On April 10, 2019, Premier Doug Ford announced his government’s intentions to expand transit in Toronto. The plan includes:
- The “Ontario Line”, a rebranded and extended version of the Relief Line, will run from Don Mills and Eglinton to Ontario Place.
- The Yonge North Extension from Finch Station to Richmond Hill Centre
- The three-stop version of the Scarborough Subway Extension from Kennedy Station to Sheppard with stops at Lawrence East and Scarborough Town Centre
- Extension of the Sheppard Subway east from Don Mills Station to connect with the SSE at McCowan and Sheppard
- Extension of the Eglinton Crosstown west from Mount Dennis to Pearson Airport
Although the technical details are still vague, it is clear that this route would be built with smaller trains than Toronto’s subway cars, something more like the “Canada Line” in Vancouver. This would allow a smaller tunnel diameter and less intrusive structures for any portion built above grade.
The route appears to follow, more or less, the proposed Relief Line South between Pape and Osgoode Stations, although from Gerrard to East Harbour better matches the rail corridor on the map.
A northern section will go to Don Mills and Eglinton (Science Centre Station on the Crosstown) providing service to Thorncliffe and Flemingdon Parks enroute. This settles the route selection issue for that segment which has been moribund with studies of many dubious alternatives since spring 2018.
To the west, the route will swing south to Ontario Place, although the alignment of this extension is unknown. Quite clearly this is part of the provincial scheme to make Ontario Place, and by extension the Exhibition grounds, a major transit accessible destination that does not depend on the existing GO/TTC links far from possible development at the Lake Shore. It is not clear how, or if, the Ontario Line would serve Liberty Village.
Despite questions by journalists, nobody seems to know, or be willing to say, exactly where the Ontario Line will go beyond its termini and a few intermediate points. This implies that a detailed route analysis has yet to be completed, let alone any consultation on the effects of the new alignment and technology. Some work already completed for the RL south might feed into the Ontario Line project, but a substantial portion is in areas where there is not even preliminary engineering.
The projected cost is $10.9 billion, about half again as much as the RL South, with an opening date in 2027. Daily ridership projections claim 400,000, but there is no breakdown of where these trips would occur. The projection is double what was expected on the RL South, but that is no surprise if the line provides direct access to Thorncliffe and Flemingdon Parks, can attract riders from 5 Crosstown, and possibly Liberty Village.
There is a huge difference between a route that is very peak oriented with a single primary destination such as most of the GO network and a route that will have strong bidirectional flow, many local origin-destination pairs, and a lot of off-peak demand. There is a direct analogy in the King car which carries huge numbers of daily riders, but between many points along the route and at various times of day. For example, 504 King carries 84,000 per day, but the peak point capacity inbound in the AM is only about 3,000 per hour. Most riders do not pass through that peak point. The Ontario line (as did the RL) has the potential to serve multiple demand patterns over the course of a day and hence get strong demand.
According to Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster, the Ontario Line is expected to divert 9,000 riders per hour during the peak at Bloor-Yonge Station. This is in the same ballpark as previous Metrolinx estimates in their review of the Yonge Street corridor.
An important part of any line with a new technology will be a servicing facility. The RL was intended to use Greenwood subway yard, but the Ontario Line will need its own site. Space for this will be tricky to find, and the location could affect the possibility of a staged opening rather than a “big bang” end-to-end service on day 1.
The government does itself no favours with such a vague announcement where basic questions such as route layout, possible stations and the technology could have been included even as examples.
Yonge Northern Extension to Richmond Hill
There is no “news” here beyond a provincial commitment to get this built, one it shared with the Wynne government. The design work is already nailed down, and all that is needed is for someone to say “go” and build it. The estimated cost is $5.6 billion.
This line is intended to open “soon after the Ontario Line” according to the Premier’s press release.
Scarborough and Sheppard Subway Extensions
To nobody’s surprise, Premier Ford announced a three-stop version of the subway with stations at Lawrence East, Scarborough Town Centre and Sheppard (although the station is named McCowan in anticipation of a future Sheppard Subway extension). The cost will be $5.5 billion, much above original estimates for the subway with an opening date “before 2030” compared to the hoped-for 2026 opening under current TTC plans.
A Sheppard subway from Don Mills east to McCowan will be studied with the intention of creating a “loop” route where Line 2 trains would end up back at Yonge Street by way of Scarborough. Ford plans to begin construction on this after the Scarborough extension opens, but this is more a political bone to Sheppard advocates than a real commitment being a decade in the future.
