Crunching the Numbers on SmartTrack's Ridership
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Crunching the Numbers on SmartTrack’s Ridership

Other potential transit lines can get better value for money and serve more riders.

Screenshot from the special Executive Committee meeting on November 1, 2016.

Screenshot from the special Executive Committee meeting on November 1, 2016.

I attended the special Executive Committee meeting last Tuesday, where the mayor and his allies discussed the Transit Network Plan Update and Financial Strategy with billions of dollars of implications for Toronto’s transit future. The report recommends approval of final intergovernmental negotiations, advancing SmartTrack planning, and—crucially—establishing a financing strategy to pay for it.

It was interesting to see the enthusiasm and pride of Executive Committee members as they praised the mayor and patted themselves on the back for “doing something.” There has been lots of talk, several of them said, but no action. It’s time to build, they cheered.

Approval to endorse the report’s recommendations to City Council was unanimous.

As they spoke, I like to imagine that workers on the Union Station renovation, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT (19 kilometres), and the Spadina subway extension (8.6 kilometres) laughed and poked each other to see if they were real, visible people. There’s a lot of transit infrastructure construction underway in this city, and at least two other projects are funded and in progress (the Finch West LRT and the Scarborough Subway Extension).

But what was even more interesting about the Executive Committee’s oblivious desire to build was their apparent lack of interest in the details of what they were building. There were no questions about ridership, or impact, or efficiency of dollars spent.

This is worrisome.

There was no sense that the City had a limited amount of funds, such that one project could possibly delay or entirely displace another. Questions about the priority of the Relief Line were mocked by the mayor himself. To back up his claims, he asked the poor chief planner if we could be working any harder or faster on the Relief Line. No, she said.

The reality is that, even with funding from the federal and provincial governments, there is a limit to how much capital the City has or can borrow to build major infrastructure like transit. Pushing ahead with SmartTrack will necessarily have a negative effect on the progress of other projects, because we don’t even know how we’re going to come up with the City’s $2.23 billion (as of now) share of SmartTrack—or where the funds will come from to cover its operation.

So the question of “what are we getting for this $2.23-billion investment?” is an important one. But nobody was asking.

I wanted to know how it compared to the Relief Line, so I went looking for ridership numbers in the business cases on these projects that were given to Council in June 2016.

Determining SmartTrack ridership numbers is difficult, because the business case inexplicably calculated them in terms of annual figures, instead of the usual daily or peak-a.m. numbers. Annual figures are usually calculated by counting daily ridership of existing lines and then multiplying by 300 or 305. So I reversed the math to get comparable figures, using 300 to give SmartTrack its best case.

The business case projected 2.5 million riders from the SmartTrack stations, over and above the forecast for the Kitchener and Stouffville RER lines as a whole. If we divide that by 300, the projected daily ridership for the SmartTrack stations is 8,333.

The City did its own forecast (it’s an appendix in the business case) based on SmartTrack riders being able to travel paying TTC fares. For example, $2.90 for a TTC token, instead of a $5.65 GO train fare from Kennedy to Union station. Based on this highly unlikely arrangement, the City projects about 8 million riders, or 26,666 per day.

Is that starting to look more impressive? It shouldn’t.

The Relief Line is forecast to carry (depending on the route) 165,000–177,000 daily. That’s more than six times the dreaming-in-technicolour scenario for SmartTrack and more than 20 times the more realistic forecast from Metrolinx.

And that’s just for the first stage of the Relief Line south of Danforth. When it is extended north to Sheppard, it is forecast to carry over 300,000 riders per day, with about 100,000 in the peak a.m. period.

Yes, the Relief Line costs more. But not 20 times more. The Relief Line is more cost effective, as well as more urgent.

The Relief Line also pays us back in helping to keep the riders who are already starting to abandon the TTC because the trains are full at Eglinton and Pape stations in the morning. And it pays us back big-time by relieving us of the need to renovate Bloor-Yonge station to accommodate the crowds there—that’s worth at least $1 billion.

Keep in mind, too, that Metrolinx’s existing RER plan includes improving service to the 11 stations that already exist in the City of Toronto. Toronto riders will benefit from RER, even without the SmartTrack stations.

And has anyone asked our commuting neighbours what they think of slowing their journeys to Union Station by as much as 35 per cent by adding additional stations in Toronto?

The Transit Network Plan the Executive Committee is sending to Council this week also includes extending the Eglinton Crosstown farther west to the airport, which is actually in Mississauga. The Crosstown West isn’t in the Initial Business Case for SmartTrack given to Council in June. Its details can be found in a feasibility study from the chief planner in January and the updated planners’ public presentation in June.

The Environmental Assessment for the Crosstown West was approved in 2009, as part of the Crosstown project, before John Tory was mayor—indeed, before Rob Ford. The feasibility study forecast over 100,000 daily riders, but that was reduced to 60–70,000 by June’s public presentation. It’s still a healthy number, and a good investment, even though the cost of the Crosstown West strangely went from $1.3 billion in January and June to $2.47 billion in November’s Transit Network Plan.

Mississauga isn’t interested in funding part of Toronto’s LRT to the airport (why would they?), so Toronto’s contribution of $1.18 billion might actually be more like $1.65 billion. But we don’t actually know yet. And there are a lot of additional costs still not included in that figure.

The federal government’s contributions of $823 million for Crosstown West and $417 million for six SmartTrack stations are also assumed, not secured. We also don’t know what the financing costs will be, which will add to the total.

To say we don’t have all our ducks in a row on SmartTrack is an understatement. We are still in back-of-the-napkin territory, especially when it comes to what the costs are and how the City will pay them.

And let me just add here that tax increment financing was never, ever, ever going to cover the cost of SmartTrack. TIF is a gamble only an addict could love.

The chief planner advised the Executive Committee that the justification for the extension to the airport is the airport itself, not the areas in between. There is no expectation of, or business case for, ridership or development or increased residential density in those neighbourhoods.

So why not reduce the number of stops? That would mean both lower construction costs and faster service to the airport. Metrolinx suggested in February that no more than eight (instead of 14) stops before the airport would balance access and speed, and that three stops could get the best speed (and thus, ridership). These options were in the planners’ public presentation in June, too.

This kind of thing didn’t come up at Executive Committee because none of its members were talking about the specifics of what was being built.

When the mayor’s office leads transit planning, there is too much emphasis on the show of building and on SmartTrack in particular. SmartTrack isn’t the worst transit idea ever proposed for Toronto, but it is much weaker than the priority projects already identified by the TTC and city planners. It is not, sad to say, about getting value for every one, or every billion, of the taxpayer dollars the City spends.

There is, however, an excellent case for the Relief Line.

There’s a very good case for the Crosstown West LRT to the airport and an even stronger case for three to eight stops instead of the 14 currently planned.

There’s a weak case for SmartTrack stations on the Kitchener and Stouffville RER lines. It makes me wonder if it has been merged with the Crosstown West plan in the Transit Network Plan to make it look more credible.

To get the Relief Line up and running by 2031, we have to secure its funding now. If we can’t even find $2.23 billion for SmartTrack and the Crosstown West, where is the $7.8 billion for the Relief Line funding going to come from?

Let’s not pretend the City’s money comes from a bottomless well and that SmartTrack won’t cannibalize better and more urgent projects. We need to look at the details. If we need all of it, let’s set out a funding plan for all of it. Now.

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