Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

More questions than answers with revived Scarborough subway plan

By: Metro Canada Published on Tue Apr 30 2013

Specifically, these councillors — who are supported by TTC chair Karen Stintz and several TTC commissioners — want the province to swap the current plan to replace the rickety old Scarborough RT with a rebuilt light rail transit line, and instead go forward with an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway.

The first thing we need to clear up about this proposal is that this Scarborough subway is not that Scarborough subway. This is a decidedly different thing than the subway extension which was front-and-centre during 2012's transit battle. The key difference? There was never really a good case made for extending Sheppard. With the SRT, though, the issue is at least a little cloudy, with some decent arguments on both sides.

Here's a quick comparison of the two options for the Scarborough RT, culled from a TTC report published in January:

Looking at that table and the other assembled arguments, I just have questions. Questions that need answering before councillors should even considering this latest and probably last Scarborough subway push. Questions like:

What's the real motivation behind this? There are some good reasons why Council might want to green light a Bloor-Danforth extension to Scarborough, but “Scarborough deserves a subway” is not one of them. Politicians like Coun. Glenn De Baeremaeker are testing my patience with comments calling a subway an “upgrade” over light rail transit, when in fact there's little operational difference.

Let's not legitimize the view that subways are somehow inherently superior to LRT. The bottom line on subways should always be that we put them where demand warrants. Period.

What's the situation with the transfer at Kennedy Station? Talk to most Scarborough commuters and they'll point to the long, awkward transfer at Kennedy Station between the RT and the subway as one of the worst parts of the trip to downtown. It's been a pain for years. The TTC and Metrolinx have indicated that the current LRT plan will make for an “improved, easier transfer” but what does that mean, really?

Removal of the transfer of Kennedy for thousands of daily Scarborough commuters is one of the more compelling arguments in favour of the subway. It shouldn't be overlooked or dismissed.

Do we really want to change our mind on transit again? Maybe it shouldn't matter, but part of my frustration with this debate is that it only furthers the perception that Toronto politicians like to talk transit more than they like to build transit. Councillors had their chance to make a case for a subway extension instead of an LRT rebuild last year. Before that, they had other chances. There is now a signed agreement between all parties detailing the plan.

Changing things now risks giving credence to the view that everything about Toronto's current transit plan is up for debate — a view that could be dangerous during the looming 2014 municipal election.

Will a subway extension really save Scarborough commuters from years riding crowded shuttle buses? This is the big one. The real downside to the current LRT plan is that it necessitates complete shutdown of the Scarborough RT for a period estimated at anywhere between three and five years. That will leave commuters with no real option except for shuttle buses. That's a hard pill to swallow.

The subway plan, on the other hand, calls for a new alignment through Scarborough, meaning that theoretically the RT could remain in operation as workers dig the new tunnel.

But that's theoretical. TTC staff have described the state of the Scarborough RT as touch-and-go for years. In January, a commission report noted that the RT “situation is now approaching critical, with the line being required to operate at reduced speed and capacity owning to the deteriorating state of the vehicles.” Staff also suggested that prolonged debate on the future of the line, delaying construction, could make things much much worse.

In other words: Yes, it might make sense on paper that a subway extension will forestall a situation that pushes riders onto shuttle buses. But it seems far from guaranteed. A frank and full analysis of the state of the RT is necessary before anyone can accept this argument.

Is this really a good use of a half billion dollars? In the debate next week, we're likely to hear councillors suggest that the $500 million difference between the LRT and subway options is somehow a negligible cost. But that seems a bit disingenuous, especially in an era where Mayor Rob Ford is freaking out over the cost of hand sanitizer.

Yeah, when you're talking about $2.3 billion, a jump to $2.8 billion seems kind of small, but consider what $500 million could pay for. That amount of cash would wipe out the brunt of the repair backlog at Toronto Community Housing. It could pay for new community centres in virtually every ward in the city. Spent on transit, it could build the promised LRT on the the eastern waterfront or go a long way toward extending a Scarborough LRT network toward Malvern or University of Toronto-Scarborough.

Even if spending the money on a Bloor-Danforth extension will help avoid headaches that come with a prolonged shutdown or a forced transfer of Kennedy, these opportunity costs need to be factored into the decision. Councillors and Scarborough residents have to consider whether what they'll get is really worth the price tag. After all, this isn't about building a transit system for the next five years — it's about building a transit legacy that will outlast all of us.

This post was originally published at on 2013-04-30T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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