The Agony of Watching Toronto's Transit Planning Unfold

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The Agony of Watching Toronto’s Transit Planning Unfold

Waiting for Scarborough? I’m starting to think the City is stuck inside an absurdist play.

Ellesmere station on the Scarborough Rapid Transit line. Photo by Danielle Scott from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Ellesmere station on the Scarborough Rapid Transit line. Photo by Danielle Scott from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Estragon: I can’t go on like this.

Vladimir: That’s what you think.

(Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot)

Oh, Toronto. Oh, oh, oh.

I’m starting to think the Scarborough transit extension plan has the City stuck inside an absurdist play. Every time we’ve convinced ourselves we know what we are doing, someone tells us up is down or less is more.

Every shiny thing must be chased. Let’s see where this path goes! We think we’re getting somewhere, but it’s the train beside us that’s moving. It’s just an optical illusion.

A lot has happened over the last week. Let’s see if we can get a handle on it.

The Toronto Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro, has been digging into the details of the long (long, long, long) process of how City Council turned Transit City, a broad LRT network, into a one-stop subway extension to the Scarborough Town Centre.

Combing through almost 4,000 pages of documents obtained through freedom of information requests, Pagliaro discovered that TTC spokesperson Brad Ross emailed a briefing note to the mayor’s office in June, with a confusing estimate of costs for the Scarborough LRT.

Both the process of circulating the memo to the mayor and its content appear a bit out of the ordinary. It nearly doubled the cost of the LRT (from $1.8 to $2.97 billion) by putting its start and completion date years later than they would have been, making those cost figures larger than they would be.

The exaggerated cost of the LRT made the difference between the subway and LRT look relatively minimal, instead of showing the actual gap of over $1 billion.

TTC CEO Andy Byford told the Star that the note was offered of the transit commission’s own accord, but that, at some point, someone asked for this framing. He doesn’t recall who asked.

I think the people who run the TTC are amazing. As Byford regularly reminds us, they do a phenomenal job with the resources they have—which are embarrassingly insufficient.

Byford is particularly amazing. He is world-class talent that this city doesn’t deserve. (So is chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, by the way.)

Byford has always been clear that the TTC’s big-ticket top priorities are a Relief Line and increases to the state of good repair budget. But I fear the politics of transit are poisoning the good and talented people who offer the city their expertise.

They came to their positions with the hope and faith that they could lift Toronto out of its morass and realize this city’s potential. It’s sort of like the teacher who starts the year with great ambitions and then readjusts after a few weeks.

Because, despite its many natural advantages, Toronto is the student who sits at the back of the class reading a comic book, actively refusing to learn. The correct answers are Relief Line and state of good repair. Toronto writes: “Tunnels lined with gold.” In crayon.

Some have spoken of the “Webster Effect,” where city staff learn to say what they believe they are expected to, so they don’t lose their jobs, as Gary Webster did for advocating for the LRT.

I think it’s more twisted and painful than that. I think the City’s experts now understand that their job is to prevent the city from driving itself off a cliff. They’ve come to realize that they are up against mayoral political ambitions that have nothing to do with legitimate transit plans or even how an urban economy functions.

They’re up against a province that is only happy to exploit Toronto’s political struggles for its own ends. No one can save Toronto from itself, not even a federal government’s infrastructure program.

It is a waste of time and energy to recommend the best, most appropriate solution, even if it costs less than the weaker one. This is the city that built the Sheppard subway, after all. Thus, our experts accept that the best they can do is help City Council make the least worst decision possible.

That’s what I saw, for example, in the chief planner’s compromise that shortened the Scarborough subway extension and brought part of the LRT plan back to Scarborough. It wasn’t the very best plan, but it wasn’t the worst we could have, under the circumstances. Her punishment for trying was to watch the LRT part disappear under the waves of rising subway costs almost immediately.

That’s what I see in the straight-talking Andy Byford’s defense of memos that are less than straight talk, and then forgetting who asked to draft them.

He must know, as I do, that one of the most likely outcomes now is that when the music stops, Scarborough will have no new transit.

At some point, the SRT (Scarborough Rapid Transit) will stop running. It will be replaced with 55 buses. Everyone will see that buses provide more than enough capacity, but they’re slow. Demand will go down and 50 buses will cover it. Savings!

