The Sheppard LRT Report (Part IV)

Now we come to what I must call “The Chong Dissent”, the reports prepared under the company “Toronto Transit Infrastructure Limited” (TTIL), a dormant TTC corporation resurrected for the purpose because it had $160k sitting in its bank account.  All this and more was spent to argue the case for a Sheppard Subway.

Council has already opted for an LRT line on Sheppard, but arguments originating from the TTIL reports continue to haunt the debate.  It’s time to expose their threadbare, self-serving nature.

Summary of The Subway Option, March 12, 2012

This is the allegedly omitted chapter in the Miller report.  In fact, it appears in the appendices.  We can argue forever about where it should have been and the slight, perceived or real, against the subway option this choice made.  What is important is the content.  If there were a strong case here for subways, the material would stand on its own.

The report begins with an argument for P3 financing as an alternative to the commitment by Queen’s Park of $8.4b to “street level transit”.  Let me first observe that if the cost of the underground portion of the Eglinton line and the SRT replacement (which will be entirely grade separated) is removed, the amount is barely $3b.  This is still a lot of money, but to claim that the province will spend the entire $8.4b on surface transit is simply wrong.  That’s in the first paragraph, and it sets the tone for what will follow.

A few paragraphs later, we hear again the claim that the TTC’s cost structure is out of line with international experience.  This is not true as demonstrated in other reports.  Madrid, to which the TTC is so often compared, is an outlier in the data relative to everyone, not just Toronto.

LRT construction is claimed to hurt local businesses, but this appears to be based on the St. Clair model where streets are lined with shops, construction is botched and gerrymandered, and the degree of upheaval considerably more than what shop owners bargained for.  A similar situation happened in Vancouver on the Canada Line where the private builder, after bidding on the basis of deep bore tunnel construction, elected to go cut-and-cover with considerable effect on local businesses.  This is a question of project design and management, not of the specific technology used for the route.

BC is praised for “leveraging” a local investment of only $250m for the Canada line.  What Chong neglects to mention is that this line received special funding as part of the federal contribution to the Olympics, a level of funding that is not generally available to transit projects in Canada.

Alberta is praised for funding transit by redirection of the education property tax.  Bully for Alberta that they are so flush they can afford to give away education dollars like that.  The situation in Ontario is much different.  Indeed, part of the education taxes collected in Toronto and the larger cities goes to subsidize Boards in less urban communities who do not have the tax base to fund their local systems.  Education tax revenue is not just “sitting there” waiting to be used for transit simply because another province has found a way to make this work.

LRT is claimed to have a higher cost per passenger mile than subway according to APTA (American Public Transit Association).  This statement is doubtless true on a superficial level, but does not stand up to detailed review.  Most subways in the USA have been around for a long time, and they serve very dense corridors.  A low cost per passenger mile is inevitable from the high utilization of the infrastructure and of the manpower needed to keep it all running.  LRT lines by their nature have less infrastructure, but generally carry more riders than bus lines.  Their operating cost per passenger mile may be higher than on subways, but they are not burdened either by the high initial capital cost nor by the ongoing capital cost of major system repairs.

This is the very reason why cities build LRT lines — they trade off the much lower capital cost, the speed of implementation and the relatively low level of construction disruption.  Indeed, most cities do not have corridors where a subway would achieve the average cost per passenger mile for the USA as a whole.  The situation is the same on Sheppard — very low utilization of the existing subway generates a very high cost per passenger, and this would only be diluted, not eliminated, with the extension proposed to STC.

A blanket statement using average costs across all systems rather than a proper set of operating cost estimates for specific LRT and subway plans is a flagrantly unprofessional way to compare modes for a these proposals.  Driving a car, on average, may be cheap, but I cannot expect to pay “average” costs if I go out and buy a fleet of SUVs.

Chong claims that there will be life cycle costs from attracted development around a subway option, and he uses the Spadina extension now under construction as an example.  It is worth noting that the original Spadina line is remarkable for the lack of development around its stations.  “Build it and they will come” has not worked in that corridor, and the major effect of the extension to Vaughan is to support an already-planned new development.  It is unclear what portion of this development would occur even if there were no subway and, indeed, to what extent the public sector is “investing” in this development by funding a rapid transit line to it.

Now we come to a series of claims about the superiority of subway technology.  Most of these are distorted or outright wrong.

