Toronto’s Lost Transit Dreams

Generations of plans and projects have disappeared down political black holes. (Illustration by Eric McMillan)

It’s enough to make you want to buy a car.

As city council debates whether to put Light Rail Transit on Sheppard Avenue or extend the current subway line, and Queen’s Park ponders when council will make up its mind, Torontonians have been left wondering when — or if — anything will actually get built.

Now industry spokespeople are saying it’s time to take the politics out of planning.

Some, such as executive director of the Residential & Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario Andy Manahan, believe the political wrangling at city hall and Queen’s Park has resulted in transit-building gridlock in this city.

“By its very nature, transportation planning and delivery is always going to be political,” he said. “I guess the question is how do you take some of the politics out of the process?”

One only needs to look at a long list of dubious transit projects in Toronto to see that decisions regarding transit infrastructure are not always based on sound public policy.

According to a March 2011 TTC report, the Sheppard subway, now at the core of a seesaw debate over its extension, was expected to carry 15,400 riders per hour in one direction at its peak time. Employment around the North York Centre was supposed to catapult from 29,400 in 1986 to 93,400 in 2011.

Those numbers never panned out. In 2011 the Sheppard subway line carried just 4,500 people per hour per direction, while subways are warranted at a demand of 15,000 or greater. Employment in the area grew by only 800 jobs over two decades, rather than by the projected 64,000.

Wildly optimistic

Transit activist Steve Munro says it’s very possible the numbers in the TTC’s Network 2011 plan were “wildly optimistic” for political reasons.

“I can be kind and just say it was simply the enthusiasm of the day for the growth that would come in the suburbs,” he said. “But in retrospect … you’ve got to ask whether the development projections for North York and Scarborough were just simply not credible, and were numbers that were put there more for political reasons than for planning reasons.”

According to Munro, the real reason was a little bit of political back scratching. When Mike Harris was elected premier in 1995, the Eglinton West subway line was scrapped as part of the Common Sense Revolution. Construction had already started on both the Sheppard and Eglinton subways, but Munro contends the Sheppard line was retained because it was a priority for then-North York mayor Mel Lastman.

“Harris wanted to kill the whole thing, but he needed Mel Lastman in his corner for amalgamation,” Munro said. “ So there was a deal, that Mel would support amalgamation in return for Mike Harris not killing his subway, and that’s how we got the Sheppard subway.”

The Eglinton West line (now slated to be constructed as Light Rail Transit) was deemed a non-priority, despite consulting, environmental assessments and construction having gone ahead since 1988.

Millions of dollars buried

Eglinton-Lawrence MPP Mike Colle was chair of the TTC from 1992 to 1994. He said he was “mortified” to see the project scrapped when he was elected to the legislature in 1995 as a member of the opposition Liberal party.

“It was seven years of work and over $160 million worth of money all basically buried,” he said. “I call it (Canada’s) biggest mistake in transit history.”

Colle says that at the time, they were looking at $800 million for the entire line. Depending on whom you ask, the current estimated cost for the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown is $6 to 8 billion.

However, the Crosstown also includes the replacement of the Scarborough Rapid Transit line and will go to Kennedy Station and connect to Scarborough Town Centre.

To some, the Scarborough Rapid Transit line is another example of politics trumping planning in Toronto. In the 1980s, the Ontario Crown-owned Urban Transportation Development Corporation wanted somewhere to showcase its Intermediate Capacity Transit System in order to sell the technology to Vancouver in time for its 1986 Expo Fair. They convinced the TTC to adopt the technology by paying a large portion of its costs.

“It was a prototype the Government of Ontario wanted to export around the world and it just didn’t work out very well,” said Manahan.

Today the technology has been deemed too expensive to replace and is being converted to Light Rail Transit, which was the technology the TTC originally wanted to use for the Scarborough line before being convinced otherwise.

“We have a bad history in Toronto of provincial meddling in transit technology,” Munro said. “The Scarborough RT is a particular example of it.”

Similar to Eglinton West, the downtown relief line is another example of a Toronto transit project that was proposed in the 1980s and is now being revisited — more than 20 years later.

