SmartTrack Update: More Questions Than Answers (October 13 Update)

For the coming three evenings, October 10-12, the City of Toronto, Metrolinx and the TTC will host open houses to present and discuss plans for six new SmartTrack and two new GO Transit stations. Although material for all stations will be part of each event, stations “local” to each site will receive more emphasis than others.

Each meeting will run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., with a presentation at 7 p.m.

  • Tuesday, October 10, Scarborough Civic Centre, 150 Borough Dr.
  • Wednesday, October 11, Riverdale Collegiate Institute, 1094 Gerrard St. E.
  • Thursday, October 12, New Horizons Tower, 1140 Bloor St. W. (new location)

Note: The location of the Oct. 12 meeting has been changed and it is now across the street from the originally announced site (which was Bloor Collegiate).

Updated October 11 at 10:30 pm: There continues to be confusion about just what “SmartTrack” service will look like, and this is not helped by the City’s presentation. Details can be found in the June 2016 Metrolinx report. For further info, see the update at the end of this article.

Updated October 13 at noon: Metrolinx has confirmed that the Barrie corridor trains will operate through to Union Station, not terminate at Spadina/Bathurst Station as I had originally thought. However, the operational details have not yet been worked out. For further discussion, scroll down to the section on the Spadina/Bathurst Station.

I attended a media briefing that covered the materials to be presented and the following article is based on that briefing which was conducted by City of Toronto staff. Illustrations here are taken from the deck for the media briefing which is available on the City of Toronto’s site. Resolution of some images is constrained by the quality of data in the deck.

[In the interest of full disclosure: A “Stakeholder Advisory Committee” (or SAC) has already been meeting on this, and I was invited to participate, but declined given my concern with a potential conflict between “advisory” and “journalist/commentator” roles. It is no secret that I believe SmartTrack is a deeply flawed concept. Its implementation is compromised by fitting a poorly-conceived election promise into a workable, operational scheme for the commuter rail network. Any “debate” is skewed by the need to pretend that this is anything beyond campaign literature.]

The intent of these three meetings is to conduct the first detailed conversation about these stations with the general public. Early designs appeared in the “Initial Business Case” for the stations, but these have been revised both for technical and for philosophical reasons. Specifically:

  • The City does not want to build traditional GO stations dominated by parking.
  • The interface between the new stations and the transit network (both rapid transit and surface routes) should be optimized.
  • Strong pedestrian and cycling connections are required.
  • Stations should be close to main streets.
  • Stations should support other City objectives such as the West Toronto Railpath and parallel projects such as the St. Clair/Weston study now in progress.
  • Transit-oriented development should be possible at stations.

This is a list that to a typical GO Transit proposal in the 905 would be unrecognizable. GO Transit’s plan ever since its creation has been to serve auto-based commuting first and foremost with ever larger parking structures that poison the land around stations. Local transit was something GO, and later Metrolinx, simply “didn’t do”, and the idea that Queen’s Park might fund strong local transit as a feeder to GO services has been limited to co-fare arrangements.

The situation within Toronto is very different, and there are connecting routes on the TTC that individually carry a substantial proportion of the daily ridership of the entire GO network. Moreover, if GO (or SmartTrack, whatever it is called) will be a real benefit to TTC riders, then the process of getting people to and from stations must not depend on parking lots that are full before the morning peak is even completed.

The new stations will go into existing built-up areas, not into fields with sites determined primarily by which well-connected developer owns nearby property. Residents will be consulted about how these stations will fit their neighbourhoods, how they will be accessed, and what might eventually become of the community and future development.

A big problem facing those who would present “SmartTrack” to the public beyond City Hall insiders and neighbourhood activists is that almost nobody knows what SmartTrack actually is. This is a direct result of Mayor Tory running on a design that could not be achieved, and which has evolved a great deal since he announced it in May 2014. In brief, it is three GO corridors (Stouffville, Lake Shore East and Kitchener) plus an Eglinton West LRT extension, but this differs greatly from what was promised in the election.

Service levels for SmartTrack are described as every 6-10 minutes peak, with off-peak trains every 15, but this does not necessarily match Metrolinx’ announced service plans for their GO RER network onto which SmartTrack is overlaid. The idea that there would be extra SmartTrack trains added to the GO service was killed off in 2016 in the evaluation of possible operating modes for the corridor.

Fares on “SmartTrack” are supposed to be “TTC fares”, but this is a moving target. Voters understood the term to mean free transfer onto and off of SmartTrack trains as part of their TTC fare, but with all the talk of regional fare integration, it is far from clear just what a “TTC fare” will be by the time SmartTrack is operating.

Even that date appears to be a moving target. City Staff referred to 2025 when GO RER would be fully up and running as the target date for “integration”, but Mayor Tory still speaks of being able to ride SmartTrack by 2021 while he is presumably still in office to cut the ribbon.

At the briefing, many questions arose from the media, and the answer to almost all of them was “we don’t know yet”. It is clear that the Mayor’s plan has not proceeded beyond the half-baked stage, and many important details remain to be sorted out.

