The road to Toronto’s transit woes

How did the city wind up here? One debacle at a time, writes Ivor Tossell

(J.P. Moczulski/Reuters)

Have you ever wondered why Toronto has a half-baked transit system? Well, you lucky people, here’s a learning opportunity: It happens like it happened today, one debacle at a time.

This afternoon, Toronto city councillors voted to build a subway extension to Scarborough Town Centre, but only on the strict condition that somebody else pays for half of it. Does this mean we’re getting a new subway? Who knows? What it means for sure is that we’ve bought ourselves six more months of arguing about a subway, and, if the past is any guide, years of delays to go with it.

And if, somehow, the money materializes and the plan goes through, then the city will still have scrapped a perfectly good, signed transit plan, raised taxes and put itself deep in hock for a project that doesn’t even crack the top-five list of transit improvements Toronto’s planners say it desperately needs. What’s more, it could lead to the cancellation of projects that are already underway, like the Sheppard LRT. For a few shining months, it looked like we were going to give rational planning a shot in this town. But no: It’s barbeque season, and the pork is on the grill.

Let’s recap: Toronto’s transit planners recognized many years ago that the Scarborough RT needed to be replaced. The thing is falling apart. Replacing it with a subway was long recognized as a crowd-pleasing possibility, but studies over the last decade have shown that it’s not a great fit for Scarborough. It would reduce the number of local stops, and the stops it would have could land giant subway-sized towers in quiet neighbourhoods that don’t want them. Rather than helping the community grow, it would be a billion-dollar people-tube, pneumatically whooshing commuters nonstop to Scarborough Town Centre.

The general sense was that the city could spend that money better, and besides, the LRT plan aligned with the progressive ideal that transit should be about building communities as well as pneumatic whooshing. So a plan was hatched in 2008 to replace the current set-up with a modern LRT, with newer, bigger trains, one that would run along the current route and could be expanded up into under-served neighbourhoods like Malvern. Former Toronto mayor David Miller convinced the province to pay for this, with no further hit to the city’s coffers.

But then came the turmoil of Rob Ford years, in which transit planning boiled down to regional grievance with a tunnel fetish. Suddenly, the parts of town that “needed” subways weren’t the ones with the ridership to warrant them, but the ones that felt sufficiently aggrieved to “deserve” them. And the parts of town that were originally set to receive an LRT line that would have been better than a subway on so many levels were told that this was somehow second-rate.

So it was a small miracle when councillors, led by TTC chair Karen Stintz, plucked Toronto’s transit plans from Ford’s grabby hands in early 2012, placing them safely out of reach on a high shelf. Consensus and compromise is a hard thing. Harder still is picking a plan and sticking to it. Yet Stintz looked like she’d pulled it off: Council even approved a signed, contractual master agreement for the Scarborough LRT (among other lines) with the province. It was inked. It was binding. It was real.

This is when Stintz and other councillors decided that what they really wanted was a Scarborough subway extension. Today, we finally confirmed our desire to change our order, having changed it twice already. This is bad enough when you do it at a restaurant. When you do it with a multi-billion dollar pact between three levels of government and 2.7 million baffled taxpayers, the odds get increasingly high that you’re never getting served. The TTC’s technocrats knew this when they filed their last report on the matter, which concluded that there are real upsides and downsides to both subway and LRT – but, please, they wrote, for the love of God, don’t delay everything by reopening this debate.

And of course, reopen the debate is exactly what Stintz et al just did. Cue the unintended consequences.

First, it quickly became clear that nobody knew what was going on with the money. We still don’t know how much it will cost – the TTC estimates $2.3 billion, but won’t be pinned down to a number within 30 per cent before it can study the damn thing – and we don’t know where the money is coming from, which introduces all manner of uncertainty.

For instance, square in the middle of yesterday’s debate, it emerged that the mayor might try transferring federal money earmarked for the Sheppard LRT. Now that the federal government is apparently on the hook for half of the costs, you can bet that we haven’t heard the last of this idea yet.

And if the other levels of government don’t pony up, and the plans fall through, what are we left with? More endless delays. You can’t turn government infrastructure projects, laden with approvals, contracts, and sub-contracts on a dime.

The provincial Liberals have been no help in this mess. The Minister of Transportation and the Premier, apparently reading from the world’s worst parenting textbook, have alternated between drawing lines in the sand and offering to negotiate.

And then there’s Rob Ford, the luckiest man in Toronto, who’s spent a year fulminating on the sidelines until council’s endless fumbling dropped the prize right back into his lap. Ford is so far out to lunch on this one that, under fire in council yesterday, he admitted that he didn’t even know where or how the LRT route he and Stintz want to scrap was supposed to run. That is literally the first thing a person should know about a gazillion-dollar project before taking that money and blowing it out a cannon. He did not know it.

So here we are, having gone from a plan that was locked in and paid for, to a plan that we don’t know how to pay for even if we cancel other projects and put ourselves deep in debt, which still might not get built, which the mayor doesn’t totally understand, which we don’t need in the first place because Scarborough was going to get brand-new, top-rate transit anyway. Hooray!

Toronto has a half-baked transit system because its expansion has forever been a matter of pork over planning. You can do as many clear-eyed ridership studies as you like, but shovels only hit the ground when it becomes politically expedient to lob a few billion dollars at a given end of town.

This isn’t about subways or LRTs. It’s about the importance of those rare politicians who, rather than treating transit plans as election platforms or legacy trophies, are willing to give the planning process a shred of respect, and treat the plans they sign with a sliver of conviction. When you endlessly change your mind on megaprojects, everything falls apart, and all we get is not what we need, but what’s politically opportune: Overbuilt subway extensions to Ikea in North York and patches of grass in Vaughan; underbuilt RTs in Scarborough; and unbuilt lines where they’re needed everywhere else.

The rest of us – downtowner and commuter alike – will be waiting as crammed-full trains pass us by at Yonge and Queen, while you lot get it together.

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