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Rob Ford's bad transit plan is based on illusory math

It’s hard to even know where to begin with Mayor Rob Ford’s newly-released transit plan. It is wrong in so many different ways, all at the same time.

We could start on page two of the eight-page document, where Ford lists the many supposed merits of subways versus surface rail. He claims surface rail reduces lanes of traffic, which is wrong. He says surface rail has higher long-term maintenance and operating costs, which is a fully realized reversal of the truth. He says subways mean “greater development opportunities” while surface rail means “fewer development opportunity,” which is a typo.

Or we could start on pages five and six, where Ford breaks down the cost of the phase one routes he’s included in the plan. But some of those costs differ wildly from estimates provided by transit experts.

Ford pegs the cost of the 7.4-kilometre Sheppard Subway extension at $1.8 billion, for example. But an expert panel in 2012 estimated the cost of a Sheppard subway extension at between $2.7 billion and $3.7 billion. Though the Scarborough subway plan changes the route a bit, Ford’s estimate is barely half the actual projected cost.

The fudged numbers persist throughout the plan. In addition to saying he could build a Sheppard subway extension for $243 million per kilometre, Ford also says he could build a subway on Finch — which no transit expert or planner has recognized as warranted — for $236 million per kilometre. He follows that up with a DRL from Pape Station to downtown for $581 million per kilometre. There's also a $170-million per kilometre cost attached to burying the Eglinton LRT.

Aside from the DRL estimate, which seems to come from actual TTC projections, few of these figures really seem plausible in the context of a 2014 campaign. The TTC’s recent project experience has seen per-kilometre subway costs far in excess of Ford’s estimates. The Spadina subway extension, approved almost a decade ago, has a cost of about $300 million per kilometre. The Scarborough subway — still yet to be formally designed and approved — comes with a projected price tag of $468 million per kilometre in escalated dollars.

In other words, there’s no rational argument that a city can build subways for less than $300 million per kilometre. The costs have gone way up.

Like Ford, Metrolinx has recently suggested $1.4 billion as the cost. but when the issue was raised in 2012, the cost was pegged at $2 billion — and that was without detailed plans for how to deal with complicated river crossings.

As a result, it’s difficult to put an exact figure on it. It's easier to say Ford’s numbers are probably off by at least $3 billion. Maybe $4 billion. Either way, that's a lot.

Of course, all that hardly matters because the mayor hasn’t offered a realistic plan to fund these subways. Instead of looking at something like the revenue tool he advocated to fund the Scarborough subway extension, Ford has gone back to the same list of wishful thinking funding mechanisms he talked about four years ago, a familiar list of things like public-private partnerships, tax increment financing and the sale of land.

We’ve been down this exact same road before and it didn’t get us any subways. A couple of years ago, Ford went as far as to hire former councillor Gordon Chong to produce a report showing that a Sheppard extension could be funded without new tax revenue. But when Chong’s report was finally released, it recommended the city raise new tax revenue. Ford himself, in an attempt to salvage his subway plans, was forced to advocate for a new tax on parking, though he quickly reversed his position.

We can talk endlessly about these funding methods, but the most salient question is this: If there’s so much non-tax funding available for subways, why hasn’t the city ever been able to access that funding to build subways? Why did Ford ultimately opt to finance the Scarborough subway with debt and property taxes and not with private sector money or alternative schemes?

I can’t think of a plausible answer to that question.

And I can’t, for the life of me, believe that anyone could really believe this transit plan would ever work. It’s poorly costed, poorly planned, and based on the wholly discredited premise that subways are always the right kind of transit to build in every situation.

It would raise the city’s transit operating costs by several orders of magnitude. It would cancel shovel-ready projects that could provide transit service in the near-term with subway lines that might barely see construction before the invention of teleportation technology renders this whole debate moot.

In sum, it’s a bad plan driven by bad reasoning and backed by bad math. This is not a transit plan that will move Toronto forward. This is not a transit plan that will move anyone anywhere at all.

This post was originally published at on 2014-09-03T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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