Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

What we still don't know about the Scarborough subway plan

By: Matt Elliott Metro, Metro Canada Published on Wed Jul 24 2013

So now we play the waiting game. But, unfortunately, as scholars tell us, the waiting game sucks.

After Toronto city council's vote last week to move forward with a plan for a subway extension to Scarborough, there's been no real word on what might happen next. Maybe we'll learn more after the provincial byelections are over and the politicking is done. Maybe we'll learn more in the fall. We're waiting.

But it's important to stress that this subway is far from a done deal. There are still a ton of questions about how exactly we get from here to subway construction — and what exactly council's decision even means.

Coming out of last week's debate, here are a few of the things I'm wondering about.

1. How much will it cost to maintain a subway?

Maybe it's a minor point in the grand scheme, but it didn't escape my notice that Coun. Mary-Margaret McMahon, in a post on her website explaining her decision to support the subway, wrote that subways have “double the capacity and double the life expectancy (75 years!)” when compared to light rail.

I don't mean to single out Coun. McMahon. She was far from the only one arguing that subways make for a better long-term investment because they last longer. Answering questions at City Hall last week, TTC staff sort of validated the notion when they agreed that subway tunnels last 75 to 100 years.

But it's not really a claim that makes much sense. Is the idea that subways can last 75 years (or more) without expensive capital maintenance and repair work that requires sections of the line to be shutdown? Because we know from experience that's not true.

Besides, if subways only last 75 years, shouldn't we be really really concerned about the Yonge line from Union to Eglinton, which celebrates its 60th birthday next year. Should we be panicking? Should we be getting ready to hand the subway a gold watch and a pension, or maybe send it out on one last case with a young hotshot that takes unnecessary risks?

Like so much of the rhetoric surrounding subways and LRTs, the idea of comparing lifespans is a misleading metric. Capital works projects like public transit lines require capital maintenance. How long single components can last without major refurbishment is less important than the average expected maintenance cost for all components. In other words, what will it cost every year to keep these things running?

This sort of analysis is hard to do in the best of conditions, but the city manager's report on rapid transit options for Scarborough estimates that annual capital maintenance costs of a subway could eventually work out to maybe one or two per cent of its construction costs. Which would work out to an amount between $32 million and $64 million — money, the report says, that will be “funded from transit fares and taxes, less transferred budget allocations from Metrolinx.”

For the LRT project, Metrolinx had committed to covering all maintenance costs.

2. How much will a Scarborough subway actually cost to build?

City manager Joe Pennachetti had just 10 days to write his report on subways-versus-LRTs and the financing plan available for subways. Ten days.

Ten days is simply not enough time to generate in-depth analysis and numbers that will hold up to scrutiny. Ten days is barely enough time for some students to research and write a book report on The Great Gatsby, never mind a 24-page analysis on a multi-billion dollar transit project.

So it makes sense that cost estimates could rise greatly. In inflation-adjusted dollars, we're already looking at a spend of more than $3 billion. The TTC says their costs could rise by as much as 30 per cent once design work on the subway starts.

3. Is funding for the Sheppard East LRT really safe?

When Mayor Rob Ford came in to last week's council meeting, he had a plan for funding the Scarborough subway, a plan that went like this:

The city could simply take the $333 million the federal government had previously committed for light rail on Sheppard East and transfer it to the subway project. That would mean the city would need to only receive an additional $90 million or so in new federal infrastructure funding to match the low-end of the federal contribution needed to start construction.

Sure, that funding strategy would result in a funded and approved plan for higher order transit on Sheppard getting cancelled, but, hey, spilled milk, right?

Councillors did not like this plan very much, and rightfully so. Ford eventually backed off on the idea of using LRT funding for the subway, but not before staff at federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty's office muddied the waters further by suggesting, sure, that kind of transfer between projects would be totally possible.

In the end, councillors introduced several motions designed to safeguard the Sheppard project, but I don't think that's reason enough to breathe easy. With the 2014 municipal election ramping up and construction on the Sheppard project still a few years off, there would seem to be a lot of room for another attempt to move federal money to a subway project.

And if we've learned anything from the interminable transit debates at city hall this term, it's that no decision is ever final.

This post was originally published at on 2013-07-24T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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