Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Want to cancel the Scarborough subway? Convince Queen’s Park

By: Metro Published on Wed Jul 29 2015

After she emerged from a meeting with Mayor John Tory last Wednesday, Premier Kathleen Wynne was asked — for the first time in a while — to give her thoughts on the Scarborough subway.

The question was timely. The Toronto Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro recently published a series of articles making it even more clear that the decision was both bad politics and bad planning.

It’s made for a ridiculously lopsided debate. On one side, subway detractors have a long list of facts and figures.

Supporters, meanwhile, have been left only with emotional rhetoric. (“Doesn’t Scarborough deserve a subway? Shouldn’t we just move on?”)

Still, Wynne didn’t waver in her answer. “I’d like to see us move forward as opposed to re-litigate decisions we’ve already made,” she said.

It was a telling response. Though all three levels of government are involved in the Scarborough subway project, I’m convinced Queen’s Park is the biggest barrier to any attempt to derail the subway and revert to the LRT plan.

It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where council drops their support for the subway. The project only got the narrowest of approvals back in 2013, and there’s no indication it would enjoy broader support today.

If Tory were to announce a change of heart, a majority of councillors would quickly fall in line. If the change came after a report showing that Tory’s SmartTrack plan will serve the same ridership that would use the Scarborough subway, it would be an even easier sell.

In addition, taking the subway cost off the city’s books would make it simple for Tory to deliver property tax revenue increases way below the rate of inflation for the next few years, leading into the 2018 election. It would be bad policy, but terrific politics.

Similarly, the federal government, who have promised $660 million for the subway, wouldn’t be likely to object too much. Their share was always to come from one of their nebulous infrastructure funds anyway. It seems likely they’d be happy to take that commitment and put it toward some other infrastructure project, especially with an election coming up.

That leaves the province, and here’s the thing: as much as I feel strongly that they should change their mind and support the LRT, I can’t figure out why they ever would.

First there’s the politics. It’s not insignificant that the Scarborough subway only reemerged as a possible transit project at a time when Wynne’s Liberal government was trying to win a by-election in Scarborough. They very much tied their electoral success in the area to their support for the subway — they were the Subway Champions. That’s a hard thing to walk away from.

But the province has an even more powerful motivator to stick with the subway: the money.

It’s hard to overstate just how good the original LRT deal was for the city. The provincial government had committed to not only pay the entire cost of upgrading and extending the Scarborough RT to proven LRT technology, but also to pay for ongoing maintenance costs. The province was also on the hook to pay for any budget overruns. It was a 100 per cent provincial project that offered significant benefits to Toronto.

With the switch to the subway, however, the provincial government dramatically improved the terms of the deal for itself.

Now, Queen's Park is on the hook only for $1.48 billion (in 2010 dollars) and not a penny more. Any budget overages — and there will be overages — now fall to the city. Maintenance costs, estimated in City Manager Joe Pennachetti’s 2013 report at $30 to $40 million per year, also fall to the city.

City councillors took on all these costs willingly. They had a signed contract making all of this the clear responsibility of Queen’s Park, yet councillors found reason to tear that contract up.

It boggles the mind. But it happened.

So put yourself in Wynne’s shoes. The Scarborough subway helped you win a by-election and saved you money. Why would you ever change your mind?

That’s the question subway opponents need to answer.

It’s not so much about proving the LRT is a better project on virtually every merit — come on, we know it is. It's about convincing Queen’s Park to come back to a generous transit deal that Toronto Council somehow found reason to reject.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article included a pesky typo. The value of the provincial contribution to the Scarborough subway is $1.48-billion, not $1.148-billion.

This post was originally published at on 2015-07-29T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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