Notable by its absence is any reference to the western extension of Line 4 Sheppard to Downsview.
The proposed Scarborough Subway will trigger many other decisions/discussions among whoever is planning future capital works on the TTC.
- Transportation Minister Yurek has repeatedly been quite dismissive of “outdated” technology on Line 2 Bloor-Danforth. What he is really talking about is manual train control, block signalling, and trains that have lost some of their lustre even though they are only half-way through their lifespan. Current TTC plans call for the SSE to be built on this technology with Automatic Train Control coming at a later date as a retrofit. Existing trains would be refurbished to last into the mid 2030s rather than being replaced with new trains in the mid-2020s. These plans may no longer be viable, and if so, the TTC’s capital plans (and by extension, provincial capital requirements as the would-be owner of the subway) must change.
- A new fleet needs a new yard, and the decision to refurbish existing trains postpones the start date on construction of a planned maintenance shops and yard near Kipling Station. This project will have to be revived if there are to be new cars.
- The TTC plans to keep the SRT running until 2026, and they are not entirely sure this is possible. If the extension will not open until 2030, how much longer can the RT be kept operational?
- Will the construction phasing of the extension be such that it could open at least to STC earlier than 2030 so that the RT can be retired?
With the new opening date for an SSE, Scarborough transit users face close to a decade of continued rides on buses before those whose trips the subway serves will have better transit. Should the RT give up the ghost before the subway replaces it, the tedium of bus journeys will be even worse.
Eglinton West Extension to Pearson Airport
The province will build the Crosstown extension with much of it underground at a cost of $4.7 billion and an opening date of 2031.
The announcement did not get into details, but recent City studies show that the main problem with road congestion lies from Martin Grove east to Royal York where traffic that would have fed into the unbuilt Richview Expressway instead lands on Eglinton Avenue. This is a problem independent of the LRT, however it might be built.
Although the total package of subway and LRT projects totals $28.5 billion, the Premier’s press release says:
The province will invest $11.2 billion to support these four rapid transit projects. This funding over-delivers on the government’s commitment to put $5 billion into subway extensions.
That is about 40% of the total. Ford expects contributions from the federal government and from the affected municipalities, Toronto, York and Mississauga.
As things now stand, there is $4.897 billion of federal PTIF2 money earmarked for Toronto. Of this, the City proposes to spend $3.811 billion on the Scarborough Subway and the Relief Line. Given that PTIF2 is supposed to have a three-way split among governments, it is unclear whether Ontario plans to put in its share to match the federal money in the Bloor-Yonge Expansion and SmartTrack Stations projects.
There would also be some PTIF2 money coming to York and Mississauga, but it is unclear whether Ford hopes to scoop some of this as contributions to the Richmond Hill and Pearson projects.
The City of Toronto has not confirmed how much is expected of it, but a figure of about 20% would fit with a 40-40-20 provincial-federal-municipal split. That puts $5.7 billion on the municipal tab, with most being due to Toronto.
During his announcement, Premier Ford went on at length about the dysfunctional nature of City Hall and claimed that they approve projects without knowing how to pay for them. More accurately, Council goes to great lengths to fit their spending within financial plans even though municipal megaprojects like the Scarborough Subway and the Gardiner Expressway hoover up all available money. Ford takes the line that “we can get it done” because of the much less constrained resources available to the province.
Ford asks why Ontario should spend money on projects that they would not own, a practice common for decades. Equally, Toronto could ask why it should pay to support provincial plans. Either way, both parties are stuck with a problem that is as much about accounting as it is about getting projects built. The real challenge for Toronto is that Ontario is in the position to say “we are building gazebos”, and if Toronto doesn’t like it, there are plenty of ways for Ontario to claw back a “Toronto share” from other programs. Toronto has no such luxury to force provincial participation.
Both Toronto and Ontario would borrow, probably on a 30-year term, for long-lived capital works like a new subway. The difference for Toronto is that they must offset this with revenue to preserve their good credit rating and pay down the debt over that period. For Ontario the debt disappears into a general pool which is offset by the asset, the subway itself, and in the end might simply be rolled over again like a credit card holder who only ever pays the interest. Minister Yurek says that Ontario’s Auditor General has confirmed that the government can use Ontario’s balance sheet to underwrite transit borrowing. This type of creative accounting goes back at least to Dalton McGuinty’s era as Premier when he took over Transit City claiming that only with provincial ownership could they make the books come out right. Ford is following a well-worn path.