  • Vehicle costs.  Subway cars cost $2.8m each while LRVs cost $5.3m.  Subway cars cost less because they are built in trainsets where many subsystems are shared over the train.  LRVs are intended for individual operation and have a higher unit cost.  The offsetting saving is that one does not have to build dedicated infrastructure to use them.  The LRV cost cited is higher than the value claimed by Metrolinx for the cars they are buying (roughly $4.4m each).  This may arise from different bases of the quotations used.  Chong’s claim is misleading.
  • Design life.  Chong claims that the design life of a subway car is 40-45 years while for LRVs it is 25-30.  In fact, the typical life cycle for subway cars in Toronto and many other places is 30 years.  The Yonge subway is now receiving its third completely new fleet a bit under 60 years after the line opened.  The BD line is on its second fleet, and is not due for another until the mid 2020s.  Chong’s claim is false.
  • Travel time.  The subway is claimed to save 10 minutes in travel versus 4 for LRT.  However, we don’t know the basis of comparison.  Just to reach the subway from eastern Scarborough will require a bus trip either to STC or to Kennedy North station on the subway line.  If to STC, how much time is consumed going out of the way to reach STC?
  • Ridership.  The subway is claimed to carry more people, but these are (a) riders who will materialize only if the expected development around STC actually happens and (b) not the riders who have been waiting for better service in eastern Scarborough.  The subway proposal is an investment in upgrading the value of existing industrial lands near STC, not in serving the wider community in Scarborough north of the 401.
  • Reliability & Collision.  The subway will not have to deal with traffic at intersections or with events such as collisions that could block service.  Point taken.  Again, as with all LRT vs subway debates, this is a question of tradeoffs versus cost and overall benefit.
  • Auto savings.  With more riders on the subway, this takes more cars off roads and generates a better environmental return.  Yes, but at what cost?  Should we build the most expensive mode in the hope of capturing more riders at a high marginal cost, or should we spread the available funding around.

The list goes on, but I won’t because it is all a rehash of the claim that with a subway we will have more transit riders and, by implication fewer auto trips.  Note that the “higher” ridership of the subway option only applies if we ignore the potential ridership on a Finch corridor that would be affordable in an all-LRT network.

Next up is a list of collisions in Calgary.  The heading states that five vehicles were retired, when the list below clearly shows that two of these were later repaired for service.  There is no info on the age of the vehicles involved.  Vehicles nearing the end of their lives would not be repaired, but would be used as a source of spare parts.

Dare I mention the fact that buses and subway trains have collisions too?  Quite recently, a bus was involved in a fatal collision on Lawrence East, and there is an infamous collision at Russell Hill in the Spadina Subway which killed three people and, by the way, exposed the shoddy state of TTC maintenance and training.  Buses have killed people who fell under them at stops, and subways have a regular problem with suicides.  Would I suggest that subway advocates are causing suicides by expanding the system?  Of course not, and yet that is the level of cause-and-effect “analysis” we are offered by this report.

A quote from the Edmonton Journal talks about problems with the Edmonton LRT system.  This is a controversy over design and alignment of an extension to a network that began in 1978 inspired, in part, by Toronto’s decision to keep its streetcar system.  The debate in Edmonton is not whether to have LRT, but how to best co-ordinate it with the City’s plans and existing neighbourhoods.

Chong claims that LRT will have lower or even negative environmental effects as compared with a subway.  First off, as I mentioned earlier, the population and location to be served by the LRT are different from those that would be served by the subway.  Sheppard Avenue itself east of Kennedy North Station would receive little “environmental” benefit from a subway that ran along the other side of the 401 in the Progress / Highland Creek corridor.

LRT is supposed to be noisier, but it is unclear what reference Chong is using.  We do know that the “old” style of track, notably still in operation on Spadina south of King and on Queen’s Quay, is very noisy because of how it was built, but this is not typical of modern streetcar track.  The new LFLRVs have additional sound deadening features which will make them even quieter than the CLRVs we now have operating on the streetcar system.

Chong claims that LRT will reduce vehicle lanes, and this does not accord with the actual proposed designs.  Yes, there will be changes in circulation for some left turns, but this is not forced out to the 1km spacing of major north-south intersections in Scarborough because of the mid-block LRT stops.

Chong claims that the LRT will displace 502 residential homes during construction.  This is blantly untrue.  Sheppard is not a street with houses built to the lot line, and in any event, the public road allowance is wide enough to accommodate planned expansion to hold the LRT right-of-way.  Chong claims that 308 properties will have to be acquired in full for the LRT, and that is simply not credible given the actual built form on Sheppard. In a related claim, 200 jobs will be displaced during construction, but it is unclear how many of these are near the Agincourt grade separation project which is independent of the LRT scheme.

Let us assume that the average residential frontage on Sheppard is 35 feet.  If we have to acquire 308 of these, that’s over 3 km worth of properties “fully acquired”.  What would the TTC possibly do with all of this land?

The subway plan is touted as optimizing urban amenities through intensification.  Unfortunately, it won’t do this on much of Sheppard Avenue.