  • What is the status of Lawrence East Station and how does it fit with the recently announced review of this (and Kirby) stations by the Auditor General?
  • How will an expanded GO/ST presence at Lawrence East co-exist with the SRT which will operate until at least 2025, if not beyond to whenever the Scarborough Subway opens?
  • What are the arrangements for City/Province cost sharing on the stations, especially since Lawrence East was originally to be a GO station, but its future as such is unknown?
  • What will be the cost of the new stations once design reaches a level where the numbers are credible? The range of $700 million to $1.1 billion has not been updated since the matter was before Council.
  • Will all stations on the SmartTrack corridor honour ST fare arrangements regardless of whether this is a city-built station under the ST banner?
  • Why should GO riders who are not on the SmartTrack corridor pay regular GO fares, while those using the ST route have a “TTC fare” for their journey? The most obvious contrast in this case is between the existing Exhibition Station on the Lake Shore corridor and the proposed Liberty Village Station on the ST/Kitchener corridor, but there are many others.
  • What service levels will be provided, and how will they affect projected demand at the stations? Were previously published estimates based on more ST service than Metrolinx actually plans to  operate? How will constraints at Union affect the ability to through-route service between the Stouffville to the Weston/Kitchener corridors?
  • If the City wants more service than Metrolinx plans (assuming it would even fit on the available trackage), how much would Toronto have to pay Metrolinx to operate it?
  • Where are the residents and jobs that are expected to generate ST demand, and how convenient will access to the service actually be considering walking time, station geometry (stairs, tunnels, bridges, etc) and service frequency?

The stations under consideration are shown on the map below. A common question for all of these locations will be that of available capacity on the GO trains that will originate further out in the corridor. Without knowing the planned service design for “GO” trains and “SmartTrack” trains, it is unclear how often, if at all, there will be short-haul ST trains originating within Toronto as opposed to longer-haul GO trains from the 905. The availability of space on trains could affect the perceived service frequency if people cannot board at stations near Union (just as long-suffering riders of the King car complain about full streetcars).

Updated October 10, 2017 at 10:30 pm

After I posted this article, I realized that there was an important part missing, a commentary on the “consultation” process  itself.

A big problem with many attempts to seek public input is that the wrong question is posed, and factors are taken as given when they should be challenged. In the case of SmartTrack, the basic question is “why do we have SmartTrack at all”.

The original scheme was essentially a real estate ploy to make property in Markham and south of the Airport more valuable by linking both areas with a frequent rail service to downtown. Reverse commuters were a big potential market for this service. In the course of becoming part of the Tory election campaign, the focus turned inward, and SmartTrack became the line that would solve every transit problem. The claims about service frequency, fares and integration with other local and regional service were complete fantasies, but they gave the impression that Tory “had a plan” as distinct from the bumbling proposals of his opponent, Doug Ford, and the lackluster efforts of Olivia Chow. Tory even got professionals to declare his scheme a great idea, one giving it an “A+” on CBC’s Metro Morning, but this was for a version of SmartTrack that was unbuildable.

Now, over three years later, we are still faced with the myth that SmartTrack is a real plan, that it is anything more than what GO Transit would have done in the fullness of time. We are, in effect, being asked about the colour of tiles in stations when we should be asking whether the stations should even be built at all. There is no guarantee that service can be overlaid on GO’s existing plans to provide anywhere near what was promised in the campaign – a “surface subway”. Metrolinx has been quite firm on the subject, and going to the frequencies assumed by ST advocates would be well beyond the infrastructure we are likely to see on GO corridors.

The City will conduct its consultations, but the hard question – Why SmartTrack? – will never be asked.

For the October 11 update, please scroll to the end of the article.

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A Contrary View of Ontario’s 2017 Budget

With the release of Ontario’s budget for 2017, City Hall launched into predictable hand-wringing about all the things Toronto didn’t get with the two big-ticket portfolios, transit and housing, taking centre stage. Claims and counterclaims echo between Queen Street and Queen’s Park, and the situation is not helped by the provincial trick of constantly re-announcing money from past budgets while adding comparatively little with new ones.

There was a time when budgets came with projections of three to five years into the future, the life of one government plus some promise of the next mandate, but over time the amounts included within that period simply were not enough to be impressive. Moreover, in a constrained financial environment, much new spending (or at least promises) lies in the “out years” where “commitment” is a difficult thing to pin down, especially if there is a change in government.

Toronto has “out year” problems, but it has even more pressing concerns right now, today and for the next few years. Very little in the provincial budget addresses this beyond the authority to levy a hotel tax, and a gradual doubling of gas tax grants for transit over the next five years. These add tens, not hundreds, of millions to a City budget that runs at $12 billion.

The transit tax credit for seniors will cover eligible public transit costs beginning in July 2017 with a refundable benefit of 15 percent. Whether all seniors actually deserve this credit is a matter for debate, but an important difference from the soon-to-disappear federal credit is that Ontario’s is “refundable”. This means that even if someone does not have enough income to pay tax, they can still receive the credit. The devil is in the details, however, and the degree to which this will be available to casual, as opposed to regular transit users remains to be seen. The term “eligible costs” is key. (The federal credit includes restrictions on eligibility.) In any event, a tax credit does nothing for transit budgets because it adds no revenue either directly to the transit agency or to the City which provides operating subsidies.