So why is it that Toronto has a pattern of coming up with grand transit projects that never see the light of day?

One issue is that no one can make up their minds what mode of transit is best for the city, says Colle.

“Transit projects are notorious for having differences of opinions,” he said. “You talk to 10 transit experts, they have 20 different solutions.”

That makes it difficult to come to a decision for all parties — the city, TTC, the province, and its regional transit agency Metrolinx — to agree on.

Another issue is politicians in power can change every four years, and any transit project almost certainly takes longer than that. This allows a new mayor like Rob Ford to arbitrarily cancel a project like Transit City.

“Because of the four year electoral cycle, we have been whipsawed from time to time,” Manahan acknowledged.

A step in the right direction, he said, is to give Metrolinx more teeth, so they could mandate where provincial money goes.

“If Metrolinx had control over the funding, they would have a greater level of determination over how that money was spent, and then you wouldn’t get into some of those local political issues that we’re seeing right now.”

Under the current model, there is no clear funding formula. Queen’s Park can earmark funds for transit, but it’s up to city council to determine which transit projects to implement.

Munro says the idea of giving Metrolinx more oversight is wishful thinking.  “It’s a lovely idea and I’m sure there’s some alternate universe with birds singing and flowering trees where you can create an agency with those kind of powers. The problem is, there is nothing to prevent a change of government from completely changing the mandate and the scope of work in which an agency like Metrolinx operates.”

Like kids with money

Ward 11 councillor Frances Nunziata believes the project should be totally handed over to the province.

“Since they’re paying 100 percent of it, they should make the final decision,” she said.

She said city council has demonstrated that they can’t be trusted with tax dollars by deciding to build Light Rail Transit rather than the mayor’s mandate of subways.

“It’s like giving money to kids,” she said. “If you don’t tell them what to spend it on, they’ll spend it on anything.”

“What people want to see is something happening and they’re getting very frustrated with the politics we have at city hall,” she added.

One of those frustrated people is Kurt Christensen, who served as a Scarborough councillor from 1982 to 1988.

He also says Metrolinx should take over becaus, in his opinion, the TTC is more concerned about its union than about its riders.

“It’s all about jobs,” he said. “Karen Stintz and her people, it’s all about jockeying against the mayor for the next election … It’s all political.”

He believes the TTC should only operate the system because “everything they touch is a disaster”, referencing the St. Clair right of way as an example.

The St. Clair streetcar is frequently referred to as a disaster by the mayor due to its time and budget overruns that hurt local businesses. Originally budgeted at $48 million, the project swelled to well over $100 million.

But Munro said it’s not fair to blame the TTC for the failure in planning.

“These days, you can basically go into any public meeting and stand in the corner and whisper the words “St. Clair” and its code for all the things that are alleged to be wrong with the TTC,” he said. “The actual fact is, the TTC part of the St. Clair project was built on budget. It wasn’t built on time.”

The project ran into complications due to municipal additions to the project such as burying hydro lines, unforeseen water work, road paving, design changes and a court injunction by a public interest group that stalled construction.

To Colle, the issue isn’t the political favours or lack of coordination between various levels of government and their arms-length agencies.

He says it comes down to the dollars. “The underlying problem that nobody brings up, it’s like the elephant in the room, is that we are the only country in the civilized world that doesn’t have a federal government that is a full-time partner in transit.”

He noted that everyone supports subways, but when asked if they’ll support road tolls, congestion or parking fees to pay for them, they say no.

“Everyone wants transit, but they don’t want to pay for it.… You’ve got to remember, we’re in a city where people threw away a transit plan for $60,” Colle said, in reference to the vehicle registration tax.

He believes that’s why Toronto has only three subway lines while Madrid, Spain, which is slightly smaller in area but about 700,000 larger in population, has 28.

And if we really want to get transit building on track in Toronto, the former TTC chair says it’s time for the federal government to get on board.

“The province and city can’t do it alone unless you give the right to have other funding tools and the public doesn’t want that,” he said. “We’re a transit wasteland because people don’t want to admit that there has to be a way of funding. And it’s going to cost billions.”


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