Mayor John Tory held a press conference this morning (February 28, 2017) at Kennedy Station in anticipation of a newly released set of reports on the Scarborough Subway:
Note: Commentaries on the Value Engineering and Cost Estimate reports will be added to this article later.
There are few surprises here. The subway will almost certainly cost more than earlier estimates. There may be ways to save some money on the project, but these are small dollars compared to the overall scope. One proposed increase is a change in the bus terminal at Scarborough Town Centre Station to one that better supports future development even though its construction is more complex.
Despite implications by some Councillors that TTC cost estimates were unreliable, an external review agreed with the values the TTC presents. At this stage, with design work only at 5%, there is a very wide latitude in accuracy because so much of the detail is unknown. A range of -30% to +50% translates to over a billion dollars either way, and claims that the project cost is a hard, fixed number are simply irresponsible.
A long-suspected result is that the subway project, originally sold as part of a package of transit improvements including an extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT to the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus, now requires most of the previous “committed” money. The LRT extension used to sweeten the plan and encourage wavering Councillors to support the subway extension is in danger and requires its own funding.
Mayor Tory made an aggressive speech, supported by TTC Chair Josh Colle and Scarborough Subway Champion Glenn De Baeremaeker.
One expects a fair amount of civic boosterism given the history of this project, but I could not help feeling that the Mayor oversells his position and undermines his credibility.
He started off with a heart rending description of riders who for decades have faced the “Scarborough shuffle” of changing between the SRT and the subway at Kennedy Station. This is a tedious process given that four levels separate the two routes, and the TTC’s ability to keep escalators and elevators working over the full path is not sterling. Tory portrayed this connection as an accessibility issue because, of course, when any component of that connection isn’t working, riders face a long climb up or down stairs.
What he failed to mention, as has so often been the case in the subway-vs-LRT debate, is that the proposed LRT station would have been only one level above the subway, and the transfer would have been very much like the interchange at Spadina Station.
Taking a page from Donald Trump’s playbook, Tory argued that those who oppose the subway are working against the democratic will of voters and their representatives. Even newly minted Scarborough Councillor Neethan Shan, who stood at Tory’s side, ran on a pro-subway platform. Council voted many times on the subway and related issues, and approved the Scarborough transit plan by 27 to 16. Tory neglects to mention that the plan both the voters and councillors approved was quite different including a longer subway with more stops, and also the LRT extension to UTSC. This is the bait-and-switch game many suspected it would be all along, while others trying to “keep peace in the family” took the Mayor’s claims at face value.
Tory came dangerously close to portraying “tireless critics” of this project as outside of the political mainstream and subverting the will of the people. “Tell people they voted the wrong way, that they will be better off without a subway” and more in that vein.
Pressed on rising costs, the Mayor refused to say whether there was any cost beyond which he could not support the subway. Meanwhile he looks to Queen’s Park and Ottawa for support on the Eglinton LRT and other transportation projects. Tory describes the Eglinton extension as a “fundamental part of our plan”, but whether other governments will actually chip in remains to be seen.
A frequent claim for the subway is that it will spark development of Scarborough Town Centre, but Tory emphasized how it would provide a faster link for Scarborough residents to jobs downtown. A big problem with many transit plans (not just this subway) is that they do not serve the very high demand for travel to jobs (and other destinations such as schools) that are not downtown.
Tory suggested that the Value Engineering report implies there’s a few hundred million dollars for the taking in adjustments to the project. The report does not actually say this, but merely lists a range of options, some more practical than others, that might be embraced. At the current level of design, a few hundred million could go up in smoke with a cost revision.
One recent change is a proposal for a different, improved bus terminal at STC. Tory attempted to deflect criticism of this cost by saying that no matter what was built, we would need a terminal and, therefore, it really isn’t part of the subway’s cost. This dodges the issue that an LRT network would have spread out the collection of riders to other sites, and the number of routes converging on STC would have been lower. Pick a one stop subway as your design, and that dictates a large terminal.
The real advantage of the change lies in how it better integrates with planned development at STC.
Of particular note was Tory’s pledge to “get things done in this term of office”. He does not want “to be a leader who accomplishes nothing” on the transit file. He wants to take the long term view, although he is not at all clear on whether Toronto is prepared to spend enough to support it.
TTC Chair Josh Colle spoke of the need to move forward with transit plans, especially the one for Scarborough, as the city is “on the verge of a transit revival”. The condition of the SRT, on which the Mayoral party arrived for the event, shows that decisions cannot be put off.
Colle argued that we should learn from past failures and ensure that there is “accountability”, that a project does not get approved long in advance giving a blank cheque for rising costs. This is a direct reference to the Vaughan subway extension and a proposed tightening of the process for approving project changes (about which more later in this article). Colle neglects to mention that the imperative for TTC managers under the Ford/Stintz regime was to keep the project “on time, on budget” so that a smiling TTC chair could tout how well her TTC was doing. Colle was on that TTC Board and should have known the project was in trouble.
What actually happened was that the station contracts came in well over budget, but this was paid for with money earmarked for contingencies, for unexpected conditions during construction. Between chaotic management of overlapping contracts and raiding the piggy bank to avoid asking for more money, the TYSSE was in deep trouble. This all came to a head when both that project and the related resignalling contracts for the Yonge line had to be reorganized.
The Scarborough subway project will receive better scrutiny, or so the reports claim, but the political problem that saying “no” when the costs rise simply is not an option for the current administration.
Councillor De Baeremaeker emphasized that all but one Scarborough Councillor and all of its MPPs support the subway project. Scarborough has 33% of Toronto’s area and 25% of its population, not unlike North York which has far more subway infrastructure. It might be churlish of me to point out that there has been a heavy transit demand north-south on Yonge Street since the days when cows grazed alongside the road, something Scarborough cannot claim for its rapid transit corridor.
Continuing his theme, De Baeremaeker talked about future daily demand at STC station of 70,000 which would exceed almost all of the downtown stations. Yes, it would, but this also reflects the concentration of all demand for Scarborough at one point roughly like having only a station at Finch on the Yonge line. It will be a busy station, but the bus network will be gerrymandered to feed it.
The real question has always been how well the subway will serve travel demands overall, but that debate is closed.
After the formal statements, Mayor Tory was challenged on locations the subway would not serve. He claimed, falsely, that Scarborough will have more transit stations with the new scheme, including SmartTrack, than before, and that ST work, the double-tracking of the Stouffville GO corridor, was already underway.
SmartTrack adds two stations to the GO corridor at Lawrence and at Finch, but the double-tracking is part of the GO/RER plan and has been in the works for some time. The lightly-used SRT stations at Ellesmere and Midland will disappear, and the new subway effectively consolidates the STC and McCowan RT stations into one location.
What is frustrating in all of this is the sense of people trying too hard to put their case. If the expectation is for overwhelming support at Council, why work so hard at the argument?
The balance of this article reviews the reports linked above.