There are two major problems with both Ontario’s support for transit and Toronto’s politically-motivated budgets:

  • In both cases, the focus is on capital projects, building and buying infrastructure, with little regard for the cost of operating new and existing assets.
  • Past decisions on transportation spending have locked billions of dollars into a few projects for short-term political benefit at the expense of long-term flexibility.

Toronto perennially assumes that there will be new money somewhere to backfill the shortage in its capital budget. The Trudeau economic stimulus plan was the most recent magical relief Toronto expected, but it came with dual constraints: Toronto gets a fixed amount over the life of the program, and Ottawa will not contribute more than 40% to any individual project. Toronto had hoped that Ontario would chip in, possibly at the 30% or even 40% level, leaving the City with a manageable, if challenging, task of finding money to pay its share for the backlog of projects. The Ontario budget is quite clear – Toronto is already getting lots of provincial money and at least for now, there’s nothing new to spend.

Ontario is hardly innocent in this whole exercise having meddled for years with Toronto’s transit plans, most notoriously in Scarborough where the whole subway extension debate was twisted to suit political aims. After leading Toronto down the garden path on the SSE, Ontario has capped its project funding leaving Toronto to handle the cost of its ever-changing plans.

Queen’s Park loves to tell Toronto how much provincial money is already spent for Toronto, if not in Toronto, and the distinction gets blurry. GO Transit improvements, for example, will bring more service into Toronto benefiting the core area business district, but they will also improve commuting options for people outside of the City itself.

Before the fiscal crash of 2008, when Ontario was running surpluses, the typical way to handle project funding was to hive off surplus funds at year end into a trust account. That is how the provincial share of the TYSSE was handled. By contrast, Ottawa operates on the pay-as-you-play basis, and only turns over subsidies after work has been done. Each approach suits the spending and accounting goals of the respective governments. In a surplus situation, one wants the money “off the books” right away, but in a deficit, the spending is delayed as long as possible. Further accounting legerdemain arises by making the assets provincial to offset the debt raised to pay for them.

To put all of this into context, here is a review of projects proposed or underway in Toronto.

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TTC Board Meeting April 20, 2017 (Updated)

The TTC Board will meet on April 20, 2017. Items of interest on the agenda include:

  • The monthly CEO’s Report
  • Repair of SRT Vehicles
  • Disposition of Bay Street Bus Terminal

This article has been updated with a commentary on subway and surface route performance statistics presented at the Board meeting. (Scroll down to the end of the CEO’s Report.)

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Scarborough’s New/Old Transit Map

In all the talk about the Scarborough Subway and SmartTrack, there has been much less discussion of how the surface route network will be adjusted around the new lines. In preparation for Council’s upcoming debate on the SSE, the TTC has produced a map of the proposed bus network following the subway opening. Here are the current and proposed maps for comparison (click to expand).

Many of the routes on this map are unchanged from the current network which is already built around the Town Centre and Kennedy stations.

What is quite striking, however, is the complete absence of services dedicated to existing GO and potential future SmartTrack stations that are supposed to be an integral part of a future Scarborough Network. Inclusion of connecting service to those stations would presume, of course, that ST will actually operate as advertised with frequent service and free transfer to and from TTC routes. There is also no Eglinton East LRT to the UTSC campus.

Looking at the map, and the degree to which “all roads lead to STC”, shows the effect of having a major “mobility hub” in the middle of Scarborough. If that’s where you want to go, there is a bus route to take you there. Other travel patterns can be more challenging, especially if the peak service hours are designed for downtown-bound commuters.

Rearranging the network to feed into SmartTrack would require some work, and it is unclear if multiple hubs could actually co-exist. However, SmartTrack is planned to open five years before the SSE, and will trigger its own interim changes. Without really intending to, the TTC has given us a view of Scarborough transit that is uncomfortably closer to what might actually be built than many, certainly Mayor Tory and his circle, would care to admit.

Meanwhile, the SSE does not bring the same degree of change to the surface transit network as might occur in other areas because STC is already a major transit node. Indeed, the TTC could introduce new and revised routes long before the subway opens in 2026.

[The information in this article is taken from a compendium report in the TTC’s upcoming Board Meeting agenda at pp. 129-130. Routes and names shown are, at this point, only proposals and are subject to refinement.]

