Waterfront East LRT: Will This Ship Ever Sail? (Updated)

Updated September 4, 2012:

The full set of Waterfront Toronto reports and the City Manager’s recommendations arising from them are now available in the Executive Committee Agenda for September 10.

I will not attempt to summarize all of the material in these, but a few critical points deserve mention.

  • Although the revitalization of the mouth of the Don River is a central theme in this entire project, and illustrations showing the effect abound in the reports and publicity, in fact this work has been relegated beyond the 30-year timeframe of the financial projections.  The river mouth changes are in “phase 4” which is beyond the 30-year line.
  • Similarly, transit improvements to the area beyond the level of bus service, possibly but not necessarily as BRT with dedicated rights-of-way, are pushed off to phase 3 and beyond.  Transit is now described as “demand led” rather than the “transit first” policy around which much of the East Bayfront and Port Lands were being planned.
  • The connection to Cherry Street under the rail corridor is not even costed in the report and lies off in the vague future.

The fundamental problem for Waterfront Toronto and for the City is that the economics of a self-financing project simply do not work.  In the City Manager’s report, some shuffling of components allows the scheme to show a “profit” in the short term, the first decade, by the expedient of delaying or dropping expenditures to future years.

The City Manager’s Report shows the evolution of the costing model.  The first cut (page 4) used conservative assumptions and produced a net cost of $189.2m for the first 30 years.  This was reworked (page 5) with more generous assumptions to achieve a positive cash flow in the first decade, and a reduced net cost of $118m over 30 years.  Note that the tables are clearly titled “phases 1 and 2” and therefore omit costs associated with the river mouth and with the upgrade of transit services to LRT.

As someone who has been involved in many of the public discussions of these plans, I am deeply disappointed on three counts:

  • The shift of “phase 3” beyond the 30-year line was not made clear by Waterfront Toronto in its recent public meetings.  This verges on dishonesty from an organization previously well-known for plain dealing with the public.
  • The idea that Toronto would pre-build a good network of transit lines into the waterfront districts has been abandoned, and we are back to the standard TTC approach of running a bus, now and then, once a few people start to complain about service.
  • The myth that private sector development will somehow relieve the City (or other levels of government) from funding the Port Lands revitalization is exposed for what it is.  If Toronto wants to reinvigorate this huge tract of land, it will have to invest money in the process.  This issue — how to actually pay for the waterfront and what staging strategies could be taken — is completely absent.  Council is asked to approve the proposed scheme without knowing what alternatives might be available or what financing strategies would be needed to achieve them.

Building new neighbourhoods of this scale requires major investment in infrastructure and in the operating cost of providing services.  If Toronto is not prepared to pay these costs, then the Port Lands will sit empty for a long time.  Someone may propose they be rescued with a special project such as an Olympic Games or a World’s Fair.  That’s wishful thinking, and simply playing the slots at a race track may prove a better investment.  We cannot make the future of the waterfront dependent on the world’s desire to let us put on a big party.

The original article from August 12 follows the break …

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