Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Time for council to finally give up on the Scarborough subway dream

By: Matt Elliott Metro, Metro Published on Wed Jul 03 2013

Sometimes in politics there are issues where there are two valid but diametrically opposed points of view. But sometimes things are just black and white. Sometimes there's just the sensible thing and the not-so-sensible thing.

Take, for example, this latest dust-up over the Scarborough subway. The concern is that Toronto City Council has, within the last year, sent two conflicting messages to Metrolinx regarding their support for plans to replace the aging Scarborough RT with a light rail line. Councillors have said both that they like the plan but also that they hate it and it's terrible and they want a subway instead.

So our provincial transit agency wants clarity: does Toronto support the plan or not? They're demanding an answer before August 2 — which puts the spotlight on an approaching July 16 council meeting. We'll be back to talking about LRT versus subways. Again.

I've been following this issue for a while, and I can safely say this is one of those times where there's just one correct point of view. The only logical, affordable and rational thing for councillors to do at this point is to tell the province that, yes, they unequivocally support the LRT plan on the books. Any alternative risks disrupting a process that is finally closing in on actually providing improved transit to millions of Toronto commuters.

Don't get me wrong: the issue here wasn't always so simple. There was a time when there was a strong case to be made for an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway to Scarborough Town Centre. But that time passed years ago, and now Scarborough councillors need to acknowledge that they can't turn back the clock.

The big drawback with the current LRT plan is that it necessitates a complete muti-year shutdown of the Scarborough RT as the existing tracks are torn up and new tracks are put down. The subway plan, which would follow a new alignment, could have avoided that bad scenario. It also could have finally put an end to the transfer between the SRT and the subway at Kennedy station that has frustrated commuters for decades.

But that was then. Today, there's real doubt that the Scarborough RT can continue operating without significant capital repair costs through the length of subway construction. And then there's the fact that council has a signed and sealed agreement with Metrolinx to build this thing as LRT. Not to mention the unfunded gap of somewhere between a half-billion and a billion dollars standing between the LRT and subway visions. And the little matter of the $84 million that's already been sunk into the LRT plan — and, you know, I can't think of a lot of reasons to essentially endorse taking a torch to $84 million.

Some councillors have tried to justify a change by saying that Scarborough deserves a subway, but that's nonsensical thinking — especially with this line, which will operate at subway speeds along a totally grade-separated corridor with either option. Are we supposed to believe that voters really care whether the transit vehicle they're on gathers power from an overhead wire versus a third rail?

More likely is that these councillors are just after political cover. They know their constituents are going to be righteously ticked off on the day the RT shuts down and they get relegated to buses. By pushing this issue to its breaking point, I can only guess that the idea is for local politicians to be able to take those inevitable complaints and forward them off to Metrolinx and Queen's Park. “Don't blame me,” they'll be able to say. “I voted for subways.”

It all feels a little cowardly. And dangerous. If some councillors really are doing this kind of math in their head in advance of the coming council meeting, I'd urge them to stop and really consider the long-term implications of the issue in front of them. There's way too much at stake for our representatives to play these kinds of political games. A pile of votes in the next election do not justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars to needlessly change a transit plan. And they definitely don't justify putting the future of Toronto's transit system at risk.

This post was originally published at on 2013-07-03T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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