Proposed Changes
9 Bellamy Warden Stn to STC Unchanged
16 McCowan Warden Stn to STC Unchanged
21 Brimley Kennedy Stn to STC Unchanged
38 Highland Creek Rouge Hill GO to STC Unchanged
39A Finch East Finch Stn to Morningside Hts Branch rerouted and extended
199 Finch Rocket Finch W Stn to STC Unchanged
42 Cummer Finch Stn to Morningside Hts Extended
43B Kennedy via Progress Kennedy Stn to STC Unchanged
53 Steeles East Finch Stn to Morningside Hts East end loop revised
53E Steeles East Express Replaced by 253 Steeles Rocket
253 Steeles Rocket Pioneer Village Stn to STC New route
54 Lawrence East Science Ctr Stn to Starspray Base route unchanged
154 Lawrence East Kennedy Stn to UTSC Orton Pk service replaced and extended
254 Lawrence East Express Science Ctr Stn to Starspray via Kennedy Stn Replaces 54E express. Link to Kennedy Stn added.
57 Midland Kennedy Stn to Steeles Loop at Steeles revised
85 Sheppard East Don Mills Stn to Rouge Hill GO Supplemented by 285 Sheppard E Rocket
285 Sheppard East Rocket Don Mills Stn to UTSC via STC New route
86 Scarborough Kennedy Stn to Zoo Unchanged
93A Ellesmere East STC to Kingston Rd Replaces 95A York Mills east of STC. Route number already in use by 93 Parkview Hills.
93B Ellesmere East STC to Conlins Rd Replaces 95A York Mills east of STC and 116A Morningside Conlins Loop
95 York Mills York Mills Stn to STC Partly replaced by 93 Ellesmere East and 295 York Mills Express
295 York Mills Express York Mills Stn to UTSC via STC New route
102 Markham Rd Warden Stn to Steeles North end loop structure simplified
202 Markham Rocket Warden Stn to Centennial College New route
116 Morningside Kennedy Stn to Steeles Extended to Steeles & Markham Rd. Service via Guildwood replaced by 153.
153 Kennedy Stn to Beechgrove New route replacing 116 Guildwood service
129 McCowan North STC to Steeles Express service provided by 253, 199 and 285 Rockets
130A Middlefield STC to Steeles Route and loop from McNicoll to Steeles revised
130B Middlefield STC to Tapscott Route consolidates existing peak period loops of 42, 53, 102, 134
131 Nugget STC to Old Finch Service to Kennedy Stn replaced by subway
132 Milner STC to Hupfield/McClevin Unchanged
133 Neilson STC to Morningside Hts Unchanged
134A Progress STC to Finchdene Unchanged
134B Progress STC to McNicoll Discontinued, partly replaced by 130B
134C Progress STC to Centennial College Unchanged
169 Huntingwood Don Mills Stn to STC Unchanged

Scarborough Subway Cost Rises Again (III)

This article continues a series on the cost estimates for the Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE) and includes commentaries on:

Previous articles in this series:

  • Part I: A review of reports before Toronto’s Executive Committee and Council in March 2017
  • Part II: A review of previous and current cost estimates

The origin of the Value Engineering Study and a related Peer Review of costs lies in a distrust at City Council that the TTC’s cost estimates for the SSE are credible given the experience of the Vaughan exension (TYSSE). It is ironic that the TYSSE went over budget, and yet the desire for an SSE review was at least in part motivated by the idea that it could be brought in below the TTC’s projected cost.

In brief, the Peer Review concludes that the TTC estimates are reasonable at the current level of design.

The Value Engineering (VE) Study entailed a week-long series of meetings at which many ideas for potential cost savings were developed by a large group, then winnowed down to those with the most promise.

Although a few proposals foresee cost savings of over $100 million, these options have either already been rolled into the base project design or were replaced by a more expensive alternative. SSE advocates, notably Mayor Tory, have trumpeted these potential savings as future reductions in the project estimates, but in fact they are not available for that purpose.

Many of the proposals have no calculated saving, and it is unclear whether they will survive further review, and if so, would contribute substantially to reducing the overall project cost.

The VE study raises many questions in cases where its proposals appear to be superseded by a more recent design for the SSE than the one the VE team considered, and in cases where some VE proposals are contradictory. I have written to the City asking for clarification on these points and have included their reply in this article.

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Scarborough Subway Cost Rises Again (II)

After publication of a series reports going to Toronto’s Executive Committee on March 7, there have been many competing claims about just how much the Scarborough Subway is going to cost. Subway advocates prefer the lower number of $3.35 billion cited as the base cost of the subway itself plus an improved bus terminal, while others point out that many elements have been omitted from this number.

I reviewed many of the reports in a previous article, but this post looks beyond the subway itself to other projects that are required for the subway to open. Some of these are unfunded, or are now planned for a date beyond the Scarborough line’s opening, or are simply missing from TTC and City plans.

Previous Cost Estimates for the “Express Subway”

The Scarborough Subway project, as described in all previous reports included the following three items:

  • Construction of the subway from Kennedy Station to STC at a cost of $2.3 billion in 2010 dollars, or $3.315 billion in year-of-expenditure (YOE) allowing for future inflation.
  • Life extension work to keep the SRT operational until the subway opens at a cost of $132 million (YOE).
  • Demolition and removal of the existing SRT structure following the subway opening at a cost of $123 million (YOE).

These values, totalling $3.56 billion, appeared in:

The October 3, 2013 report to Council:

201310_costextimate

A presentation to a Value Engineering workshop by the TTC in September 2016:

201609_ttcprojectcostestimates_vesession

The TTC’s 2017-26 Capital Budget recently approved by Council (click to enlarge):

2017_capbudget

The $3.305 billion cost for the subway itself is intriguing because it has not changed between the 2016-25 and 2017-26 versions of the budget. The detailed views are below. (These are taken from the detailed TTC budget books that are not available online.)

2016 (click to enlarge):

sse_006_2016

2017 (click to enlarge):

sse_006_2017

The major change between the two versions to line item totals is that an allowance for property has been offset by an increase in “fixed facilities”. However, expenditures timings change, and there is no adjustment for inflation. I have asked the TTC for comment on this and related matters.

