Toronto Council’s agenda for today, February 10, 2015, contains a series of “Administrative Inquiries” by Councillor Josh Matlow regarding various aspects of transit plans for Scarborough. The City Manager’s response appeared late yesterday, but it was not exactly packed with revelations.
In theory, the inquiry process provides a way for questions to flow directly from a Councillor to City staff bypassing the usual mechanism of committee reports where administration majorities might strangle debate. In practice, the information released might or might not fully address the question.
Mayor Tory’s position is quite clear: the subway debate is over, and Matlow’s questions are simply attempts to reopen the question on matters that are already known and decided. Would that it were so simple. Subway champions should pause in their dismissal of Matlow’s position because the report shows how much we don’t know, or at least are not being told, about the subway project.
1. “Sunk Costs” for the Scarborough LRT
When Council approved the switch from LRT to subway technology in October 2013, part of the agreement with Metrolinx was that Toronto would absorb the cost of work-to-date on the discarded LRT plan, subject to an audit to validate an estimated $85 million pricetag. Matlow asked two simple questions:
- Has the City Manager executed an agreement with Metrolinx to pay the sunk costs?
- What monies are allocated in the City’s 10-year capital plan for this expense?
Recent discussion through the media on these points has been rather odd. On one hand, the City Manager repeatedly declined to put a specific number to the costs; on the other, Councillor Pasternak (he of the “North York Relief” subway, aka Sheppard West from Yonge to Downsview) mused that Toronto should not have to pay for the LRT work even though Council agreed to this.
In the City Manager’s report, we learn that the audit is complete, and that staff are finalizing an agreement regarding provincial funding of the subway extension which will take into account the amount agreed as an offset for the sunk costs. However, as the Star revealed yesterday, on December 30, 2014, Bruce McCuaig, President and CEO of Metrolinx, wrote to the City Manager formally accepting an offer of settlement in the amount of $74.8 million. The City Manager agreed to this in a reply dated January 9, 2015. Given this exchange of letters, we know that the settlement has been finalized, subject to Council approval, for over a month.
2. Operating and Capital Maintenance Costs
With the change from a provincial LRT project to a municipal subway line, responsibility for operating and maintenance costs falls to the City and TTC budgets. However, Toronto seeks an offsetting credit from Ontario equal to the amount it would have paid were the line a Metrolinx operation. Capital Maintenance (major repairs and replacement of assets such as vehicles) is estimated at $30-40 million annually, although this is a cost that starts low for a new line and builds over its lifetime.
However, there will also be operating costs on the TTC’s budget related to day-to-day service and maintenance, and these have not been provided, net of any new fare revenue, in reports to Council. (In fairness, such an estimate was not provided for the LRT option either.)
Matlow’s questions are:
- What are the estimated operating costs?
- How much of a property tax increase would be needed to cover the capital and operating costs due to the subway?
- What is the status of negotiations with the province over these costs, and when will the results be reported to Council?
On the first two questions, the City Manager replies:
TTC will be undertaking an estimate of annual operating and maintenance costs for the SSE, following Council determination of alignment and service levels noted above.
Council approved the subway option in late 2013 and, at the time, only two alignments (the “City” one via McCowan and the “Glen Murray” version via the SRT corridor) were on the table. Additional possibilities have arisen quite recently thanks to issues with competition from the SmartTrack scheme, but one might hope that the TTC would already have a ballpark estimate of operating costs if only for planning purposes. They know how much it costs to operate subway lines and stations, and they could roughly estimate the amount of bus service the subway would trigger.
If the line does go to Sheppard, some bus routes that now cross south of the 401 to STC might be shortened, but this could be offset by increased demand and the need for greater service to feed the subway. The TTC might not have the detailed network drawn out, but one might reasonably ask whether they had any sense of comparative costs going into the LRT/subway debate in the first place.
Now we are told that such an estimate will not be available until Council chooses an alignment for the new subway. That’s right — Toronto must decide where it wants the subway and only then will we learn how much it will cost. This is a continuation of an ass-backward pattern where “assessment” of transit projects ignores basic questions that could inform decisions. Indeed, “affordability” is supposed to be a criterion, and yet critical information will not be available.
Needless to say, negotiations with the province re cost sharing are still underway, and there is no indication that Queen’s Park even accepts the premise of an offset between Metrolinx LRT and City subway costs. A challenge for any agreement on this account will be a time and/or dollar value limit on provincial contributions, and quite obviously such an agreement would require firm estimates of the comparative costs for both schemes. However, if the process described by the City Manager is to be believed, this information would not be available until after Council has selected a subway option.