Scarborough riders will drive if they can, and complain justifiably about the terrible traffic. More pedestrians will die on the sidewalk. Someone will design a clever new traffic app and the mayor will do a photo op.

The stagnant development around Scarborough Town Centre will remain stagnant. Inertia will leave us with the status quo. Scarborough won’t just end up with nothing—it will end up with less than it has now.

Glenn De Baeremaeker and Brad Duguid are now doing their best to make that happen. Last week, in case we still had any sensation left in our foreheads, they proposed changing the alignment of the Scarborough subway extension as it arrives at the Scarborough Town Centre.

I’ve attended the Scarborough Subway Extension meetings held by city planners and Metrolinx. They have done years of extensive consultation with transit groups, community groups, businesses, and other institutions in the area.

They created opportunities for people to weigh in on route choices and the specifics of station entrance locations. They’ve spent countless hours balancing local needs and ridership models against the hard realities of landform and engineering.

De Baeremaeker’s comment that his idea arose out of “the magic of public input, of actually asking people who live in a community what they think of large-scale projects” is deeply insulting, particularly given that De Baeremaeker personally attended some of these consultation sessions.

It’s no exaggeration that planners have considered every possible alignment for the subway line. Working with the existing footprint of Scarborough Town Centre is one of the most challenging aspects, and they considered all the angles: where the best potential adjacent development lies, where an expanded bus terminal can go, how far people would have to walk from a bus to the subway, how pedestrians might access the station, and much more.

And if he had read and absorbed the June 2016 business case [PDF], De Baeremaeker would remember that two alignments with an east-west orientation of the station at Scarborough Town Centre (where he wants to put it) were studied.

Although there were several advantages to these alignments and that station location, they were eliminated from further consideration. It would require shutting down the SRT for construction, which, besides being an inconvenience, was estimated to cost $171 million.

And one of these alignments was ruled out because it made the line just a smidge longer. Tunneling of a mere additional 0.5 kilometre would make the project “significantly more costly,” such that no further costing of these alignments was advisable.

Most importantly, they are and have always been planning a line to continue north, and for good reason (see below).

For anyone—much less the city’s and province’s champions of the project—to come along now and propose another alignment, claiming they don’t like where the holes are going to go, is beyond satire.

I can’t believe this is about the inconvenience of the digging and construction. Not that I want to minimize the disruption: I live in one construction site (the Crosstown tunnel) and work in another (York University subway extension), and it’s a pain. But given the experience of both of those projects, no one can pretend to be surprised that when you build a subway tunnel, roads close, a few existing structures have to come down, and dirt has to be piled somewhere.

I think De Baeremaeker and Duguid are playing a foolish game, and a long one. Their proposed alignment adds unnecessary length and cost to the tunnel and points the subway line in an entirely new direction. Instead of pointing north, leaving open a possibility of extending the subway above the 401 as initially planned and intersecting with the Sheppard LRT along the way, the new alignment turns the subway around and leaves it pointing west.

That looks suspiciously like it’s designed to then head up to Sheppard Avenue and build a case for extending the Sheppard line as a subway instead of an LRT. But the LRT is supposed to run farther east past McCowan out to Morningside. This plan would shorten the line considerably.

City planners are apparently reviewing De Baeremaeker’s alignment, even though Council has not directed them to do so. And the mayor hasn’t yet figured out who the winning team is, so he’s “leaving the door open.”

If there is a city that disagrees with—no, actively undermines—its most expert and experienced staff more than Toronto, I’ve not seen it. Changing alignments to point trains in a totally different direction, for crying out loud. But hey, everyone knows all you need to plan transit in this city is a pen and a clean napkin.

While Toronto transit advocates were crawling their way through that week, our friends at Hamilton City Council were debating their own already-approved LRT plan. The provincial government is giving them $1 billion, which is 100 per cent of the capital costs.

LRT is a superior form of transit. It’s a good plan for transit along the downtown waterfront and extending to McMaster University. It’s not even the least worst plan.

But doubters have raised concerns about costs, the route, the process, the needs of the suburbs versus downtown, etc., etc. A few councillors are trying to derail the project and cancel the standing agreement with Metrolinx, which would require the city to pay back $60 to 70 million. Just like Toronto.

Oh, Hamilton, please learn from our mistakes. At least then we could say someone had.

Estragon: Well, shall we go?

Vladimir: Yes, let’s go. (They do not move.)


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