Item                          2016-2025        2017-2026
                                ($000)           ($000)
Fixed Facilities              $2,458,000       $2,623,000
TTC Installation                                      250
Property                         165,000
Consultants                      398,123          397,297
TTC Engineering                  101,877          102,453
Vehicles                         182,000          182,000
Total                         $3,305,000       $3,305,000

In the 2017 Capital Budget the section for the SRT life extension shows values only to 2023 and the demolition of the SRT structure is in 2025. These timings do not  make sense except in the context of a 2023 opening as described below. It is clear that these two items have not been updated to reflect the later opening date and the added cost this brings for ongoing support of the old system, and inflation in the cost of demolishing and removing it.

From the description of the Life Extension project:

lifeextensionprojectdescription

Additional Costs Not Included in the Current Projected Total

The $3.35 billion cost now claimed for the SSE project does not include several items cited in the City’s reports:

  • Procurement costs through Infrastructure Ontario: $15 million
  • Financing costs of a 3P project, net to TTC: $40 million
  • Public realm improvements (optional): $11 million
  • Platform edge doors (optional): $14 million
  • Increase in “management reserve” for scope changes to the level recommended by consultants: $100 million
  • SRT Life Extension: $132 million
  • SRT Decommissioning and Demolition: $123 million

As noted above, some costs have been estimated based on a 2023 opening for the subway, but without allowances for inflation to a later date.

Planning for Fleet, Signals and Carhouse Space

There are inconsistencies in the timing of various projects related to the Bloor-Danforth Subway that existed in the 2016-25 budget, and still pose major problems for 2017-26. These are all linked to the opening of the SSE which, like the TYSSE extension to Vaughan, will be built with Automatic Train Control (ATC).

  • Resignalling of Line 2 BD with ATC
  • Replacement of the existing T1 subway fleet with new trains capable of ATC operation
  • Construction of a new yard to house the replacement fleet

The TTC plans to resignal Line 2 following completion of Line 1 YUS in 2019. Here is the budget summary for these projects (click to enlarge):

2017_atcsignals

The T1 subway fleet is due for replacement in the mid 2020s, but current plans show this happening substantially after the SSE opens with delivery of prototypes in 2024 and the remainder of the fleet from 2026-2030. This means that a large part of the BD fleet would not be able to operate on ATC, and therefore could not run beyond Kennedy Station.

2017_t1replacement

There is also a provision in the SSE budget (above) for additional trains with funding in 2022-23 of $182 million. This corresponds to the original scheme to open the line in 2023, but not to the current fleet plan. In the table below, six trains are shown as a service addition for the SSE in 2023, but these come from available spares within the T1 pool (even though they cannot run in ATC territory). This would provide an AM peak service with alternate trains turning back from Kennedy Station, and overall BD service at the same level as today (2’20” west of Kennedy, 4’40” to STC). The replacement fleet begins to arrive in 2026 through 2030 including the seven trains funded from the SSE project budget. Full service to STC comes in 2027, but this and an allowance for ridership growth are clearly based on a 2023 SSE opening date.

The fleet plan is out of sync with the opening date for the SSE and its signal system.

2017_line2_subwayfleetplan

The T1 replacement project is on the “City Requested Budget Reductions” list, and does not have any funding within the current ten-year Capital Program. This represents a pressure within the City’s overall capital budget and its “below the line” iceberg of capital projects it cannot afford.

Finally, a new fleet cannot be provisioned without a new yard. This is required both to provide overlapping capacity for new and old trains (unlike Line 1 where Wilson Yard had room for expansion to handle the H to TR fleet changeover). There are also design problems with Greenwood in that the shops were not planned for 6-car unit trains, and major renovation would be required to do this, all within an active shop for the BD line.

The TTC recently authorized the purchase of land near Kipling Station for a new subway yard. However, the actual construction of a yard does not appear in the Capital Budget and there is no provision for this in the TTC’s financial plans. Quite obviously this facility is required before the new trains begin to arrive. If the T1 replacement project moves forward so that the new trains can all be here before the SSE opens in 2026, then the new carhouse must exist by the early 2020s. Considering how long it takes the TTC to get approval for a major new facility, let alone build it, this is a critical project that has not even been discussed in the context of SSE planning.

None of this is news, and the TTC is well aware of the problem. I wrote about this as part of my 2016 budget coverage, and the TTC replied with details of what is really needed. Management plans to bring an overall plan for the renovation of Line 2 to the Board at its March meeting, but this will inevitably produce ripples in the City’s budget. That can be fixed, in part, if some of Toronto’s PTIF money (the federal infrastructure program) goes to accelerating these projects, but this has to be fitted in among the many hopes Toronto has for that funding.

These are not, strictly speaking, “Scarborough Subway costs”, but they are projects triggered by the decision to extend Line 2 BD. Although federal money could be available, the City will have to pony up its share, and this will fall right at a period when it is tight for capital.

Toronto Council deserves to see the whole picture of funding and financing requirements for the SSE and related projects. Too much is hidden either by its unfunded status, or by simple omission from the overall plans. This inevitably creates a crisis when – Surprise! – a project is forced “above the line” because it cannot be avoided. This brings new spending that crowds other works, many having nothing to do with transit, off of the table. This is no way to handle City budgeting.

Scarborough Subway Cost Rises Again

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.

