» After a strong push by new Mayor Rob Ford, the extensive planned network of surface-running light rail lines will be replaced by a light rail subway to be funded by Ontario. The city argues it can fund another subway extension project itself.
In 2007, Toronto looked to be pioneering a more cost-effective way of providing major new transit infrastructure: Rather than investing huge sums on short segments of new subways as it had done in the past, the city would construct dozens of miles of street-running light rail, connecting far-off parts to the city without breaking the bank.
The “Transit City” effort, pushed by Mayor David Miller, eventually garnered the support of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who agreed to use C$8.2 billion in provincial funds to complete 35 miles of rail on four lines, most of which would be above ground.
After the fall election of Rob Ford to the mayor’s office, however, the world of Toronto transit decision-making has turned upside down thanks to Mr. Ford’s insistence that no new transit lines be built within the street right-of-way, which he argued represented a “war on cars.” Today, Mr. McGuinty heeded that advice and announced that Ontario will fund just two of those lines — the replacement of the Scarborough RT with elevated light rail along the existing guideway and the construction of a crosstown light rail subway underneath Eglinton Avenue for a total cost of C$8.2 billion, both to be completed by 2020 as a unified line. That would be a total of about 15.5 miles of new transit for the same cost as 35 miles of Transit City projects.
Mr. Ford, who argued extensively during the mayoral campaign for extensions to the 3.4-mile Sheppard subway west to Downsview (C$1.4 billion for 3.4 miles) and east to Scarborough Center (C$2.75 billion for 5 miles), has dedicated the city to building that project. Funding would come from public-private partnerships that would fill the C$4.2 billion gap. Other previously proposed lines, including along Finch Avenue in the northwest section of the city, have relegated to future “express buses” whose service quality remains undefined.
In some ways, Toronto will benefit from this revised plan: Commuting times along subway lines are likely to be quicker than on street-running light rail, which even in reserved rights-of-way must deal with traffic intersections. And along Sheppard Avenue, the decision to extend the subway rather than force commuters to transfer to light rail will save people time and effort. But are those improvements enough to justify effectively doubling the cost of the construction program? Does putting the entire 12-mile Eglinton line underground — versus just 6 miles as planned before — justify eliminating plans for expanded service to an underserved part of the city?
Mayor Ford’s insistence on putting transit lines in subways was a response to his concerns about reducing space for automobile users, so the question is whether the increase in costs that it would require to put the corridors underground would produce a corresponding increase in benefits for all users (including those who will not receive new transit lines). Lacking complete data from a cost-benefits perspective, I’ll leave that an open question. One thing it is likely not to do is reduce congestion, since in big cities like Toronto road capacity is absorbed as soon as it is provided.
Removing street space from the purview of automobilists and dedicating it to transit users has produced resistance throughout the United States and Canada, but Toronto’s change of policy is particularly dramatic because construction had already begun on one of the lines, the Sheppard Avenue East light rail. Mayor Ford was elected on a platform of replacing the light rail plan with subways, so this change should have significant electoral support; nonetheless, the lack of funding for significant improvements in the northwest sections of the city will undoubtedly be controversial.
Most problematic is the financing plan Mr. Ford has put forth for the Sheppard extensions. During the election campaign, the candidate suggested that the C$4 billion subway be built mostly with Transit City funds. A limited sale of development rights would produce C$1 billion, of which 30% would be distributed to complete that project’s financing and the rest be devoted to road improvements.
Under the new project, however, almost all of the Transit City dollars would be spent on Eglington and Scarborough lines, leaving a maximum of C$650 million in Ontario funds for the Sheppard line. Would the City of Toronto be able to raise more than C$3 billion from development rights just along the Sheppard corridor? Does it even have that much land to sell?
For a point of comparison, Hong Kong’s newest subway lines use such development rights sales to aid in their financing — but they still require significant public aid to complete the funding package. And that’s in a far denser city where land values are much higher than in Toronto.
Thus the deal today does not actually guarantee the completion of the Sheppard Avenue subway extensions — it only assures the Toronto public that the funded Eglinton Crosstown Line and the renovations of the Scarborough RT will be completed by 2020. A few years ago, that might have been enough to make anyone happy. But after Transit City was announced, funded, and had begun construction, it feels just a little disappointing.