A New Transit Deal For Scarborough?
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A New Transit Deal For Scarborough?

Everyone's now re-debating the subway vs. LRT question, but true fairness and sensible transit planning for Scarborough demand that we think about a whole network for the area, not just one line.

Photo by Loozrboy from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by Loozrboy from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

EDITOR’S NOTE; JULY 3, 2013: After reopened talks with the provincial government, Toronto’s debate about the long-term future of Scarborough transit is back on. Mayor Rob Ford has asked for a new staff report on the subject, and city council will debate whether to pursue a subway or an LRT at its next meeting, on July 16, 2013. Here, once again, is a comparison of the options under discussion.

The Globe and Mail is reporting that TTC Chair Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) has approached the Ministry of Transportation about extending the Danforth subway to Sheppard—reversing course on the signed deal for light rapid transit that council recommitted to last year. If approved by all parties, the shift would mean that a subway would serve the centre of Scarborough instead of LRT.

We reviewed this proposal in January. Each option has its faults and benefits. How should we weigh them?

We need to replace the aging Scarborough RT line. Should we do so with light rail of a subway? Map from a TTC report dated January 21, 2013.

This is not just a question of rekindling interest in Stintz’s “One City” transit plan from June 2012, but of winning over residents in Scarborough.

The Strategic Questions

The politics are simple. Scarborough residents had an inferior technology, the SRT, foisted on them decades ago by Queen’s Park. (There had originally been a plan to build an LRT line, including a potential extension that would have gone as far as Malvern, which at the time was considerably less built up. That LRT plan was converted to an SRT route when the province decided that it wanted to show off an Ontario technology for other markets. Thus the SRT was born. It never got past McCowan Station.) Scarborough’s transit (indeed, all of Toronto’s) would have been much different if the TTC had implemented an LRT network back then. Frequent light rail could have served areas on the brink of development—areas where, instead, riders have waited years for anything beyond a bus. Transit planners would have an alternative to high-cost subways, and the transit network could have led city growth rather than following it.

Now Scarborough politicians, notably Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre), are trying to make up for that lost opportunity by arguing that since North York and York Region will get their subways (the Spadina extension to Vaughan and the proposed Yonge extension to Richmond Hill) Scarborough shouldn’t have to make do with a “streetcar” instead—even if those LRT vehicles would run on a completely protected right-of-way, just as the SRT does today.

This is a wedge issue for Mayor Rob Ford and his allies (though De Baeremaeker generally isn’t one) who paint anything other than subways—subways—subways as a plot by evil downtowners to deprive other parts of Toronto of first class transit. Conversely, if Stintz’s Scarborough plan finds support from local councillors and voters, this could break Ford’s claim on their transit loyalty.

The Policy Questions

Almost twice as many people would be within walking distance of the LRT route compared with the subway option. De Baeremaeker argues that this isn’t significant—that nobody walks to the SRT now, and it doesn’t matter how easy the stations would be to reach on foot. This outlook contradicts years of planning for rapid transit lines that would directly serve people without a bus connection, the bane of travel to suburban rapid transit today. De Baeremaeker himself has long pushed for a new SRT station at Brimley to serve a growing concentration of condos, whose residents would arrive at the station on foot.

LRT Option Subway Option
Length 9.9 kilometres 7.6 kilometres
Route Kennedy Station to Progress and Sheppard via existing SRT corridor to McCowan, then east and north to Sheppard. Kennedy Station to McCowan and Sheppard via Eglinton, Danforth Road, and McCowan.
Stations Seven or eight: all five existing SRT stations, plus Centennial College and Sheppard/Progress. (Ellesmere Station may be dropped.) Three: McCowan at Lawrence, at Progress, and at Sheppard.
Cost $1.8 billion $2.8 billion
Funding Set, as part of signed agreement with the province. Would require funding top-up.
Population/employment in walking distance 47,000 24,000
Projected speed 36 km/h (slower than subway due to more closely spaced stations) 40 km/h
Projected ridership 31 million per year 36 million per year
Projected peak demand 8,000 passengers per hour 9,500 passengers per hour
Transfer at Kennedy Improved with rebuilt station Eliminated
Extendible to Malvern Centre Yes No
SRT shutdown required for construction? Yes, probably three years. Technically no. However, the TTC did not expect the SRT to remain operational beyond 2015 and may have difficulty sustaining it even until then.
Status of proposal EA and preliminary design completed. Construction could start any time, but has been held off pending the Pan Am Games. EA has not been started, nor is there any detailed design. Matching the LRT construction schedule would be challenging.

De Baeremaeker argues that the subway would cost only an extra half-billion dollars, but the TTC has recently confirmed that the estimated LRT cost includes a half-billion for a new carhouse. This is not actually required because the LRT cars will be stored and maintained at a new Metrolinx carhouse near Sheppard and Conlins Road that is included in the Sheppard LRT. The cost differential is now double the original claims—the difference between a subway and an LRT is one billion dollars, not the 500 million originally cited—and who knows what other projects would need to be delayed or deferred to find that extra money?

A Comprehensive Approach to Transit

The most important question for Scarborough is not just this subway-versus-LRT debate; those are alternatives for replacing the aging, unreliable SRT, and we know that one way or another, that replacement will be happening. What’s less clear is whether anyone is thinking much about a larger, longer-term vision for Scarborough transit. Scarborough, like all of Toronto and the region around it, needs a network to serve a variety of travel demands. Regardless of which of the subway or LRT options are chosen right now, we cannot lose sight of the need for that network. It cannot be perpetually delayed due to cost pressures, and we cannot give in to any sense that one line will solve all of Scarborough’s transit problems.

A transit future for Scarborough?

View Scarborough Transit in a larger map

scarborough transit map

Updates to Toronto’s Official Plan are underway now, and the provincial Big Move plan is scheduled for comprehensive review by 2016. These plans are not set in stone, and Toronto should be thinking about how they can be improved. What needs to be added, not just in Scarborough, but elsewhere in the city? How soon should these lines be built and operated, not just be promises on map written with disappearing ink? What will be the cost, and will the city have to supplement the coming Metrolinx investment strategy with its own capital?

Toronto has a long history of planning one rapid transit project at a time, of pitting ward against ward, east versus west, north versus south, in a battle for even tiny improvements. The result has been decades of stagnation and a pervasive sense that nothing will ever be done.

Karen Stintz wants to talk about new plans to pull supporters onside for the transit funding debates. This is no time to completely redraw the map, or to trade off network segments for a single, more expensive option. The short term goal may be to win support for Scarborough votes with a promised subway, but the long term view demands an outlook for all of Scarborough, for all of Toronto.

If Scarborough wants a subway, this should only be the beginning, not the end of its transit plans. Many other transit proposals will serve Scarborough directly or indirectly and they must not be forgotten.