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Creative Writing From the Mayor’s Office

Back in June, an Op Ed from Mayor Tory appeared in the Toronto Star extolling the virtues of the Scarborough Subway. Torontoist, intrigued by how this piece came to be, made an FOI request for correspondence in the Mayor’s office. The result is an article and associated copy of the FOI response.

Tory’s article triggered a response from Michael Warren, a former Chief General Manager of the TTC. I have no brief for Warren himself, but what was intriguing was how the Mayor’s staff reacted with a need to debunk Warren. The following memo from the Mayor’s Chief of Staff is among the FOI materials.

chriseby20160630remichaelwarren

This memo is full of misinformation, but it gives a sense of the mindset in the Mayor’s Office and why so many statements from Tory simply do not align with reality.

… greater use of existing GO rail tracks … six new stations …

The original SmartTrack plan was for a “surface subway” that would carry 200,000 passengers per day using capacity in the GO Transit corridors. However, this plan depends on key factors including good integration with TTC service and much more frequent trains. SmartTrack is now reduced to nothing more than GO’s already planned service stopping at six extra stations. That is not “greater use” of tracks beyond what would have happened with GO’s RER plan. Even the ability to make these stops with little or no penalty in travel time results from GO’s planned electrification, not as part of SmartTrack.

GO Transit has no interest in the work of upgrading signals on their corridors to accommodate the level of passengers implied by that all day count, and hence the network “relief” claimed for SmartTrack cannot possibly materialize without significant new investment.

Tory’s campaign literature talks about a “London-style surface rail subway”. In Toronto, the word “subway” means service that is at worst every 5 minutes, not every 15, and it’s that convenience the campaign expected people to key in on. Some of the timetables for London Overground do feature very frequent service at a level GO’s signal system (let alone Union Station’s platform arrangements and passenger handling) cannot hope to accommodate.

A recent City backgrounder on proposed new stations shows that they will attract some, but not a vast number of new riders. That’s why they were never in GO’s short list of potential stations to begin with.

At these six new stations, trains will come every six to ten minutes in rush hour. That’s better than what candidate Tory promised … every 15 minutes or better. And to be clear, the provincial RER model sees trains coming every 15 minutes.

Actually, the provincial RER model already sees trains coming more often than every 15 minutes during peak periods and the improvements are not confined to the SmartTrack corridors (Stouffville and Kitchener) or to the City of Toronto. Queen’s Park has made no move to bill Toronto for extra service above levels planned for RER, and therefore we must conclude that none is planned.

SmartTrack was always envisioned as a beefed up version of RER; more stations in Toronto, more access for riders, faster frequencies and a TTC fare.

In fact, there is no “beef” in SmartTrack, and its only contribution will be for those who live or work near the six new stations. The service levels are part of GO RER, nothing more. As for a TTC fare, this is far from decided, and the likely cost to Toronto to support such an offer is fraught with problems. There is the obvious question of where the operating dollars will come from, but moreover riders on other GO corridors within the city might reasonably ask why they don’t get the same deal.

Conversely, some of the Metrolinx machinations about “Fare Integration” have suggested that subways might be treated more like GO Transit with a fare by distance model. If that’s what a “TTC fare” for SmartTrack really means, that’s not what Tory was selling in his campaign.

… Warren suggests tax increment financing … has been abandoned. That’s flat out wrong. City staff are preparing to report back … and have already stated it “may be the appropriate revenue tool for funding …”

Warren may have been incorrect that TIF has been abandoned, although it is hard to tell because his original piece “was edited to make clear that John Tory still supports his TIF transit financing scheme” according to a correction notice following the online version of Warren’s article. Whether Tory still supports TIF is of little matter because City staff recently reported that it cannot support the full cost of SmartTrack and additional revenues from other sources will be required.

Warren … talks of the abandoned LRT option, which he says will cost $1.8 billion … The TTC said this week that building the LRT would now cost as much as $3 billion.

The infamous “Briefing Memo” from the TTC about LRT vs Subway costs provides that higher estimate, but this is based on the assumption that the LRT line would be build much later than originally planned. Most of the cost increase is a function of inflation. Also, of course, the LRT option would serve much more of Scarborough than the subway, including the Town Centre planning precinct, a fact Tory’s Chief of Staff conveniently ignores.

As for additional costs, the provincial commitments to various transit plans, including its own, have always included inflation to completion, although undue delay caused by Toronto Council’s inability to make a decision might reasonably considered beyond the level of Queen’s Park’s generosity. All the same, the $3 billion estimate assumed a leisurely LRT project schedule compared to what would have been possible with dedication and leadership.

Under the Mayor’s leadership, Toronto is moving ahead with the most ambitious, and badly needed, transit expansion in its history.

A great deal of the expansion now underway was in the works before John Tory was elected. Indeed, his campaign claimed that SmartTrack was the single project that would solve every problem, and no other transit schemes, notably the Relief Line, need even be considered. Tory has changed his tune on that, but the RL is still treated as something we will need, someday, maybe. There is no leadership on his part in demonstrating how this line would serve suburban riders with additional commuting capacity.

debate … should be guided by fact, not distortions and rhetoric

That comment speaks for itself.

Another Scarborough Subway Boondoggle?

