The Ford Family Subway Plan
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The Ford Family Subway Plan

Brother Doug has inherited Rob's transit plan right down to the letter, and now sells it as his own. Is it a plan Toronto should buy?

rob doug ford subway map

The Ford mayoralty is built on a few catch phrases and a simple prescription for public transit: Subways! Subways! Subways!

Not for Toronto, those pesky streetcars masquerading as “LRT.” Ford built a campaign around the idea that suburbs like Scarborough deserved the same sort of high-capacity transit already enjoyed downtown—and, equally importantly, that roads were for cars, not for transit corridors.

While Rob Ford was still a mayoral candidate, his subway plan appeared on September 3, 2014. Less than two weeks later, brother Doug took his spot on the ticket and, with it, that subway plan: they have the same name, the same (originally misspelled) map, and the same content, right down to the use of “I” as the author of past achievements, even in the Doug Ford version. (Compare: Rob [PDF] and Doug [PDF].)

What, exactly, do the Fords propose for Toronto’s transit network?

The Ford plan contains only subway lines, with the full build-out over two phases and an unspecified timeframe. There are no LRT lines, nary a reference to better bus service, and GO Transit is conspicuously absent from the network.

As a map, the network is impressive for its coverage: certainly it’s more extensive than the subway scheme Rob Ford proposed to replace David Miller’s Transit City LRT plans. But there are big problems. Is this network practical? Is it affordable? What does it do for the spaces “in between”—the neighbourhoods that won’t see new subways at least until Phase 2, if ever?

Does The Network Make Sense?

Ford’s proposed extension of the Sheppard subway, from Don Mills to McCowan.

Ford proposes subways on Eglinton East, Sheppard East, and Finch West. Building these would require Toronto to accept that transit and road networks should be completely separated—transit can’t even be next to traffic lanes, but only under them—regardless of the financial impact this would have on the City’s capital and operating budgets. That is an oddly profligate attitude for a family noted for its parsimony with public spending. Capital expenses may come out of thin air (more about that later), but operating a subway where ridership does not generate substantial revenue—and these subways would not—can only lead to higher costs for the municipal government, or operating cutbacks elsewhere. Toronto already faces an operating deficit with the Vaughan subway extension, and a much larger network of subways will only worsen the problem.

A common question for any transit proposal is, “Where will the riders come from?” Part of Ford’s funding scheme includes taxes from new development spurred by his subways. However, that development depends on new construction in the immediate vicinity of stations, not along whole routes; if the Scarborough subway is any indication, there will be long gaps where would-be riders would have to hop on infrequent surface buses. What Ford’s plan does not tell voters is the kind of city we’d need to build to support his plan—just how much we would need to increase development in order to produce that new tax income. And “higher density” is a phrase many voters dislike almost as much as “higher taxes.”

Ford also wants to replace the planned Finch LRT with a subway, from Keele to Humber College.

The network looks complete, with symmetry north, south, east, and west—it’s almost a “chicken in every pot” map. Subways for all and sundry. However, if those dotted lines of “Phase 2” languish well into the next decade, or never get built, the network is little more than the 2010 Rob Ford subway plan, with one notable exception: Doug Ford makes common cause with Olivia Chow, of all candidates, by including the Downtown Relief Line (DRL) on the map. He goes one better than Chow by showing a more extensive version of the line: the Ford map includes the entire Dundas West to Don Mills route in his Phase 2 network. For Ford, the DRL has suddenly become a top priority alongside the Scarborough subway.

Only a year ago, brother Rob Ford dismissed the DRL, saying that folks downtown “have enough subways already.”

After waging war on downtown for four years, the Fords have little credibility on this file. Far more likely, they see the DRL as a way to counteract John Tory’s SmartTrack plan and steal a march on Olivia Chow, all the while knowing that the only short term cost they’d be on the hook for would be for engineering studies.

What Will This Cost?

The Ford plan includes cost estimates for the Phase 1 projects (although no base year is shown for pricing and it is unclear whether these would be “as built” with inflation). We’ve included the estimated final costs of the Spadina extension to Vaughan and the Danforth extension to Sheppard in the table below, for the sake of comparison.

Route Length (km) Cost ($m) Cost/km ($m)
Sheppard subway extension 7.4 $1,800 $243
DRL: Osgoode to Pape segment 5.5 $3,200 $582
Burying eastern leg of Eglinton LRT 8.2 $1,400 $171
Finch subway 11.0 $2,600 $236
Total Ford Plan: Phase 1 32.1 $9,000 $280
Spadina Extension: Downsview to Vaughan (Project Budget) 8.6 $2,600 $302
Danforth Extension: Kennedy to Sheppard (2010$) 7.6 $2,500 $329

The Eglinton, Sheppard, and Finch estimates are below current subway construction costs, and are credible only as the marginal costs of moving these lines underground—the math only begins to work if you add, on top of Ford’s numbers, the original budget allocation for constructing those routes as LRT.

