Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Five reasons why John Tory’s SmartTrack transit plan doesn’t seem very smart

By: Metro Canada Published on Wed May 28 2014

Since day one of his campaign, John Tory has been crystal clear that the major focus of his campaign is the Yonge Street Relief Line subway — otherwise known as the DRL.

I guess now we can assume he was just kidding.

Yesterday, Tory revealed that his actual priority isn’t a subway at all, but in fact a plan to build more stations and provide increased service along two of of the GO Transit lines that run through Toronto. He calls the combined line “SmartTrack Toronto.” You can read about it on his One Toronto Transit website.

Despite the name, SmartTrack may not add up to a very smart transit plan. Here are five reasons why.

1. Much of it is already happening — without John Tory as mayor

Tory’s plan proposes electrifying and providing more frequent service along GO Transit’s Kitchener and Stouffville corridors. This is a good idea and should happen, but Tory can’t really take much credit for it.

Electrification of the Kitchener line is part of phase two of Metrolinx’s Big Move, as is more frequent GO service on all corridors. The Liberal Party of Ontario’s platform includes a pledge to electrify all corridors and provide 15-minute service. The NDP has also spoken up in favour of electrification. Only Tim Hudak’s Progressive Conservatives have spoken out against taking GO electric, but even they favour more frequent service. Coun. Mike Layton and other members of council have been talking about the need for better local service on the GO lines for years, and mayoral candidate Olivia Chow endorsed the idea again Tuesday morning.

2. There's no apparent justification for station locations

If Tory's plan is all about new stations, it's hard to figure out how those stations were selected. Tory’s SmartTrack Toronto map proposes 22 stations along the two GO corridors, but puts seven of them in Scarborough, two of them in Markham and one in Mississauga. The central core only sees new stations at Liberty Village, Spadina and the proposed Unilever commercial development site east of the Don River.

There doesn’t seem to be any real justification for these station locations. Dense neighbourhoods in the city core don’t get any stations, but a stretch of Kennedy Road gets a station every two kilometres.

3. It doesn't say how it will address capacity issues

A 2011 study by Metrolinx suggests that Union Station will be completely at capacity by 2031. This is a problem for Tory, as his plan envisions very frequent trains dropping off high volumes of passengers at Union Station. It threatens to create a massive choke point — and that’s without even addressing his assumption that there’s enough room on the rail corridors leading out of this city to support the increased traffic driven by the SmartTrack plan.

The Metrolinx study looked at a plan similar to what Tory has proposed, with satellite GO stations added on the east and west side of Union, but determined that strategy wouldn’t provide adequate relief.

You know what they say could do that? Some version of the DRL — which both Metrolinx and TTC CEO Andy Byford have said will still be needed even with improved service on the GO corridors.

It's unclear how much relief Tory's alternative will actually provide. A backgrounder provided by his campaign shows a map of the current TTC subway network with big arrows pointing at the Yonge-University subway line. Then it has another map showing the subway network with SmartTrack added, where the arrows are more spread out. In both cases, the backgrounder links to a map of TTC ridership created by blogger Jason Bragg. I don't know why.

4. It relies a whole lot on the provincial government pitching in

Tory's plan makes major assumptions about the provincial government's role. His plan hinges on changes to the GO network, which is under provincial purview. There’s no guarantee anyone at Queen’s Park will listen to him, but I guess there's a chance they might go for it.

Much less likely is his plan for Metrolinx — a provincial agency — to take on operational responsibility for the new line. It's unclear why Tory thinks the province would take on both the responsibility and cost of operating a local service transit line given their long history of, you know, not wanting to do that.

5. Tory’s financing plan is incredibly vague

Speaking of costs, in his financing plan Tory pegs the capital investment for the project at $8 billion. That actually seems high, given his claim that 90 per cent of the plan will use existing rail track and he isn’t proposing any tunnelling. I guess all those stations don't come cheap.

So how will Tory raise $8 billion? He’ll rely on the provincial and federal governments for a chunk of it. The rest — about $2.5 billion — is to come from tax increment financing, or TIF.

There’s no real magic behind TIF. The practice isn’t all that different than regular debt financing. It’s the government equivalent of the owner of an apartment building calculating that she could increase her monthly rents by $200 per unit if she does some renovations, then using that forecasted increase to take out a loan to pay for those renovations.

For municipal governments, TIF makes sense as part of a larger package of funding tools for transit, but Tory is relying on it for 100 per cent of the city contribution to his plan. He provides little detail on how it’ll be possible to raise this kind of capital through the TIF process, so it’s hard to mount a full criticism, but there are several questions Tory needs to answer.

To start, what kind of development will Tory push for to bring in these TIF revenues? With his transit map, it’d be fair to assume he’d want high density development to take place around stations in Scarborough, but his financing plan doesn’t mention doing that. Instead, it says that his revenue estimates are “based only on projected new office development in three precincts within the following districts along the SmartTrack line: the Central Core; the East Don Lands site; and Liberty Village.”

That’s hard to accept without major skepticism. Land values in the Central Core are already very high, so it’s hard to figure out how increased GO service will drive a major increase in tax revenue. Liberty Village has already been built up significantly over the last decade, and I’m not sure residents would be receptive to large-scale developments. And the East Don Lands site development is, by Tory’s own admission, several years away and relies on a complicated — and expensive — reconfiguration of the Gardiner Expressway.

So how will Tory’s math work? It’s impossible to say. His financing plan is just two pages long, and includes no breakdown of revenues.

Which is pretty much par for the course with this plan. It's way short on details. Tory doesn't really explain how he'll collect $2.5 billion. He's taken an existing idea, tweaked it a bit, given it a fancy name and is now offering it as an alternative to a real plan to build the relief line subway — all of which can be built without tax increases.

Tory needs to provide more detail if he expects us to believe adding some stations along existing GO lines is a better use of limited resources than building the relief line subway. He needs to provide way more detail if he expects us to believe office development in such limited TIF areas can lead to $2.5 billion in usable transit capital. And he needs to provide a whole lot more detail if he expects us to believe his plan will address capacity issues on the city's transit system.

Mostly, though, Tory needs to provide a whole lot more detail if he expects anyone to think his plan is any good.

This post was originally published at on 2014-05-28T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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