The Star’s Ben Spurr reports that the Glen Andrews Community Association in Scarborough has proposed yet another variant on the Scarborough Subway, and that this is supported by Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker and provincial Minister (and former Councillor) Brad Duguid. City Planning staff are already engaged in reviewing this proposal without any direction to do so from Council, according to Spurr’s article.

glenandrewcommassn_bigbendmap

The scheme, nicknamed the “Big Bend” would enter Scarborough Town Centre on an east-west axis rather than the north-south route proposed by the TTC. It would veer east at Ellesmere and then make a wide turn bringing the route under the existing RT through the STC station area and continue to vacant space on the east side of Brimley. This open area would be used as the staging area for the tunnel construction akin to the sites on the Crosstown project at Black Creek and at Brentcliffe.

This would avoid creation of a staging area for the subway tunnel near Ellesmere and McCowan and limit the need to expropriate lands for the subway and a new station, but it would also leave the subway aligned in a way that would allow eventual westward extension to link with the Sheppard line.

Although this has been reported simply as a revised alignment, much more is involved in this proposal. Instead of twin tunnels, the TTC’s typical construction method, a single 12m to 13m bore would be used, one that could accommodate station structures within the tunnel and eliminate (or at least reduce) the need for surface excavation such as we have seen on the TYSSE station projects. The technical side of this scheme was put forward by Michael Schatz, Managing Director of engineering company Hatch (a portion of the former Hatch Mott Macdonald) which shows up from time to time as a consultant to the TTC and GO Transit. Whether this is an official company proposal, or a personal scheme, or some sort of “business development”, is hard to say. There is no reference to this proposal on the company’s website.

As for the politicians, De Baeremaeker in Council and Duguid behind the scenes at Queen’s Park have been meddling in the LRT/subway debate for some time. De Baeremaeker’s initial motivation appeared to be avoiding an election attack by a Ford stand-in challenging his dedication to Scarborough’s manifest subway destiny. Duguid’s role raises questions about who sets transportation policy in Kathleen Wynne’s government and just how much real commitment there is to any of the LRT schemes in Toronto beyond the Crosstown project now under construction.

At yesterday’s TTC Board meeting, De Baeremaeker was noticeably silent on this proposal, but instead focused on the need to get construction underway and end the delays which push up the project’s cost. (For a $3.6 billion project, inflation at 4%, the rate used by the TTC, adds $144m/year, or $12m per month plus the sunk cost of having the project team sit around working on alternative designs until Council makes a decision.)

This is not simply a case of looking at an alternative design for the STC area, but of reviewing the entire line. The larger tunnel would be dug at a different elevation, and the manner in which it would link to the existing structure at Kennedy, not to mention how it will co-exist with the planned eastern extension of the Crosstown LRT, must be worked out. Terminal operations for a pair of stacked platforms at STC also need to be designed if the TTC intends to run all service through to that point.

This represents a considerable delay. It was intriguing that GDB did not mention this proposal at today’s TTC meeting and in fact held to the idea of getting politics out of the way and letting the project proceed.

The Community Association appears to have conflicting goals for their proposal:

And at the end of all this we have a ‘dead end’ subway.

  • A subway that can never be extended to the east if/when demand justified an extension to Centennial College or Malvern or U of T.
  • A subway that City Planners say ‘should not’ be extended north to the Sheppard.
  • A subway that cannot be turned north west toward the huge concentrations of potential TTC riders in the Kennedy-Sheppard area. [p. 2]

And if we are really into city building, true long term thinking, here’s a huge advantage: building The Big Curve means that the subway is not ‘dead ended’ at Scarborough Centre. It turns northwest. The ‘tail track’ points toward the huge concentration of potential TTC riders already in place and with more on the way in the Kennedy-Sheppard area. It points toward the Agincourt GO-Smart Track Station. It is in the approved alignment of the Sheppard Subway to our Centre. It has a future! [pp. 6-7]

It is self evident that if the subway is going to Agincourt and Don Mills, it is most certainly not going to Centennial College, Malvern or UofT. There may be Scarborough Subway Champions now at Queen’s Park (the Liberal’s Mitzie Hunter and the Tory’s Raymond Cho), but the proposed Big Bend line will never come near their ridings in eastern Scarborough.

The Sheppard connection proposal has been around for years, and is a leftover from Rob Ford’s mayoral campaign. De Baeremaeker’s recent comments disparaging the Relief Line take on a new meaning in the context of a politician looking to plunder the capital budget to suit his own ends. It is quite clear that with this outlook, the Sheppard LRT will never be built even though it still appears on official provincial maps. So much for Queen’s Park’s “commitment” to eastern Scarborough.

The single bore tunnel will be quite deep both for structural reasons related to its size and to stay out of the way of utilities. At STC station, the idea is that a deep station would be built within the tunnel under the existing bus loop thereby avoiding the need for a completely new terminal. However, the vertical difference would pose a transfer time penalty, an amusing situation when one considers the scorn heaped on the design of Kennedy Station’s SRT to subway link.

The tunnel option is presented as one that could proceed without the surface disruptions of conventional subway construction as practiced by the TTC. This is not entirely true.

