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Good transit planning gives way to pandering politics in Scarborough subway debate

By: Matt Elliott Metro, Metro Published on Fri Jul 12 2013

Things are not looking good for fans of sensible transit planning in Toronto. Next week, with both Mayor Rob Ford and TTC chair Karen Stintz in support, Toronto City Council is likely to approve a change to current transit plans. Instead of getting a $1.8-billion project that converts the Scarborough RT to LRT, Scarborough residents will again be promised a subway extension that's set to cost a whole lot more.

How much more exactly is still an unknown factor. Other unknown factors include when exactly this subway would be built and how long it would take to begin operation, whether the province will simply hand over all their pledged funding to the city with no strings attached, whether the existing Scarborough RT can continue operating through the subway construction and, of course, whether anyone with any kind of expertise on the subject seriously thinks this whole exercise is actually worth the hefty price tag.

But none of that is going to matter next week. Neither Ford nor Stintz are likely to mention that the money they'll have to find for this subway could instead go to vitally important capital projects like the construction of the Downtown Relief Line. Instead, what will be top of mind for a lot of councillors is that people who vote in elections these days like the idea of subways more than they like the idea of LRTs.

There aren't a lot of heroes in this debate. On the city side, things are completely chaotic as councillors continue to paint themselves as a political body that can't be trusted to stick with a decision. In the past, I've greatly admired TTC chair Karen Stintz for her principled commitment to promoting realistic strategies for building transit, but on this issue she's merely playing to all her critics who have deemed her a flip-flopper. After finally convincing a huge majority of city councillors to sign an agreement with Metrolinx and the provincial government to build light rail last fall, she's now openly advocating for parts of that agreement to be torn up.

After next week, council will have sent the message that every other transit line they previously approved can also be reconsidered. Which is good news for the mayor, who still wants to trash most existing light rail plans in favour of a single unfunded subway project on Sheppard.

Queen's Park doesn't look much better. The right move on their part would have been to dismiss any changes to signed and sealed transit plans — and instead focus on getting things built. But the Liberal government can scarcely hide that their record on delivering transit is actually pretty lousy. They've talked a good game, sure, but in the years since their big, flashy funding commitment, they've become masters of breaking promises and delaying outcomes. They're always too willing to indulge the finicky desires of city politicians — and, each time they do, their spending commitments get conveniently pushed back a few years.

On top of that, the province has never allowed Metrolinx to fully achieve its mandate. When the GTA transit agency was created, the idea was to create a body that could build transit in an environment a few steps removed from the whims of politicians and the instability of election cycles. But politics continues to dominate transit policy, with the looming Scarborough byelection apparently influencing attitudes and Ontario Transportation Minister Glen Murray seeming at times quite content to embrace sudden changes to established plans.

Taking the pettiness of politics out of the equation, there's no real reason to change course on Scarborough transit. The case against throwing out a perfectly good LRT plan in favour of a more expensive subway plan has been made. The subway won't be appreciably faster, it isn't needed to carry projected ridership and it won't interfere any less with road traffic. But, hey, it will be called a “subway” and it will, I guess, earn some politicians a few votes.

And when you're responsible for building transit in Toronto, it seems now that winning votes is all that matters.

This post was originally published at on 2013-07-12T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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