At this point I am going to skip over much of the remainder of the document.  There is such a pervasive air of misrepresentation and selective use of information that a point comes where the whole is discredited.  One final section does need comment, however.

In the discussion of possible funding, the presumed cost of the Sheppard subway is $2.783b.  We already know that this number is low-balled because of the way the estimate was done — it omits costs that are legitimately part of the TTC estimate including the net sales tax and understates the cost of storage for the additional subway car fleet.

Revenue from property sales as well as future TIF revenues that would finance various types of borrowing are drawn from a much wider geographic area than just the Sheppard subway (all of the Eglinton and SRT lines are included as well).  The private sector is on tap for $914m in financing, but it is unclear how this will be paid back.

Also unclear is the actual agency through which the line would be built, not to mention how and with whom the “risk” of bringing it in on budget would be shared.

When we look under the covers, this is a project that would be largely financed with public dollars whether this be direct subsidy (the roughly $1b already in the pot for Sheppard from Queen’s Park and Ottawa), land sales (a municipal one-time resource), or borrowing (no matter how financed).  The “private” opportunity is to develop land and, possibly, make money on a fixed price construction contract.

Some readers will view my writeup of this report as superficial and biased.  I only wish there were some real meat in the report, something I could engage with as a debate about alternatives, rather than so much politically inspired bilge.

Advocates of subways, and more generally of “alternative procurement” schemes, do themselves no favours with superficial, blatantly biased reports.  There may be a case to make for new ways of building transit, but this report fails miserably in its task.

45 thoughts on “The Sheppard LRT Report (Part IV)

  1. Yesterday evening I was at an informational open house for the Eglinton LRT Councillor Berardinetti was hosting. Various city staff from TTC, planning, etc on hand to answer questions. Didn’t have much time to linger but it was interesting to overhear the various conversation. There were the usual naysayers but fairly cordial. Lots of informational panels showing photos of LRT’s in operation around in Europe and the US. Also saw a video on the Phoenix LRT. The relevance to Sheppard is that this open house was focused on the at-grade section of the Eglinton LRT, much of which I suspect might apply to the Sheppard line. I did have a chance to speak to Rod McPhail – Eglinton is 36m wide, which would allow for 2 through traffic lanes in each direction and a bike lane at the curb in each direction. I’m not sure of the width of Sheppard but my impression is that it is of similar width from at least Pharmacy eastward (I seem to recall it is a bit narrower between Vic Park and Pharmacy) so a similar configuration could be used. It sounds like Sheppard would be operational before Eglinton.



  2. Phil Piltch said about Sheppard,

    “I seem to recall it is a bit narrower between Vic Park and Pharmacy.”

    Sheppard’s right of way is more or less the same width all through Scarborough from Vic Park to just east of Meadowvale. What is different between Vic Park and Pharmacy is that the road is already paved 7 lanes wide at that point. East of Pharmacy, only a 5-lane pavement exists, so the boulevards give the impression that there is more room.


  3. Has anyone pondered the fact that Mayor Rob Ford and Tim Hudak actually don’t want any transit developments whatsoever? As presumably intelligent people they must know that subways are just too expensive to build without a substantial municipal tax increase combined with funding by more senior levels of government? Since they are both philosophically opposed to some or all of this all they need to do is continue to promote their “subway agenda to absolutely nowhere”. Are they not following in Mike Harris’s footsteps when he tried to emasculate GO Transit while spending millions on the brutally expensive #400 and #11 extensions? Hudak is a proponent of the proposed Mid-Peninsular Highway through the Niagara region and would likely prioritise it if elected.

    As hard-core Conservatives perhaps they have aligned themselves with the extremist U.S. Republican sponsored House Resolution 7 (HR7) bill that would end all federal funding for transit projects after 2016 with all the money going to highway projects thereafter. This in the belief that highway construction creates more jobs than public transportation investments.

    Clearly both Ford and Hudak have demonstrated a show of philosophical dogma that smacks of something other than consensus and common-sense. So, what is their real agenda? I’ll take money on it’s as simple as more roads and more cars.


  4. Sheppard is also 36 m wide as designated. However, only 2 lanes each way have been built east of Pharmacy so introducing the LRT will not result in a loss of traffic lanes in this section.


  5. One way to convert the Sheppard subway to LRT would be to lower the high platforms. I’m sure this would be mighty expensive this is just a little fuel I thought I’d add to the fire. I think most, if not all, of us can agree the the Sheppard subway will remain just that. The Sheppard LRT will almost certainly boost ridership on the subway. Just how much it will, who knows? But it most certainly can’t hurt. If the transfer between the subway and LRT gets too overwhelmed, then calls for an extension of the subway just might get at least somewhat louder.


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