On October 16, the governments at Queen’s Park and Toronto City Hall announced a deal to sort out competing transit plans for the city. The current provincial priority projects are the Ontario Line (Don Mills/Eglinton to Exhibition), Scarborough Subway extension from Kennedy Station to Sheppard, Yonge Subway extension from Finch to Richmond Hill, and the Eglinton West LRT extension from Mount Dennis to Renforth.
The main City of Toronto report will be discussed at Executive Committee on October 23, and then at Council on October 29-30.
This article reviews that report with reference to a few parts of its many attachments. I will turn to the technical attachments in a second article. To focus material on each subject for readers, I have grouped related items together or re-sequenced things for emphasis. There are extensive quotations of key material so that readers hear not just my “voice” but that of the report’s authors.
Despite the importance politicians at both levels place on the proposals, the fundamental problem remains that many of the details are cloudy, to be kind. Specifically:
- The City of Toronto retains ownership of the existing transit system avoiding a complex realignment of responsibilities and governance, but with this comes total responsibility for funding the ongoing state of good repair.
- A large gap remains between the amount of funding needed to maintain and expand Toronto’s transit system relative to the amounts actually available and committed in budgets at various levels of government.
- Ontario will build four key projects substantially with its own money, but continued support for transit beyond this is uncertain.
- Toronto will redirect funding originally earmarked for its share of the key projects to other priorities, notably the TTC’s repair backlog. However, much of that “funding” does not exist as allocations in existing budgets and new money is required from Toronto to pay its share.
- Cost estimates for the key projects are based on preliminary estimates that could change substantially as the design process unfolds. These estimates are in 2019 dollars and make no provision for inflation. The reports are silent on how the proportion of total spending by each contributor might change over the decade or more of construction.
- A substantial total of project costs will be born by private sector partners through a “P3” financing mechanism. These arrangement will require future payments for what will be, in effect, a capital lease, but the mechanism for funding this from three levels of government is unclear. The reports are silent on the split between short term borrowing to pay for construction as opposed to long term payments to the P3 financier.
- Project details as they are known today will change in response to design work and the need to keep costs within the projected level. This will affect alignments and stations, and what we think we are buying could be quite different from what we actually get.
The challenge in all of this is, as always, the question of money. We can watch the hands of politicians and managers at all levels as they shuffle cards on the table. We hope to “find the Queen”, to win in the subway sweeps rather than being taken for suckers who will cheer any plan, but lose every game. It is far from clear whether the proposal is a “good deal” for Toronto, and there are huge future transit costs that are barely addressed.
The whole exercise is a political deal to bring peace, comparatively speaking, to the transit file which was needlessly fouled by Doug Ford’s insistence that he knows more about transit in Toronto than anyone else. Does Toronto take this as its last best chance to preserve some semblance of control over its transit future, or do we keep fighting for a better deal?
There are a lot of holes in this plan and severe implications both for the City’s finances and the future of Toronto’s transit system. Many questions need to be asked and answered, even if the result will be a whole new plan after provincial and municipal elections in 2022.