Resurrecting the Scarborough Subway
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Resurrecting the Scarborough Subway

A new TTC report on the idea that won't go away.

Photo by {a href=""}Loozrboy{/a} from the {a href=""}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

The TTC board meeting agenda for January 21 includes a report on technology options for the Sheppard East and Scarborough RT lines. Once again, Toronto drags out the debate on whether these routes should be subway or LRT (light rapid transit), particularly when it comes to replacing the deteriorated Scarborough RT (SRT).

Especially galling is support for the subway option, not from one of Mayor Ford’s sycophants but from a “lefty”: Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre).

In brief, the subway-vs-LRT argument goes like this: we can extend the Bloor-Danforth subway line to replace the Scarborough RT at only a modest extra cost (if you call $500 million “modest”), thereby giving Scarborough the rapid transit it dreams of.

Those dreams may be genuine civic pride, or they may be delusions induced by politicians who peddle the idea that only subways are good enough. This is an abdication of political responsibility.


Transit City began with the premise that rapid transit expansion would have the greatest reach—go the farthest in reaching the largest number of residents—with LRT, and that subways should not be presumed as the first choice for any corridor. Originally, the Scarborough RT conversion to LRT was not included in Transit City to avoid that technology battle as part of the larger goal to win acceptance for an LRT network. Later, once retention of the orphan SRT technology (which is ICTS, or Intermediate Capacity Transit System) ceased to make sense, the SRT-to-LRT conversion plan took over.

TTC management did not shine here and continued to present the ICTS option well after it was clear an LRT would be preferable. Their cost comparison of the two technologies covered a line that stopped at McCowan Station. It ignored the considerable savings available with an LRT extension to Malvern and integration with a Scarborough LRT network. At a minimum, this position was misleading, and it held the LRT option at bay when it should have been actively pursued.

Although LRT exists world-wide in a variety of styles ranging from complete traffic isolation to near-streetcar operations, it gets a bad rap in Toronto in part because we have no good examples of LRT in a suburban setting. The St. Clair, Spadina, and Harbourfront rights-of-way work to the degree they can in settings with closely spaced traffic signals, tenuous traffic signal priority, single cars, pay-as-you-enter loading, and a line management style that accepts gaps six minutes wider than the scheduled headway as “punctual.”

Every time Toronto avoids building LRT and opts for talk of subways, citizens are denied a chance to see what LRT can do, and they are convinced that building LRT is settling for second best. They have to travel to exotic locales such as Calgary to see the real thing.

LRT vs. Subway for Scarborough

This week’s TTC report compares two implementations of a Scarborough line (see Exhibit 6, page 14 of the report [PDF]):

  • An LRT line replacing the existing SRT on the same alignment and continuing northeast to Sheppard and Progress (where it would connect for carhouse access to the Sheppard East LRT).
  • A subway line via Eglinton, Danforth Road and McCowan to Sheppard.

The LRT option would be slightly longer (9.9 vs 7.6 kilometres) because it would run further east, and it would have more stations (seven compared to three, not counting Kennedy in either case). Almost twice as many people (47,000 vs 24,000) would live and work within walking distance of an LRT station compared to the subway, whose primary function would be to funnel people into downtown, not to provide the kind of finer-grained local service possible with LRT.

A future LRT extension to Malvern has already been discussed, but it is not yet in Metrolinx’s short or medium term priority lists. A subway extension to Malvern would be difficult because Sheppard East subway station is further west (at McCowan), and a subway would likely be prohibitively expensive. These future cost and networking trade-offs are not included in the project comparisons.

LRT ridership is projected at 31 million, compared to 36 million annually for the subway, mainly because its slightly lower speed (a function of having more stops and of requiring a transfer—albeit an improved one—at Kennedy). There is no demand projection given for LRT with the Malvern extension, an option not available with the subway.

Although both lines have a “Scarborough Centre Station,” the subway station would be over at McCowan, well removed from the centre of the Scarborough Town Centre and further from condos that have developed there and to the west at Brimley. Indeed, a major condo developer at the Town Centre was required to fund a secondary entrance to that station on the RT, a connection that would be demolished along with the existing station when the subway opens. A long-sought “Brimley Station” would be impossible on the subway’s alignment.

The Cost Comparison

The projected costs for LRT and subway are $2.3 billion and $2.8 billion respectively, and a mentality of “what’s half a billion?” seems to be at work.