At STC, it will be necessary to build large vertical shafts, at least two, linking from the surface down to the station itself. These must be long and wide enough to house emergency ventillation, stairs, escalators and elevators, and their surface footprint will be considerable. Whether such links can be built while the bus terminal remains in operation is hard to say, and more detailed design of this interface is needed

Similarly, if Lawrence East Station reappears, as the Community Association proposes, it will require access shafts from the surface down to the station. This is a difficult location because Highland Creek crosses McCowan here, but stations below the water table are not unheard of even in Toronto (see York Mills and Queens Quay for examples, although the latter is comparatively shallow). The press release argues that a Lawrence East Station would be cheaper with the single tunnel scheme than with a standard TTC cut-and-cover structure, but the real question is how much this station would add to the cost of a project which does not now include it.

Emergency exit shafts are required roughly between stations. Construction activity for one of these can be seen along Eglinton such as at Petman (east of Mt. Pleasant) where the access is dug down from the surface to tunnels that have already been built below the street. Just because there are no stations from Kennedy to STC does not mean that the space between them will be free of construction effects.

At STC, assuming that the existing bus terminal can remain in operation, there would be a saving on building its replacement. However, this is only one part of a more complex comparison that must be performed between the current TTC proposal’s design and whatever might develop from the Big Bend option. One cannot assume a “saving” until the relative cost and components of the two schemes are worked out.

The Community Association proposes that the tunnel launch site use existing green space on the west side of STC beside Brimley Road. By comparison with the sites on Eglinton at Black Creek and at Brentcliffe, this may not be large enough (especially considering its “long” dimension runs north-south), but that could be dealt with by temporarily closing an adjacent road and expanding into the existing parking lot.

The proposal includes a long list of items that could be avoided by the Big Bend option compared to what the TTC is likely to do, including ”

  • No need for a temporary bus terminal.
  • No need to buy a fleet of buses to carry SRT passengers.

Whether a temporary terminal can be avoided while construction of the links to a new station below it is underway remains to be seen. As for a fleet of buses for SRT passengers, that has nothing to do with the subway plan at all, unless the subway is built in the SRT corridor, an alignment the TTC has already rejected for other reasons.

It is ironic that this scheme only became possible once the City decided it could not afford to take the subway to Sheppard and cut the line back to STC. If there really were a desire to serve the area north of Highway 401 and east of STC, the subway would have gone there. Instead we are back to the Sheppard hookup proposal.

If Council really wants to reopen the entire debate, they need to be honest about what this will cost in time and dollars. Unless there is a change in funding from Ottawa and Queen’s Park, their contributions are fixed and any new costs are entirely on the City’s account. How many more years of the 1.6% Scarborough Subway Tax will be needed to pay for this? How will the return of the Sheppard Subway Extensions to the political field affect priorities for spending elsewhere in the City? How many more Councillors will cry that their wards “deserve” a subway?

Muddled into all of this is the status of SmartTrack which even though the brand name remains in use is really nothing more than a few local stops added to GO’s RER plans. Toronto will have to decide before the end of November (a Metrolinx imposed deadline) just how much it will shell out for additional “SmartTrack” infrastructure.

Councillors are quick to complain that transit project costs rise uncontrollably, but faced with the need to settle on a design so that it can be costed to a reliable level for budgets and construction, continue to pursue alternatives. No doubt the Big Bend proponents will want a cost estimate for their scheme in months so that a formal decision can be made.

If De Baeremaeker, Duguid and Tory have already decided that the Big Bend is the only scheme that will be acceptable, then the whole process of past years has been a sham. It is entirely possible that the Eglinton East LRT, the sweetener added to the Scarborough transit plan to make the subway more palatable, will simply fall off of the map and the money will all go to the subway project. This would be a brutal “bait and switch” for eastern Scarborough, but it would show the true colours of their “subway champions”.

Toronto Transit Plan Punted From Executive Committee

On October 26, 2016, Toronto’s Executive Committee was supposed to receive a report dealing with a wide range of transit issues.

… the City Manager will be providing a report to Executive Committee with recommendations on the Transit Network Plan, including information on cost-sharing discussions with the Province of Ontario on a range of transit projects, as directed by City Council in July 2016 (EX16.1). This report will also include an update on the planning and technical analysis for SmartTrack, Relief Line, and Scarborough Transit. Additional time is required to ensure proper consultation and coordination with relevant stakeholders including the Toronto Transit Commission, Province of Ontario and Metrolinx. [Placeholder item in the agenda]

This report is not yet available as discussions with Queen’s Park are ongoing. A deadline facing Council is that Metrolinx wants a commitment to specifics of SmartTrack work that will be bundled with the RER construction contracts that will go to tender early in 2017.

Given the time constraints, it is possible that the report will go directly to Council at its November 8 meeting. In theory, materials for the Council Meeting should be posted in advance, and for November 8, the usual deadline is only days away. Whether the materials are actually available in advance remains to be seen. This would put a major debate before Council with almost no advance briefing or public debate.

SmartTrack is not the only time constrained project as an updated transit plan and cost estimate for the Scarborough projects, not to mention a financing scheme for the entire package, needs to be dealt with so that work can begin. Any spending commitments will also affect the City’s budget which will be formally unveiled at the start of December.

As material becomes available, I will provide updates and commentary.