Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

The sad legacy of the Scarborough subway debate

Published on Tue Sep 24 2013

There's been yet another twist in the torturous Scarborough subway saga. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who had been little more than a whispered name in this debate, emerged on the weekend to announce that, sure, he'll help pay for the Scarborough subway extension. The announcement should have come with dramatic organ music.

Harper's willingness to fund transit is really something that he should have brought to our attention a few months ago. But whatever.

On Monday, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty provided more detail. The feds are actually in for $660 million, which is the full federal amount requested by council earlier this summer.

There are still some question marks. Council made their support for the Scarborough subway extension contingent on the province providing $1.8 billion in funding, but Queen's Park has committed just $1.4 billion, and Transportation Minister Glen Murray is still holding to an alternate route. There's also the matter of the more than $500 million pledged by the city — it's supposed to come with a significant city-wide property tax increase, but Mayor Rob Ford didn't mention that in his jubilant speech yesterday.

It'll make for an interesting budget cycle. I would not be surprised to see Ford try to offset the subway tax increase with strategic service cuts. It'd be a neat twist, for example, to pay for a new subway by freezing the TTC's operating subsidy for another year.

Still, even if he will have to defend new debt and taxes, yesterday was an astonishingly good day for Ford. As near as I can tell, the extent of his transit plan since he took office looked a lot like this:

But here's the crazy thing: it worked.

Yeah, I can make a fair argument that says this isn't really a victory for the mayor. After all, Ford hasn't held any sway on the transit file in recent memory. It was TTC chair Karen Stintz and then the vote-hungry provincial government who revived the Scarborough subway. And Harper's funding pledge has less to do with Ford's shrewd negotiating skills than it does with Harper's electoral calculus. His Tories have a lot of seats in the suburban 416, and they'd like to keep them.

But that kind of nuance won't get you far in the world of slogan-based politics. For Ford and his supporters, who chanted “subways” while others did the doing, this will look a whole lot like a delivered promise.

I still contend that the funded LRT plan was the better option. It was cheaper. It would would have taken maintenance costs off the TTC's books and transferred them to Metrolinx, It wouldn't have wasted millions in sunk costs and cancellation-related expenses. And it would have provided far more potential for later expansion to Malvern and other points.

But it is worth remembering that there was once a reasonable case to be made for this subway. Had the TTC and council made it part of their plan from day one — instead of flip-flopping a half-dozen times while nothing got built — I wouldn't really find myself in opposition.

The lasting legacy of the last few months of Scarborough subway blather won't really be the eventual existence of a train to Scarborough Town Centre and then on to Sheppard Avenue. Instead, it'll be that this debate has legitimized a transit planning process that is nakedly political and based more on gut feeling than any kind of evidence.

A process where chanting the word “subway” enough times is all it takes to get one built.

A process where politicians of all stripes — even the ones who should know better — have come together to denounce LRT mostly because the mayor of Toronto doesn't like it when his SUV gets stuck behind a streetcar on Dundas.

A process where ridership projections, planning considerations and even the work of the agency the province set up to build transit are literally tossed aside in favour of platitudes about certain communities deserving a subway.

A process that may have been irreparably harmed for a generation.

But, hey, we got funding for a three-stop subway extension. Great trade.

This post was originally published at on 2013-09-24T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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