How Not to Announce a Subway
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How Not to Announce a Subway

The many missteps that got us to the current two-stop subway mess.

Transportation Minister Glen Murray at an event in May, 2013  Photo by  from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Transportation Minister Glen Murray at an event in May, 2013. Photo by BruceK from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Ontario Transportation Minister Glen Murray’s announcement that Scarborough will be getting a two-stop subway continues a long history of ham-fisted provincial interference in Toronto’s transit plans.

It did not need to be this way.

In July, an unexpected coalition of Toronto councillors approved a longer subway along a different route for Scarborough; it would have extended the Bloor-Danforth subway extension east and north from Kennedy Station to Sheppard and McCowan. That decision included many conditions to limit the city’s financial exposure and to prevent budgetary raids on other long-proposed rapid transit projects. Councillors hoped for a provincial contribution of $1.8 billion that Queen’s Park had rejected even before the vote, but left the door open to crafting a funding scheme for the subway. Meanwhile, $1.4 billion appeared to be available as Ontario’s share of whatever scheme council eventually chose.

The summer brought a provincial by-election with would-be MPPs tripping over each other to endorse a subway for Scarborough. The Liberal candidate, Mitzie Hunter, ran as a “subway champion” despite her previous support for light rapid transit (LRT) in the context of the Metrolinx “Big Move” network. The Liberals won, and that win committed Queen’s Park to building a subway.

With his announcement of a different, shorter subway, Murray pre-empted any discussion Toronto council might have on the LRT vs subway issue at its October meeting. (They had set a September 30 deadline for the other levels of government to announce whether they’d be contributing funding to the subway.) In a feisty mood, the minister attacked both Toronto and Ottawa for failing to bring any transit money to the table, and declared that Ontario would act unilaterally to build a subway line along the existing Scarborough RT corridor from Kennedy to the Scarborough Town Centre. That $1.4 billion would no longer available as part of whatever funding council might propose for their own subway plan.

We have made the decision that we are building along the alignment to the Scarborough Town Centre, and this is not a decision we will revisit.

—Glen Murray, via his spokesperson

Murray’s claim that Toronto has no money on the table does not square with council’s July commitment to a property tax increase to help pay for a Scarborough subway—although the amount of that increase was based on the provincial and federal government contributing more to the project than they are willing. As for Ottawa, the complaint might be more valid if they make no commitment in time for the October council debate, but in early September, Murray can only pout that the Tories won’t answer his phone calls.

News of this decision only recently reached Mayor Ford, TTC Chair Karen Stintz, and others at the municipal level, and nobody from the City attended Murray’s announcement. Equally telling was the absence of anyone from Metrolinx, the Ontario agency nominally responsible for planning the regional transit network.

(Regional planning did get a nod with a scheme to bring Durham Transit’s “Pulse” system into Scarborough via a Bus Rapid Transit link serving the U of T’s Scarborough campus and Centennial College.)

scarborough transit options competing

Lurking behind the scenes was the ghost of the original plan for Scarborough transit, an LRT route that would have been 3.5 kilometres longer than the province’s subway, and would have included seven or eight stations instead of the two we’re now getting. That plan—fully funded and with initial design work already complete—had until recently been the plan, the one that had been signed off on by both the City and the province. That route would have followed the path of the current RT, and extended east and north to Centennial College and up to Sheppard, linking up with the already-approved Sheppard LRT.

Implicitly responding to that light rail plan, and the proponents who still think it’s the best choice for Scarborough residents, Murray said “The majority of people who attend UTSC and Centennial come from the east, and this is why we are expanding the Durham Pulse service to come all the way to STC. This is only one part of a comprehensive plan dedicated to meeting the needs of Scarborough residents and students.” Students who can use DRT’s Pulse to reach their schools may rejoice, but there is no word on how residents in other parts of Scarborough with different travel demands will be served. Today, that “comprehensive plan” is little more than words in a press release.

The proposed subway map includes only two stations—Lawrence East and Scarborough Town Centre—although Murray has been quick to say that other locations would be considered. (After lambasting the municipal and federal governments for failing to contribute money to this project, Murray said that if they did change their minds and come to the table with cash, that funding could be used to extend the subway further.) Why were optional stations not included in his announcement?

Glen Murray’s plan joins a parade of half-baked schemes for Scarborough transit, and complicates the debate with all-or-nothing posturing by the province. Instead of a transit network, Toronto sees yet another project-based announcement. Murray backed away from this in a CBC Metro Morning interview, when he talked about the continued importance of the Sheppard LRT and the Downtown Relief Line, but the out-of-context subway plan and a combative attitude to other governments were the big initial messages.

The real debate over transit funding and construction will come with municipal and provincial elections in 2014. Which view will prevail for Toronto and southern Ontario transit remains to be seen, but Toronto needs more than a quick play for attention by the transportation minister.

Imagine what an integrated plan for Murray’s subway extension might have looked like if it included:

  • Accelerated construction of the Sheppard LRT (a line that in the original Transit City plan would have opened in late 2012);
  • Linking Malvern, Scarborough Town Centre, and UofT SCarborough with the planned LRT;
  • Improving GO service in Scarborough, and addressing the high GO fares that discourage riders inside Toronto from using that network;
  • Bringing riders into Scarborough not just west from Durham, but south from Markham;
  • Talking about the wider expansion of Toronto’s LRT network.

That’s a plan that could inspire and show leadership, not cheap political theatre and the divisive strategies too commonly seen in Mayor Ford’s approach to transit issues. Glen Murray may have his dime ready to contribute to a Scarborough subway, but he forgets how many dollars Queen’s Park has promised but never spent as project completion dates recede into the future.