Toronto's Major Transit Ambitions Set Back by Fiscal Reality

» Ontario Premier directs regional transit agency to cut capital spending significantly over the next five years.

It was supposed to be one of North America’s largest public transportation projects, with eight light rail lines criss-crossing this dense city. Yet Toronto’s Transit City plan, endorsed with billions of dollars in local and provincial aid as recently as last year, may have suffered an insurmountable loss last week.

Reacting to a gloomy economy and a depressing fiscal outlook, Ontario Province Premier Dalton McGuinty informed regional transportation officials at Metrolinx that they would have to find $4 billion in planned construction savings over the next five years to help ensure that the Ontario budget stays in line with anticipated revenues. This announcement puts most of Toronto Mayor David Miller’s hallmark Transit City program in jeopardy and opens the city’s transportation future to further reexamination.

The lines currently under construction, including the Sheppard Avenue light rail line and the Spadina Subway Extension, are expected to be spared but plans for the other lines may fade away.

The Premier’s decision puts an unexpected wrench in a vision that in recent years has come to define popular thinking about Toronto’s transit future, and it follows years of something close to unity on thinking about transportation between the Liberal Premier and the NDP Mayor. Indeed, after proposing the $6 billion, 120 km Transit City system to general skepticism in 2007, Mr. Miller eventually received clear financial support from Mr. McGuinty, who pledged billions in 2009 as part of his own broader $17.5 billion Move Ontario project.

Previous plans for transit in the greater Toronto region, some of which reached the construction stages in the early 1990s, had been shut down by conservative administrations at the Provincial level, leaving for completion only the 3.4-mile Sheppard “stubway” line, which opened in 2002. Most of the Transit City projects have long been on the planning books (though previously as subways). Improving transit in the metropolitan area is largely seen as a priority program for the center-left Liberals and the left-wing NDP.

The provincial administration’s direction to Metrolinx (which is managing implementation) to find projects to put on the cutting board likely means no construction in the next five years for the Finch, Eglinton, and Scarborough light rail schemes, all previously supported by Mr. McGuinty. The Scarborough RT, which would be replaced and lengthened by a new light rail line, is said to be at the end of its useful working life and at capacity.

Other proposed lines, including light rail along Jane Street, Don Mills Road, the Western Waterfront, and the Scarborough-Malvern corridor, are likely to be put off indefinitely. Funds originally intended for the expansion of VIVA bus rapid transit in the York region north of Toronto are on the cutting block.

The entire network of lines was originally designated for opening by 2020, with concurrent construction. Now each corridor will be built consecutively, if at all.

While Mayor Miller has decried the sudden cuts to his proposal, several of the candidates hoping to succeed him at city hall have argued that the delay in line construction will ensure a more successful completion of the projects. One notable exception is candidate Joe Pantalone, a counselor who has been an ally of Mr. Miller in the municipal administration and who has been a major supporter of Transit City throughout its development.

This is of particular concern because of the negative reputation the city’s TTC transit agency has recently developed for itself and because of the repeated failures of the organization in its work in upgrading the St. Clair streetcar line. That delayed, over-budget corridor has promoted the impression that street-running light rail is too intrusive and that the lines should be constructed as (very expensive) subways.

But the lack of unambiguous support for the transit program from most of the candidates suggests a more pernicious perspective. In January, candidate Rocco Rossi argued for a delay in the construction of most of the proposed light rail lines, claiming that they’re not fiscally responsible; he repeated that contention after learning of Mr. McGuinty’s budget. But Mr. Rossi has demonstrated himself to be against all forms of alternative transportation, an advocate of what could be described as the suburban interest.

Indeed, it’s common to hear claims of financial “imprudence” from opponents of transit investment — economic fears they never seem to express when it comes to expensive road projects. So it’s worth being skeptical whenever anyone applauds decreasing the availability of money for new lines.

Nevertheless, like most places, Ontario has experienced a decrease in tax revenue substantial enough to make reasonable the cutting of capital construction costs promised by the government in more prosperous times. Premier McGuity’s back-and-forth on the province’s commitment isn’t all that surprising.

But what’s difficult to understand is how a city like Toronto can go from hailing the construction of a 120 km network to building one new light rail line by 2020. Is Mayor Miller the only politician who’s truly committed to improving the region’s transit systems? Or are others simply too scared to make the necessary decisions — whether that means the prioritization of specific lines or targeted tax increases — to make expansion possible?

