Bad Transit Politics is a Toronto Tradition
The people of Scarborough deserve better than this.
The westbound Bloor-Danforth from Main Street station, at 9 a.m.-ish on a weekday, is filled with people of all stripes in a way I never experienced when I used to catch the subway at Bathurst—blue collar workers, newcomers to Canada, people for whom car ownership was not a choice they’ve ever had. Many of them are going to work—mechanics, Tim Horton’s employees, service workers. It is diverse in a way that lays bare the plain fact that one’s ability to engage with Toronto’s downtown real estate market is as much about race as it is about class. It is a subway ride that, having moved here from CityPlace, was eye-opening for me.
To function effectively, transit planning must always operate at least partly in the realm of heartlessness. Everybody deserves good transit, and everyone in a city benefits from a well-developed transit network, but hard choices must always be made in its pursuit.
The consequences of this are always human. People’s lives are shaped by those decisions. Some people will get to live a short walk away from a subway station, while others will need to battle it out on the bus. And, while transit planning often means soulless calculations, it is imperative that those politicians doing the calculations act like human beings. Politicians will need to identify and rear good ideas to fruition, all while selling tough decisions to people who may not like them. It requires the ability to make sure the assets and credits of good ideas square, while being able to step back from bad ones. It requires the ability to admit that ideas you may have thought were good can, in fact, turn out to be bad.
Which brings us to this: the Scarborough Subway Extension is a capital-B Bad idea. It is a wasteful, poorly planned, politically-loaded monument to Toronto’s apathy towards good transit planning. It is an idea so horrendous and cosmically awful that it will, I predict, poison anyone willing to hang their political career on its success. The raw numbers for this, made available in a new staff report released on Tuesday [PDF], are dumbfounding: the cost has risen to $3.35 billion, for a single subway station that will add an almost-laughable 2,300 riders per day. This transit plan, with nothing even approaching a veneer of suitability, has become Toronto’s toxic high school sweetheart, whose orbit it might escape once and for all if not for its addiction to the vanity of the relationship.
But most of all, it is a bad plan because the people who will suffer most for it are the people of Scarborough and East Toronto who were sold snake oil in a pretty package and told that only a subway would suffice. That 24 stops on two LRT lines could never do what one subway stop could. That only a subway was good enough for the forgotten folks of Toronto: “When they say this is too much to spend on a subway,” wrote Mayor John Tory in the Star last summer, “the inference seems to be that it’s too much to spend on this part of the city.”
That, of course, was never the inference. “The people of Scarborough deserve more, and better, although they’ll likely get even less,” wrote John Lorinc in Spacing. “Another generation will pass as we, alone among aspirational global cities, inch steadily backwards even as our leaders cheer and tell us that what they’ve achieved is ‘progress.’”
There is nothing wrong with advocating for transit dollars to be spent in Scarborough. (In fact, I would argue that it’s one of the better places to spend them.) Tory would like you to believe that this is a question of investing in Scarborough versus not doing so at all. When he says this, he is being plainly disingenuous: the opposition to the SSE has almost always come in the same breath as support for better, less expensive LRT projects. Those too are dead now, of course: the seven-stop LRT was cancelled last summer, while the 17-stop Eglinton East extension is now severely underfunded, and, despite Tory’s insistence that the plan is still a go, it seems like a long shot. Tory, in an exchange with transit activist Brenda Thompson, spoke about SmartTrack and the Eglinton East LRT as inevitabilities, despite the fact that SmartTrack is unfunded and there is only about $200 million left for the LRT. It’s hard to see a future where the Eglinton East LRT, the sweetener in the SSE deal, ever comes to fruition. It feels almost foolish, now, to ever have believed it would have in the first place. It was always going to shake out like this.
This is going to get worse before it gets any better. It seems a foregone conclusion at this point that Tory will double down on his subway extension message heading into the 2018 election season, and we surely haven’t seen the last of the cost increases—the report notes that costs could rise by as much as 50 per cent as the design moves toward completion. The province seems intent on standing by its support for the subway, for now at least. That too could change next year should the Wynne Liberals be relieved of their duties. With cost overruns potentially into the billions of dollars, where will the extra money come from? Will provincial and federal funding be able to make up that difference?
I don’t know the political leanings of most of the people I see on the early morning train, or what their opinion of the SSE is. I suspect that many of them would be happy with an express train from Scarborough Town Centre to Kennedy if it would shave some time off their commute. I suspect also that 24 LRT stops might’ve also made them quite happy. The most agreed-upon fact in all of this is that the people of Scarborough need better transit. The SRT is a rickety old thing that has served Scarborough well, but it won’t be able to keep up with the city’s growth much longer. Buses simply can’t pick up all of that slack, so expensive, ambitious projects are necessary. Nobody ever said that thinking about and exploring the idea of the SSE was a bad idea. But that’s not what’s going on here. What is going on is blind political commitment to an idea that, insofar as cost is concerned, is so bad that we don’t even know the full extent of how bad it really is.
This is your city, Toronto. Cherish it.