The Scarborough Subway Fiasco

For the benefit of out-of-town readers who may not follow the moment-to-moment upheavals in Toronto politics, the lastest news about the Scarborough Subway is that it will cost $900 million more than originally forecast, and the Eglinton East LRT line has gone up by $600 million.

Updated 10:45pm June 17: The increase in the Eglinton LRT line’s cost may only be $100m, not $600m. Awaiting further details to confirm this.

No details of the components of these increases have been published yet, but here are the current (as of 6:45 pm on June 17) media reports:

  • The Star: Mayor John Tory accused of ‘political posturing’ as Scarborough transit plans balloon by $1 billion
  • The Globe & Mail: Scarborough subway cost rises by $900-million
  • Torontoist: The Bad Decision on the Scarborough Subway Extension Gets Worse

Earlier this year, the much-touted “optimized” plan for Scarborough changed the subway scheme from a Kennedy to Sheppard line stopping enroute at Lawrence and Scarborough Town Centre (STC), to a one stop extension whose terminus and only station was to be at STC. Money saved by shortening the subway would be directed to the Eglinton East LRT project linking Kennedy Station to University of Toronto Scarborough Campus. [See Scarborough Transit Planning Update]

At this point, the total project cost remained within the original 3-stop subway project’s estimate of $3.56 billion (as spent dollars including inflation) of which the City of Toronto’s share would be $910 million financed primarily by a 1.6% Scarborough Subway property tax over 30 years. The remainder would come from Queen’s Park and Ottawa, but their contributions are fixed and any overruns are on the City’s dime.

Material from this report reappeared in a March update on the overall transit network [see Developing Toronto’s Transit Network Plan: Phase 1] and in the May-June presentations to various public consultation meetings. At no time was the possibility of a cost overrun for the Scarborough network mentioned.

Meanwhile, ridership estimates for Scarborough were revised downward quite drastically with a projected AM peak hour demand of 7,300 inbound from STC station. About half of this would be existing SRT riders and the rest would be net new to the transit system. The May presentation makes a point of defending the lower numbers, but here is what City Planning staff said only a few months earlier in their March report:

Preliminary ridership forecasts … indicate:

  • The options are capable of capturing significant ridership. Daily users range from 115,000 to 147,000 in 2031. Morning peak hour, peak point, peak direction ridership ranges from 13,700 to 17,700.
  • Assuming the McCowan 3 option, the introduction of SmartTrack would reduce ridership on the subway extension to about 109,800 daily users and 12,600 peak hour, peak point, peak direction riders assuming 15-minute SmartTrack service in 2031. Assuming 5-minute SmartTrack service daily users would be about 88,200 and peak hour, peak direction, peak point ridership would be about 9,800 riders. In either case, the peak point ridership would be comparable or higher than that observed today near the terminal points of existing subway lines, with the exception of the Yonge line in the vicinity of Finch station. [p. 32]

During his election campaign, John Tory trumpeted SmartTrack as the one line that would solve every problem claiming very high peak and all day ridership based on service probably three times better than we will ever see. SmartTrack is now proposed with trains every 15 minutes, not every 5, and this has a huge effect on ridership both on ST and on neighbouring lines as the numbers above show.

Planners have been twisting themselves into pretzels trying to justify building a subway with the lower projected demand saying it wouldn’t really work at the higher level because there would be no capacity further downstream for existing riders (similar to the problem we now see south from Finch Station). That’s all very well, but the same planners sold Council with the subway concept by touting the much higher estimates that “justified” subway construction as ridership would be at the edge of what an LRT line could handle.

These two arguments cannot both be right, and it is quite clear that planning numbers either were gerrymandered or that they were simply the product of unreliable analysis. Either way, all future projections are suspect especially if they change conveniently to suit the political needs of the day.

Throughout all of this, there has been no change, until today, in the cost estimates, the other vital factor in deciding between transit options. To put this in context, other studies have turned on amounts in the low hundreds of millions to justify choice of a “cheaper” option, while other projects languish because they are “not affordable”. $1.5 billion is no small change.

Technical issues have now come to light that render the original cost estimates meaningless. According to the Globe:

An analysis in Scarborough showed that the topography would require deeper tunnels in some places. The stations themselves would have to be 45 to 90 per cent deeper than thought, raising their construction costs immensely. And the high water table of the area would require more concrete than expected.

This is not something that was discovered last week. Mayor Tory attempted to pirouette around the cost problems with the idea that somehow the “private sector and others” could find a better way to do things. However, the TTC’s CEO Andy Byford, in a restrained comment, demured. From the Star:

TTC CEO Andy Byford said a third-party already helped with the engineering estimates to look at creative solutions for tunnelling or station design.

“I welcome the suggestion of having a third party at least review our costs because we want to make sure that we’re being as efficient as possible,” Byford said, adding: “I want to deliver the Scarborough subway for the best possible price.”

But asked if it’s realistic to expect hundreds of millions of dollars could be shaved off the costs, Byford said: “I think that would be a challenge.”

