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politics

Metrolinx Spins the Scarborough Subway

Glen Murray's case for a two-stop subway is based on a drastic misrepresentation of the available information, and Metrolinx is helping him make it.

The Scarborough RT, which will need to be replaced in the next few years. The question is: with what? Photo by Alex Resurgent from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

The Scarborough RT, which will need to be replaced in the next few years. The question is: with what? Photo by Alex Resurgent from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Metrolinx board meetings are inevitably sleepy events, with lots of good news and almost no controversy. Directors ask soft questions, almost embarrassed that they might put management to some trouble. Almost always, the answers confirm that life is good, the passengers are happy, and everyone can be confident that the GTA’s transit matters are in expert, dependable hands.

The board meeting held Tuesday was a bit different: it was filled with throngs of reporters, there seeking Metrolinx’s response to transportation minister Glen Murray’s two-stop Scarborough subway announcement. (If you missed it: last week Murray proclaimed that even though the province has a signed agreement with the City of Toronto to replace the aging Scarborough RT with light rail running along the same route, which would be extended further north and east, and even though city council rejected that plan in July— deciding that it wanted to run not light rail but subways and run them not along the existing RT corridor but up McCowan—in fact Ontario would build neither of those things. Instead, said Murray, Queen’s Park would bankroll a two-stop subway to Scarborough Town Centre—following the RT route, but not extending it any further—at a cost of $1.48 billion.)

Was this on Metrolinx’s agenda? No. Metrolinx doesn’t do controversy, especially when the minister’s involved.

That attempt at deflection notwithstanding, at the end of the meeting Metrolinx chair Rob Prichard did address the issue, attempting to summarize what he claimed were the opinions of the other members of the board. That summary: Metrolinx has consistently supported the idea that new rapid transit should be built in the existing the SRT corridor, and all plans (conveniently ignoring city council’s vote) have incorporated that idea regardless of the subway vs. LRT question. Glen Murray’s plan sticks to that route, and so everything is just dandy.

Nobody, however, is buying it.

Glen Murray’s plan is only a couple of months old: in July, after council’s vote, he asked Metrolinx to look at the feasibility of going along with the municipal government’s desire to build a subway, but choosing a different route for it. If you’re wondering why we hadn’t been talking about building a subway along the current RT route all along, the answer is that the curves along that route are very tight—tighter than the TTC thinks a subway can actually handle. LRT can handle tighter turns and so is free of this issue.

But what if we move things just a bit, Murray’s idea went, to give subways a bit more room in which to turn? (At the meeting Prichard spoke about this suggestion as if it were a revelation, a totally new idea that nobody had ever had before. One could almost see the thousand-watt lightbulb glowing in the air as he waxed on.)

In response, Metrolinx conducted a preliminary feasibility study [PDF], which confirmed that some approximation of the RT route would be able to accommodate a subway. Prichard claimed not only that this subway could be constructed, but also that it would provide better opportunity for growth and improved service to priority neighbourhoods, at a lower cost, than council’s choice of a subway along McCowan.

But then a chance remark by Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig told the real story: he noted that it was the future extension of Murray’s subway beyond its current two-stop plan that would better serve priority neighbourhoods and support growth.

Extension? What extension? The minister never mentioned an extension.

subway feasibility legend

What neither Glen Murray’s statement nor the Metrolinx briefing bothered to mention is that the feasibility study that examines the potential for building a Scarborough subway imagines that subway extending all the way to Sheppard, just as the LRT would have. That subway would serve both Centennial College and a number of priority neighbourhoods.

But that is not the subway Glen Murray announced. Glen Murray announced only a portion of that route. And he attributed the benefits of the whole route—the one that theoretically could extend to Sheppard—to just the portion he was announcing. Suggestions that the feasibility study supports any service other than light rail are at best artful misdirection, because the study looked specifically at a subway line from Kennedy to Sheppard and nothing else. (Murray cited a ridership estimate for his foreshortened subway, for instance—14,000 passengers per hour—but that estimate depends on a through ride for trips all the way to Sheppard, which that foreshortened subway will not reach.)