3. Extension of the Scarborough Subway Study Area
Matlow asks three questions:
- Why does the study area exclude Agincourt GO Station?
- Will ridership estimates for the subway extension take into account the effect of SmartTrack?
- If the subway is shifted east to McCowan, would riders further west be more likely to use SmartTrack than the subway?
The City Manager replies that the subway study will examine whether a more easterly alignment would better serve a larger part of Scarborough. His reply is interesting because of the equal role it presumes for both subway and GO/SmartTrack services:
The study area has been broadened to the east (i.e. Markham Road) to explore alignments which would complement the SmartTrack proposal and potentially bring rapid transit service to a larger proportion of Scarborough residents.With that approach in mind, given that the Agincourt GO area is planned to be served by both SmartTrack and enhanced GO service, it is considered more appropriate that the subway serve other areas, further to the east on Sheppard Avenue.
This reply, of course, assumes that services on the GO line can be considered as equivalent to the subway, but that is a huge stretch on three counts.
First is the question of fares. We know that GO Transit’s pricing is considerably higher than the TTC’s and there is, as yet, no “co-fare” arrangement for a discounted through trip from a TTC bus feeder onto a GO train. Although SmartTrack has been touted as “integrated” with the TTC, it is not certain whether this means it would operate as a TTC fare service with no premium. Obviously, SmartTrack itself will bring added net costs notwithstanding claims by its proponents that its ridership would cover its cost of operation. That claim is based on demand estimates wildly in excess of the likely capacity of the service to be offered.
This brings us to the second question, the level of services on GO/SmartTrack and on the subway extension. We know already that the TTC only plans to operate half of the peak service beyond Kennedy Station (a headway of 4’40” on current schedules). GO’s RER will at best provide a train every 15 minutes, and SmartTrack will be something under 15 minutes, but at a level yet to be determined. Both services in the rail corridor are constrained by capacity of that corridor, of the Lake Shore East corridor and of Union Station.
Finally, it will be difficult to design a feeder bus network to serve both the subway and SmartTrack unless Scarborough’s routes are gerrymandered even more than today (with the focus on STC Station) to force-feed one or both routes. Should the TTC’s grid arrangement of routes be torn apart to funnel riders into a subway station at Sheppard (whose exact east-west location remains unknown) or into, say, a Finch SmartTrack station?
All of these factors affect all of the network options. As for the effect of SmartTrack on a Markham Road subway alignment, the question is premature because nobody has studied this configuration. That work will be done as part of the SmartTrack assessment which is a separate, but parallel, undertaking by Metrolinx, TTC and City staff.
4. Does the Proposed Subway Budget Include Enough Trains?
Matlow notes that the subway budget includes $125 million for 7 subway trains including one spare. The City Manager confirms that the budget assumed a service design of sending alternate trains beyond Kennedy Station to Sheppard much as service now turns back at St. Clair West in the am peak on the 1 Yonge-University line. The actual equipment requirement for the extension will be determined once the alignment (and hence both demand and running time) is settled.
As I have already noted in discussing TTC fleet plans, there is currently a surplus of T-1 subway trains, and the TTC’s plans show six of these being assigned to the 2 Bloor-Danforth line when the extension opens. No new train purchases for BD are included in the fleet plan until 2026. This is an example of a cost (replacement of the T-1 trains earmarked for Scarborough) that could be pushed beyond the initial extension project’s budget into a future capital maintenance expense early in the life of the extension. The TTC owes Council a fleet plan that clearly shows provision for additional trains for the Scarborough extension and which budget line (subway extension or fleet replacement) they will be charged to.
Is this a budgetary dodge to free up money that would have been spent on trains to pay for additional project costs elsewhere?
5. Ridership Estimates
Matlow poses five questions about ridership on the subway extension:
- Will more detailed estimates be presented to Council before it moves further with the extension project?
- What modelling system produced the increased demand estimate for the subway option of 9,500-14,000 peak passengers in comparison with the LRT option?
- Was this model consistent with that used for previous (i.e. LRT) projections?
- Will SmartTrack effects be factored into projections for the subway extension?
- Have the erroneous projections for the Sheppard Subway (and by implication the validity of the demand model) been taken into account?
With respect to the next Council approval, the City Manager states:
Detailed ridership forecasts will be reported through the required approvals process for the SSE’s Transit Project Assessment Process (TPAP).
