article from February 16 at 16:44:

Mayor Ford’s office has proposed to Metrolinx that the Sheppard subway be extended west to Downsview and east to Scarborough Town Centre as a private sector deal with the City according to articles in the Globe and the Star.

The expansion would be privately financed, but owned by the City with the cost to be repaid out of development charges and tax increment financing.

What is unclear at this point is the amount of development that would be needed along the extended line to actually pay for its construction without adding to the City’s debt, nor is it clear how much of the proposed Provincial and Federal contributions to the Sheppard LRT would be available for a Sheppard Subway project.

This scheme leaves a number of other projects up in the air including:

  • the remainder of the Sheppard LRT’s scope from Kennedy (where the subway would veer south to STC) to eastern Scarborough and, possibly, to the UofT Scarborough Campus
  • the replacement of the SRT as either an LRT line (part of any remaining LRT-based Transit City network) or as a BD subway extension
  • the status of the proposed Eglinton and Finch LRT lines, although the former as an LRT subway hybrid seems fairly certain to be built

A long term plan to finance a subway using future revenues presumes that the money to pay for its construction, debt financing and developer’s profit will actually materialize.  This begs the question of station location and spacing because there would be little development on land far from stations spaced widely as on the most recent extensions to the subway.  Enough land and development potential must exist to pay for the subway over time, and the locations must be sufficiently attractive to would-be builders that they will pay a premium to locate their buildings on subway sites.

Whether the subway would generate net new development or merely attract buildings away from other sites is hard to say given that major redevelopment of the older commercial/industrial strips in Scarborough and North York is not already underway.

Would existing neighbourhoods in which new stations (and their associated development) would be placed welcome a complete change in their density and character?  This may be viable on Sheppard, but not in other neighbourhoods with well-establish, stable residential land use.  Indeed, some routes, like a Downtown Relief Line, would be built as part of a wider network to spread demand and give access to new parts of the city.  Should the locations a DRL would pass through enroute to downtown pay the cost in redevelopment effects because that’s where a line is drawn on a map?

The extensions would cost $3.4-$4.4-billion according to the Star, and this would translate to an annual debt service cost of $200m at 5%.  That’s a lot of new tax revenue, although the amount would be lower depending on the amount of principal that can be paid off through development charges.

As with other private development schemes around the world, the real challenge lies in the details of any contract.  Who, for example, will be responsible for upkeep of the infrastructure and repair of any premature faults that appear over the period of the lease-purchase?

My reaction to this is mixed.  The Sheppard Subway may be the apple of some advocates’ eyes, but it is not the most important transit expansion project in the GTA.  Regardless of how it is financed or who builds it, this will divert considerable investment and attention from other projects and may well pre-empt any expansion of LRT service to the northeast.

On the other hand, we have been hearing about the wonders of privately developed transit for so long, part of me wants to say “put up or shut up” to those who would pursue this course.  Is the project really viable?  Will the city see the revenues needed to pay for the long term lease-purchase of the new line, or will future taxpayers be on the hook to bail out the project?