It’s also not clear that this extension, if it were ever to be built, would even be a subway. When pressed on the issue, Prichard described it vaguely as a “rapid transit corridor,” implying that they could build Murray’s two-stop subway to Scarborough Town Centre and then build LRT from there.

This makes the much-vaunted subway-ness of Glen Murray’s subway somewhat less compelling.

The Metrolinx board will do “due diligence” and further investigate Murray’s proposal, says Prichard; staff will present more details in a larger report expected later in the fall. That timing will be a challenge, considering that Prichard also claims that TTC staff will present its own report on the issue to city council in October, well before the Metrolinx report is ready. These reports, and the differences between them, matter: according to Prichard, any changes to the existing municipal-provincial agreement (the one that right now calls for LRT) must be approved both by the City and by Metrolinx. When new votes might take place, and on the basis of whose information, is not at all clear. (Prichard managed to tie himself in many knots trying to answer persistent questions from the media, a far more aggressive group than his docile board members. A Cirque du Soleil tryout may be in his future.)

Prichard also confirmed that since the request to change to from LRT to subway technology was the City’s, any sunk costs for the LRT must be paid by the City. And if the subway project goes over budget, as a City-led and City-owned project, these costs will fall to Toronto too. These and other details appear in Prichard’s letter to TTC Chair Karen Stintz [PDF].

The heart of the matter—and indeed of any transit plan—is always money. From the preliminary feasibility study we learned that building a full subway (Murray’s two stops plus the extension to Sheppard) would cost $2.4 billion in 2011 dollars, or roughly the same as the City’s McCowan proposal. Of those two subway options, it’s Murray’s RT route that would have more stations and serve more people, and it certainly looks a lot more like the kind of subway folks in Scarborough might really want to see. But Murray’s subway—the full-length version that provides all the benefits he promised—also costs a billion dollars more than the LRT option along that same route.

Indeed, it will cost a lot more than that, even. Specifically excluded from the feasibility study’s estimates are the costs of interim bus service and associated infrastructure during the construction period, rolling stock, a maintenance and storage facility, traction power substations, and HST. These costs are included in estimates for the original LRT plan, and for city council’s proposed subway via McCowan, thus skewing any comparisons of Murray’s plan to the alternatives.

Important: these cost estimates are missing from Murray’s shorter subway proposal, too. Once you account for the above items, his two-stop subway will cost a fair bit more than $1.48 billion. It is impossible to build it for the amount he has claimed.

Put another way: the pot of money Metrolinx has set aside for Scarborough transit covers only the LRT option—it is not enough for either city council’s or Glen Murray’s subway routes.

One could be charitable and say that the minutiae of background studies don’t trouble the minister, but in an era of provincial spending scandals, that just doesn’t wash. Murray announced a subway to Scarborough at a price he cannot actually deliver. Either he was appallingly briefed, or he chose to omit that vital fact.

As we noted when Murray unveiled his scheme, an announcement that could have presented a vision for Scarborough transit turned into a political rant against other levels of government. That’s bad enough. Basing that announcement on a misrepresented study is unforgivable.

The debate over transit options in Toronto and the region beyond is difficult enough without political meddling. Not long after he became transportation minister, Murray mused about Metrolinx’s overall plan and suggested that lines on its map were merely “placeholders.” Crayons at the ready, he has been drawing his own versions ever since—versions that resemble the fantasy maps so beloved of transit advocates. Anyone is free to draw such maps, but imposing them by fiat, by a ministerial announcement from the roof of a Scarborough parking garage, mocks the very process Metrolinx was created to avoid.

The city and region now face a period of uncertainty extending beyond coming provincial and municipal elections. Will the new administrations at either level continue to support transit, and will those put in charge consider the good of the region over their own political ambitions?

Metrolinx is an agency at which the puppet-master’s hands and wires are all too obvious. Glen Murray has wounded its credibility as an honest, unbiased provider of advice to the province and to the public at large, and the relevance of its board is evaporating.

Can anyone, will anyone, say “enough”?

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