Mr. McGuinty’s instructions to Metrolinx to choose how to spend more limited funds is a punting away of those difficult decisions, an unwillingness to accept the political consequences of doing what is necessary to build a better transit system. The willingness of many mayoral candidates to play along is less than helpful. Toronto’s citizens don’t want to forever be stuck with the same limited transit system they have today, do they?

14 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Peter Smith

    more people are living in downtown Toronto that ever — start up some congestion pricing to pay for all the suburban folks messing up the city. charge all day every day, but charge more during peak time to keep congestion under control. you can rain $4B in a year, and that would still only be a tiny fraction of the amount of economic damage that all those drivers are doing to the city, so no tears.

  • I’m still not sure what to think of Transit City’s lack of additional capacity heading into downtown.

    • Jerard

      They were (hopefully still are)going to do that with ATO (Automatic Train operation), Moving Block signaling and new full 6 car articulated equipment that makes better use of space. All of these things will double existing capacity, until their Downtown Relief Line comes into the full picture.

  • This is especially discouraging given that Canada has been famously prudent with its financial regulation, and has not experienced the banking crisis that we have in the US. Despite that, their economy tanks. Moral hazard, anyone?

  • John

    @Capn Transit, their economy tanked way less than America’s.

    @thearticle, I’ll agree that it’s a shame this is happening, but Toronto actually has a terrible track record for building transit that makes sense. Exhibit A: Sheppard Subway. Unbelievable misallocation of funds. Runs parallel to a bus route that gets more ridership. And of course, the ‘not-exactly-extension’ light rail running off it is the only thing now that’s going to actually get built.

    Oh, sigh.

    They actually really need a Queen St subway line and the Eglinton Crosstown. Hopefully the latter will somehow survive, but like I said, Toronto does not have a history of good decision-making.

  • "What?! Unicorns aren't real?!"

    [Liberal fantasy X] Set Back by Fiscal Reality

    Better get used to that headline template.

    • "What? I can't drive my car at 55 downtown?"

      [Conservative Fantasy X] causes utter disaster.

      We’re already used to that headline, thanks.

  • Pantheon

    John: The lack of an Eglington subway is a function of provincial decision making, not local. In the mid 1990s, a Sheppard line and an Eglington line was planned. When the conservative Harris government was elected in 1995, they cancelled the more necessary Eglington line and built only half the Sheppard line. Many speculate their decisions were motivated by the fact that the Eglington line would have served Liberal constituents, whilst the Sheppard line served Conservative ones.

  • Mad Park

    Will there be a concurrent and equal reduction in Provincial spending on streets, roads and highways?

  • @Cap’n Transit: Ontario’s economy tanked largely because of how dependent we were on car manufacturing, at least provincially. Fortunately, we have other major industries as well, but many GM and Ford plants closed in the province in the aftermath of the US crash.

    @Mad Park: No, there is no concurrent reduction in provincial spending on roads. The Highway 427 extension is going ahead, etc.

  • Ontario's Provincial government is junk.

    It’s been really consistently terrible at planning of any sort for a very long time. I wonder when someone will notice.

  • What exactly is the scarsborough light rail conversion? Just was looking at the graphic and it seemed odd. I mean why not extend the existing rapid transit line just a little bit to meet that other line?

    • John W

      The Scarborough RT fleet (ICTS Mark I – similar to Detroit’s PeopleMover and Vancouver’s older SkyTrain models) is nearing the end of its useful life. Rather than replace a technology that isn’t used anywhere else in the city with an upgraded version of the same*, the preferred option is to convert it to a tech/gauge that’s compatible with the rest of the planned TransitCity LRT lines.

      * (They had considered upgrading to the Mark II, but that would have involved a substantial cost as well for retrofitting, platform lengthening, etc. Or they could have paid loads to have Bombardier restart production on the discontinued, out-dated Mark I model)

  • Chris

    >>Exhibit A: Sheppard Subway. Unbelievable misallocation of funds. Runs parallel to a bus route that gets more ridership. <<

    The Sheppard subway may parallel a bus route, but the subway is MUCH, MUCH faster. I have a friend who moved to Sheppard/Bayview, and he never would have moved there had the subway not been built.

    And I'm curious as to where you got the fact that the bus route does higher ridership. I doubt it's true, but if it is, it's only because it goes all the way to the zoo, whereas the subway only goes to Don Mills. It's not an apples-to-apples comparison.

    As for the bus route, it's still needed because the subway stops are widely spaced. But that wide spacing ensures fast speeds and short commute times. On a per-mile basis, the line does excellent ridership.

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