Ford cites many potential funding sources, but without dollar values for most of them. Broadly speaking, these fall into three categories.

Baseline revenue growth: Future assessment growth, development charges, and sales of public lands not affected by new subways. This is revenue that the city would normally count on for the service increases needed for a rising population, or to fund capital programs such as road repairs. Dedicating these funds to subway construction will create a holes in other budgets that must be filled either by cutbacks or new money from other sources.

Revenue due to construction of new lines: Air rights over subway stations, increased development charges and property taxes from new developments, and increased value of public property on subway routes.

Provincial and federal subsidies: Ford counts the $2 billion in provincial and federal commitments to the Finch and LRT lines as part of his funding scheme. Double-counting this money both as a reduction in project costs and as available revenue misrepresents the true cost of the proposals. As for additional contributions, both governments have already announced the size of their transit and infrastructure funding programs and Toronto is unlikely to see additional funds sent our way.

Ford also suggests that the magic of public-private partnerships (“P3s”) will bring financial assistance and better control over project costs. P3s aren’t a source of funding (they don’t pay for anything) but of financing (they provide a mechanism for the City to get money from the private sector to cover construction costs—which it then needs to pay back later.) This is borrowing by another name, and the money must be found to actually pay for construction just as if Toronto floated subway bonds.

Many of these revenue streams would not produce income until well after the subways are built. Toronto would have to finance the capital projects until the new revenues actually materialized, if they ever did. By contrast, tools such as the Scarborough subway property tax or a provincial sales tax increase would bring in cash long before construction finishes, reducing future debt and risk. Financing costs are not part of Ford’s discussion and their effect on future city budgets will be substantial.

Yes, Toronto can afford a subway plan—but only by grabbing every penny of future revenue, hoping that development will quickly follow the new lines, and that both Ottawa and Queen’s Park will embrace a higher, sustained level of generosity.

The Spaces Between the Subways

Impressive though the plan appears, Phase 1 could not be completed until well into the 2020s, and Phase 2 would follow much later. Riders in many parts of Toronto will continue to rely on existing rapid transit and surface routes. What would Doug Ford do for them?

Ford talks of improving transit and his website lists specific examples of what has been done already: “Invested $500 million in key TTC infrastructure, like upgrading signal systems and track maintenance, to improve TTC reliability and service.”

However, these are subway projects, and the signal work—a project begun well before Rob Ford was mayor—won’t actually be finished until 2019, and then only on the Yonge-University-Spadina line. The TTC’s 2014-2023 capital budget includes cutbacks in track maintenance for both the subway and surface networks as a way to offset funding shortfalls. As for surface routes, the Ford administration was responsible for reduction in service quality on bus routes, and the deferral of capital projects to expand the bus fleet.

TTC capital programs remain hampered by Ford’s attempts to cap property tax growth, which in turn affects the City’s borrowing limits. The Scarborough subway tax is an important, but project-specific, exception. Doug Ford has no proposal to fund improvements elsewhere in the network. If anything, he seeks to further strip revenues such as the land transfer tax from the City’s budget.

In August 2014 TTC management proposed several changes to its service levels, including a partial rollback of Ford-era cutbacks and service improvements on major routes. They also proposed a new fare regime—most importantly the replacement of transfers by a standard two-hour fare. Rob Ford supported some of the proposals, but opposed the new fares and associated proof-of-payment (POP) operation because this would require extra staff to serve as fare inspectors. Doug Ford’s platform is silent on these issues, but if his brother’s reaction is any indication, any move to increase TTC spending will be either rejected outright, or met with a demand for offsetting savings elsewhere.

Does Ford Have a Credible Platform?

Overwhelmingly, Doug Ford’s transit platform is about subways and the benefits of moving people underground. In a clear case of subway envy, he compares maps of Toronto with New York, London, and Tokyo, but conveniently forgets that decades ago these were huge cities with a market for rapid transit, while Toronto was still operating horse-drawn streetcars serving a fraction of their population. Those networks arose from the scale and histories of older, denser, larger cities—something that would be very difficult and expensive to duplicate today. Toronto certainly should have a more extensive transit system, but a subway line under every main street is an unattainable, unreasonable goal whose pursuit only distracts us from what we can and should achieve.

Like John Tory’s SmartTrack scheme, Ford’s plan ignores the very real needs of the bus and streetcar routes, an essential part of Toronto’s network that carries over half of all riders, and will continue to do so for decades to come.

By pillaging every available revenue stream to fund subway construction, Ford gives the illusion that money to build his lines is just sitting on the table when, in fact, his financial plans are little more than a shell game. His overarching agenda is to reduce, not to increase, public spending wherever he can. The effect of such a transit policy is visible to anyone who rides the TTC.