That half-billion could pay for half of the Sheppard East LRT, or could go toward extensions of the SRT to Malvern or the Sheppard line to UTSC campus. If the money were raised by the City of Toronto (supplementing Metrolinx funding with a “subway top-up”), this would add $500 million to the City’s debt, at an annual cost of $20 million (presuming they can borrow at four per cent). That money would not be available to run transit service elsewhere. (Only a few days ago, city council turned down a paltry $5 million in extra funding for the TTC’s 2013 budget.) As the Star points out, that $500 million is identical to the projected cost of repairing the crumbling Gardiner Expressway.

There is no comparison in the report of the operating cost of an LRT versus a subway, nor a discussion of who would pay for this. The LRT option would be a Metrolinx line and part of the LRT network now under construction. The subway option would be a TTC line, and its operating cost would fall entirely on the municipal government’s shoulders.

Metrolinx’s Role

After a lot of haggling about “who’s on top” in transit planning and operations in the GTA, Metrolinx emerged as the project owner for the new LRT lines. The simple fact is that funding is almost 100 per cent provincial (except for a $300 million federal contribution on Sheppard), and Queen’s Park wants its agency to be in control. The TTC will operate the lines, but the infrastructure and equipment will be maintained by a private partner yet to be selected.

Metrolinx was slow to embrace LRT as a viable technology, but now has seen the error of its ways and is pursuing several LRT projects in Toronto and elsewhere. The agency has stated quite clearly that it is sticking with LRT. From the Star:

Metrolinx, the provincial agency that is funding and building the SRT replacement as part of the Eglinton Crosstown line, immediately dismissed suggestions it might consider a subway.

“No, we have a plan, actually the city council approved that plan, the master agreement approved the scope—replacing SRT with light rail—and we are very rapidly moving forward,” said Metrolinx vice-president Jack Collins.

Metrolinx harms its own position by sticking with a lengthy estimate for the conversion period for the SRT. Again from the Star:

Converting the obsolete SRT system to modern light rail means closing the line down for about four years, shunting riders onto buses during the construction expected between 2015 and 2020.

“But then you have to look, on balance, at the lower cost and the bigger area that gets served … the disruption of building an entire new subway line versus repurposing an existing line. There’s trade-offs,” Collins said.

In fact, that 2020 reopening date is an outside number, and there was a time when the projected shutdown was at most three years long. Indeed, Collins himself has confirmed that the SRT project tender will encourage bidders to propose ways to shorten the total project time and get the LRT line open sooner.

Unfortunately, we are stuck with a situation where Queen’s Park stretched out the date to 2020 for financial planning reasons that have nothing to do with construction and everything to do with the government’s wish to defer transit spending for as long as possible. The Minister of Transportation, Bob Chiarelli, is on record saying that the line will open by 2020, and nobody wants to contradict him. As they say in political circles, “the minister was badly advised.” Possibly we will get a new minister, or a new premier will make an “aha!” announcement as part of a revised plan.

The idea of shutting down rapid transit in Scarborough for a five-year conversion paints the LRT option very negatively. Add to this the parlous condition of the SRT itself, kept in operation at Queen’s Park’s insistence until after the 2015 Pan Am Games. A subway looks far more appealing because the alternative is presented in the worst possible light.

There is deep irony in the fact that this entire debate turns on the provincial role in Toronto’s transit plans. Some politicians both at City Hall and at Queen’s Park would love to hand local transit to Metrolinx. Toronto wants provincial money as a way to avoid spending their own, but objects when Queen’s Park decides against Toronto politicians’ pet projects.

Where Do We Go From Here?

If this technology debate is going to continue at all, let it be on a fully informed basis with the real implications—capital and operating funding, accessibility and development effects, future network expansion—all on the table. On-again, off-again transit development should not be based on selective assessment of incomplete information.

Campaigns arguing that Scarborough, or any other community, “deserves” a subway miss a fundamental point. We all deserve good transit, and subways are only part of a much larger mix of options. Toronto and its politicians should be pushing for better transit overall, not pandering to and dividing local constituents from each other. Don’t pit riders of the Queen car, the Finch bus, the Dufferin bus, and the Morningside bus against each other, but fight for better transit everywhere.

City councillors can start by properly funding TTC service improvements. Three budgets’ worth of cutbacks must end, and even TTC chair Karen Stintz has said that freezing the subsidy is not an option for 2014. TTC CEO Andy Byford plans to present a five-year transit plan and this will not be without costs. Will council invest in transit growth by improving service and reducing crowding, the transit equivalent of road “congestion” everyone talks about? Or will they plead poor and stiff the long-suffering transit riders again?

Second photo by scorchez from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.