It has political support, but it's still an unfunded plan with billions in questionable assumptions.
After Executive Committee unanimously approved the recommendations in the key transit report released earlier this week, the item will go to City Council for debate next week. If it passes there as well, does that mean SmartTrack is a done deal? No. This is just the first step in a long process, and through the so-called “stage-gating” structure, the City will have many opportunities to reconsider. Here’s a few reasons why John Tory should watch out for further complications.
1. Mississauga and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) Might Not Fund the Plan
In the beginning, SmartTrack was pitched as a separate train line—not GO Transit, or LRT. The original proposal connected the airport corporate centre to the western end of the Eglinton Crosstown, then swoop southwards towards Liberty Village.
Metrolinx is picking up (most of) the bill for building the Eglinton Crosstown. But if Toronto wants to call the western extension SmartTrack, that means we are responsible for the capital costs.
Wait, you might say. Isn’t the airport actually in Mississauga? Will Mississauga and the GTAA have to help pay, too?
Well, staff assume that they will help foot the bill:
But that’s by no means a given. Mississauga city councillors are a little miffed. Mayor Bonnie Crombie is waiting for a concrete proposal, and the GTAA approves in principle but isn’t talking hard numbers. Without their contributions, and money from the federal government—that’s $1.7 billion in assumptions—the LRT portion of SmartTrack would probably not be feasible.
2. Subways, Subways, Subways
Another threat to this part of SmartTrack comes from inside the house: Toronto City Council’s own anti-LRT crowd. During the Executive Committee meeting, reliable Tory ally John Campbell (Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre) aired his doubts on Twitter:
Attending Exec Mtg on transit. No good business case can be made for Eglinton West LRT; low popl’n, few develop’mt prospects, min employmt
— John F Campbell (@Campbell4Ward4) November 1, 2016
For a good number of councillors who have spent years arguing that light rail is an objectively inferior mode of transit, approving a Crosstown extension would be counter-intuitive, to say the least. (Particularly for Etobicoke councillors who periodically try to revive an old plan to extend Line 2 to Sherway Gardens.)
At first glance, dissension among the mayor’s allies may seem like a bad sign. But nixing what is now the most expensive part of SmartTrack may actually help Tory: what’s left of SmartTrack would be much easier to fund.
3. Provincial Election
At the moment, the City and the Province are on pretty good terms with each other. The Liberal government, however, is mired in scandal (again). It’s quite possible that in the next 10 years or so Toronto politicians might find themselves negotiating with, say, Patrick Brown instead of Kathleen Wynne.
Mike Harris’s Conservatives infamously filled in a nascent Eglinton West subway line. Could it happen again? How late is too late to cancel a transit project? We might get to find out!
Major transit infrastructure doesn’t just appear out of nowhere (unless you’re in Night Vale). It involves construction, detours, noise, dirt, and often expropriating land. This has come as a surprise to many Torontonians who liked the idea of new transit—in theory. But actually following through? That’s messy. In Scarborough, for example, after constituent complaints, Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre) and MPP Brad Duguid now want an alternative route for the new subway they vociferously championed.
SmartTrack’s original 13 new stations have been whittled down to six, which means much less disruption. But even one residents’ group, if it’s tenacious, moneyed, and politically useful enough, can have enough sway to force City planners back to the drawing board. Concerned citizens objecting to new development aren’t necessarily a bad thing, and responding to local residents’ needs will always be an integral part of transit planning. But if their elected representatives are more invested in stoking outrage than negotiating solutions, they may wind up incurring cost overruns and increasing delays. And nobody likes those, either.
Why It’ll Probably Still Work Out Anyway
Despite all these worst-case scenarios (not to mention that it’s not, you know, funded yet, and that financing costs aren’t included), it’s still far too early to write off SmartTrack. Yes, there will be snags and cost overruns and delays and political wrangling. It may look as different from today’s plan as today’s is from the 2014 version. It may end up like the UP Express or the Sheppard line—a handful of pristine, mostly underused stations that operate at a loss forever and add additional difficulties to the TTC’s operating budget. Maybe there can be some specially branded express shuttle buses to Mississauga.
But at the end of the day, it has political support, it will probably still be called SmartTrack, and that’s what really matters.