The province will “upload” subway infrastructure and will take responsibility for life cycle maintenance. As I have written before, that’s an expensive proposition compounded by the years of hiding critical needs out of sight to avoid overloading the city’s debt projections. Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek was happy to slag the TTC saying that riders know subway technology is outdated and much-needed maintenance has been put off too long. He said nothing about how this would be fixed or how much Ontario would contribute to bringing the TTC up to the standard he thinks it should meet.
The obvious challenge is that if times change, especially before heavy construction and associated spending kick in, there is no guarantee that any of this will happen. Another government or another Premier may be unwilling to keep borrowing against provincial assets forever. That is, after all, a core Conservative criticism of Liberal fiscal policy.
The Wallflowers: Eglinton East and Waterfront
Completely absent from the announcement was any mention of the Eglinton East or Waterfront LRT projects, and these appear doomed unless Toronto, possibly with help from Ottawa, takes them on.
Eglinton East was part of the grand deal sold to Council when it backed the Scarborough Subway option, but we now know that it was never going to be built within the funding earmarked for the subway. The Waterfront has very strong growth rivaling anything in the suburbs, but very little transit. Toronto talks a good line on “transit first”, but never quite gets around to building lines to serve major developments.
According to a Tweet by the Star’s David Rider, Mayor Tory will ask staff to accelerate planning work on these projects. Toronto is good at studies, but the crunch comes when we have to pay for construction.
Spin, Spin, Spin
Not content to simply announce a pile of good transit news, Premier Ford and his ministers could not help adding spin to their presentations.
Ford talked of the TTC as a “critical service” and noted that 40,000 people transfer from GO to the TTC every day. (That’s actually 80,000 trips as they go back home in the evening.) This may be impressive as the crowds at Union will show, but it is a small drop in the bucket of regional travel.
Congestion and red tape at City Hall have prevented decisions on transit expansion, claimed Ford, but in the end he admitted that the City’s problem is that it does not have the money to do everything that is needed. Some of this, of course, arises from the anti-tax crusade Ford helped to run in his days on Council, and some from the province’s failure to return to the Davis-era funding formula for capital maintenance. The federal government is a latecomer to the table on transit funding with a share of the gas tax, but much more is needed. PTIF and PTIF2 help, but they have limitations and will expire.
Infrastructure Minister Monte McNaughton talked about the P3 model (Public Private Partnerships) which his Ministry is happy to push through its agency Infrastructure Ontario. McNaughton misrepresented delays on the Sheppard and Spadina Extension projects as showing that the TTC could not build on time or on budget when there are specific, well documented reasons for the problems these projects ran into. Many of them arose from political interference. His pitch was the standard “the province does it better” line that ignores cock-ups like Presto, the UPX and poor decisions on GO Transit facilities including Union Station.
What we will not know, because it will hide under a veil of “commercial confidentiality”, is just how big a premium Ontario will pay to P3 proponents for the “risk” that they will assume, nor are we likely to know whether the contracts cover our every desire, or leave important facets of projects to the dreaded “change order” and its profit margins.
The province hopes for development agreements to offset some construction costs, but their priority is to “get shovels in the ground”. This raises an obvious question: just how short will they come up on finding contributions to a very rich construction plan from the private sector? What will they give away in exchange? For example, it came out at a Metrolinx Board meeting on April 10 that Metrolinx sold air rights at Mimico Station to a nearby developer. This was part of a deal that appeared to give GO Transit a new, expanded station at no cost.
An intriguing comment came from Premier Ford in answer to a question about involvement by the City of Toronto. Ford claimed that there have been 21 meetings with the City Manager, staff and the Mayor’s Office on the uploading process. But how many, if any, of these dealt with the provincial plan? Recent correspondence between the provincial special advisor and Toronto showed that there was a poor understanding of existing city/TTC work by provincial bureaucrats. Meanwhile, Ford thinks all is happy with the City and the Mayor. Smiles all around.
Premier Ford claims that if needs be, Ontario will go it alone to get these transit projects started. This at least has the benefit of breaking the logjam because waiting for both City and federal buy-in could outlast Ford’s mandate. That said, Ontario’s deficit will figure prominently in the budget to be launched on April 11, and no end of cutbacks (or “efficiencies”) will be justified to bring that “under control”.
Ford cannot have it both ways – he risks turning into a big spender, or more likely a purveyor of big, unmet promises, just like all of his predecessors.