Indeed, Byford is now in a difficult position because his political neutrality on the subway vs LRT question cannot survive. Any new money to build the more-expensive plan will have to come at the expense of something else. Already, the TTC Budget Committee meeting where a preliminary “wish list” of funding requests to Ottawa was to appear (Byford said as much during the announcement at Greenwood Yard of DRL funding) was cancelled, and we have no idea just what projects TTC management, let alone the Board, feel should vie for funds. At some point, Byford may have his “Gary Webster moment” at City Council where he should openly state a professional opinion. (The reference is to Byford’s predecessor who was sacked by Rob Ford for having the temerity to oppose the subway plan.)

Nothing has been published beyond the Mayor’s comments to the media, and if there was a prepared statement, it still is not available on his website.

The tunnelling issue noted above is one part of the cost, but there are likely to be others as I have already discussed on this site. The key point is that the TTC has many interlocking projects that must proceed before the Scarborough Subway can open.

There are five projects in the future on BD which have serious interdependencies:

  • T1 replacement
  • ATC
  • Scarborough extension
  • New storage facility
  • One-person train operation

Some are below the line and some are above the line. However, the dates and order of projects don’t align, so to minimize changes and maximize efficiencies the correct order should be:

  • New storage facility (ready for permanent 6 car consists)
  • New trains (ready for ATC)
  • ATC or OPTO (with ATC and OPTO ready trains)
  • ATC or OPTO
  • Scarborough extension

[Email from Mike Palmer (Deputy Chief Operating Officer, responsible for subway operations)]

The new storage facility will likely be near Kipling Station. It will be designed around the physical requirements of the new 6-car trainsets, and it will provide concurrent storage for the new and old fleets.

ATC (Automatic Train Control) is a prerequisite for the Scarborough extension which would be built using that technology. Conversion of the existing line to ATC would, strictly speaking, not be required before the SSE opens, but no T1 trains (the existing fleet) could operate on the extension without an expensive and short-lived retrofit. Hence the need for a new fleet sooner than might otherwise have occured.

OPTO is one person train operation. This cannot go into effect until the trains all have suitable cab equipment to allow an operator at the front of a train to monitor the entire train without assistance from a guard at the rear end.

That’s quite a shopping list as a pre-requisite to the SSE, and the TTC has yet to incorporate these projects fully in its capital budget “above the line” (ie: as funded projects). It is not clear whether the TTC Board or members of Council are aware in detail of these issues either, or how much they might contribute to the added cost for the extension.

As an historical note, in the days before the TTC contemplated a move to ATC, fleet planning was based on the premise that all cars for both lines were interchangeable. The result has been that because the YUS is now fully operated with TR trains and Sheppard is being converted, there is a surplus of the older T1 equipment whose only remaining use is on the BD line. With conventional signalling, the SSE could have opened using this equipment, but that’s not how it will be built, and the fleet plans are in disarray as a result.

Why the LRT line has grown in cost is a mystery. It is unclear whether this arises from design changes or estimating errors, although the scope for such error is much less with a surface route. Either way, the magnitude of the change is substantial, and as with the subway, threatens the credibility of a plan that was sold to Council only months ago. By extension, any other plan the City might put forward is also suspect.

Through all of the consultation, we have heard very little about SmartTrack beyond the probable location of its stations and the likely service level. What we do not know is how much it will cost to build the surviving chunk of the route from Mount Dennis to Unionville. Indeed, there is reason to question going beyond the Toronto border considering that the GO/RER plan will itself bring frequent service to the same area. What we do know about ST is that it will poach riders from parallel routes, and that service expansion beyond a basic 15-minute level involves expensive reconstruction of the rail corridor to provide more capacity. Contary to what Tory’s “experts” told us, the track is not just sitting there for the taking by his signature service.

Of the original $8-billion, some has been saved by discarding the Eglinton West segment, now proposed to be part of the Crosstown project, but we really do not know how much Toronto will have to pony up to implement the ST service.

If nothing else, this whole fiasco should be an object lesson to professional staff who tailor their plans and professional advice too closely to a political agenda. When that agenda is ill-advised, but pushed forward through sheer pig-headedness, the quality of planning cannot help but be tainted along with the credibility of the planner. This is a dangerous game.

Toronto, somehow, survived the Rob Ford era and there was some hope that a credible transit plan might be cobbled together under the new Tory regime. However, Mayor Tory has proved as intransigent about acknowledging he is wrong, that circumstances do not support his plan, as his predecessor. If Toronto had time and money to spare, we might say “this too shall pass”, but we have neither.

Propping up the egos of various politicians, including the notorious Scarborough crew at Council and Queen’s Park, is getting expensive. This is complicated by the fervour with which they exhort subway supporters to demand what Scarborough “deserves”. That too is a dangerous game as there are crazies out there with less than healthy wishes for those who advocate something other than a subway. It’s Trumpism on a local scale – giving license to treat subway critics as people who don’t matter.

During his election campaign, John Tory dismissed SmartTrack critics as naysayers who simply wanted to oppose things for the sake of it. That was bullshit then, and it is today with his comments about those who question his continued support for the subway plan.

On a personal note, I have been fighting for better rapid transit in Toronto suburbs, yes, with an LRT network, something all of the planners once supported, for over forty years. A lot got in the way including provincial interference in technology choice, and economic or political downturns that snuffed out hopes for good transit funding. A lot of Scarborough was farmland when this process started. They are still waiting.