Once again, the idea that Council might make an informed choice regarding the subway option and its alignment is missing. Instead, they will be expected to choose a subway route without knowing how it might perform or how the larger network might behave.
The original 9,500 riders per hour estimate for the “LRT” option presumed that the STC was its terminus when the model was run in 2006 by the TTC. In fact, at that point Transit City did not exist, and the project under study was a replacement of the SRT with upgraded RT trains, but no extension. The model used provided a 2021 estimate and this was extrapolated to 2031.
The 14,000 riders per hour estimate for the subway option presumed that it would run north to Sheppard, and it was based on the City’s 2031 modelling for the Official Plan Review.
Timing constraints did not allow for the results to be refined using the TTC’s transit assignment model. The study terminus was assumed to be Sheppard Avenue rather than Scarborough City Centre. Other modelling assumptions that differ include frequency of service on the subway extension and other lines assumed in the future transit network.
Yes, most certainly there were differences in the City model notably that the projected demand would require better service than the SSE plan actually includes. At 14k/hour, the demand would completely fill an alternate train service running north from Kennedy to Sheppard.
As for the “future transit network” it is unclear just what this might entail, but almost certainly this would not include frequent GO/RER service nor SmartTrack, neither of which had been proposed when the subway modelling and Council’s decision occurred. This is a common problem in “regional” modelling for TTC projects — the absence of the commuter rail network as an option for long-haul trips from the 905 and outer 416 into downtown. If frequent service, especially at a TTC fare, will be available in the GO corridor, what will happen to that extra subway demand? Indeed where in the modelled universe does that demand originate? Are we building a subway to serve Scarborough, or to serve commuters from Markham?
Finally, on the question of the mismatch between Sheppard Subway forecasts and actual ridership, the City Manager reports:
The current ridership on the Sheppard subway is not directly comparable to the estimates in the environmental assessment. The extent of the subway as built is much shorter than that considered in the environmental assessment. The ridership forecast in the environmental assessment considered an alignment linking the North York and Scarborough City Centres. The first phase of the line was initially planned to extend from Yonge Street to the Consumers Business Park, but was subsequently truncated at Don Mills Road due to funding contraints.
The land use as projected at the time of the environmental assessment, particularly employment, has not materialized, though residential development has occurred in a manner that is consistent with the subway investment. Employment uses, particularly office development, generates significantly more transit ridership than residential development.
The difficulty, of course, is that the employment node in Scarborough was supposed to be STC, but this has been slow to mature and more recent development has been residential, not for employment, a form that moved elsewhere, notably to the 905. A major problem with any suburban non-residential development is that employees will come from all over the GTHA and most will not originate in the catchment area of a transit system, especially if the development is expected at an outer terminus. By contrast, downtown is fed by many lines connecting with a wide range of residential neighbourhoods. This directly affects how a development might be structured — around transit or around a large parking lot with easy access to an expressway.
There has always been much talk of making the area around STC into a major node, and recent planning efforts now focus on the McCowan Precinct, an area immediately east of STC. How this area will relate to or be served by the transit network, including services reaching beyond the 416 boundary, is something of a mystery. The precinct is large enough that a single rapid transit station, especially one at the western edge, cannot serve the entire area.
Any ridership projections for the Scarborough Subway must explain how workers destined for jobs it might serve will actually make their “last mile” connections between rapid transit stations and job locations.
The City Manager’s report is not outright evasive, but it demonstrates the amount of information Toronto Council does not yet have about rapid transit options for Scarborough. If Council chooses to commit to multi-billion dollar projects without fully understanding the implications, that’s a political decision.
Between the Scarborough Subway and SmartTrack, we see two projects that have an air of inevitability, that brook no questions about their validity or even the degree to which they duplicate each other’s function.
The great irony here is that absent SmartTrack, Toronto would be discussing regional transit improvements on GO and a local improvement with the subway. SmartTrack is a hybrid, welcome in the sense that it accepts the possibilities of the commuter rail network for travel within Toronto, but oversold as a near-subway service when that is not physically possible.
If anything, the network studies for GO, SmartTrack and TTC subway options are more important than the Scarborough Subway option alone. The network study includes multiple agencies with overlapping, but certainly not identical, preferences and priorities, and there is a chance that it will give a clear understanding of how the many parts might fit together. Some proposals may change, some may fall off of the map completely, but at least there will be a framework for the decision.