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If Scarborough subway ridership can’t be improved, cancel it

If the city is going to replace the Scarborough RT with an underground subway, it will need to find ways to boost ridership along the line, says Matt Elliott.
If the city is going to replace the Scarborough RT with an underground subway, it will need to find ways to boost ridership along the line, says Matt Elliott.

Having carefully reviewed the updated ridership numbers for the Scarborough subway project provided last week by Toronto’s planning department, I am prepared to offer this bit of qualified journalistic analysis: these numbers suck.

The new figures, unveiled for the first time at a community consultation event last Tuesday, show the extension attracting just 7,200 peak direction riders during the busiest hour of the day in 2031.

This is way less than the 15,000 riders used as the benchmark for justifying subway service, and about half the ridership projected when Toronto City Council approved the subway in 2013.

The suck doesn’t stop there. The extension is projected to attract just 4,500 new daily transit riders. With a total project budget of just over $2 billion, that’s an absurd cost of acquisition.

And the extension offers few other benefits. It doesn’t provide relief to the existing subway network. It doesn’t bring transit any closer to people without service.

What it does, mostly, is cost money. A lot of money. The subway represents a 1.6% charge on every residential property tax bill for three decades. When it opens it will, like the similarly underused Sheppard subway, require millions in annual operating subsidy.

My position on the project remains the same. It should be cancelled. All existing project plans should be burned to ash. Those ashes should be shot into space. No one should speak of this ill-advised, politically-engineered subway extension again. Build a light rail network instead.

But after years of fighting this fight, I’m cynical. It doesn’t seem to matter how low ridership projections sink or how big the budget grows, Toronto’s political establishment – led by Mayor John Tory and a gaggle of Liberal MPPs in Scarborough – seems dug in. Scarborough will get a subway.

If that really is the outcome, then Tory and council at least owe it to residents of Toronto to ask planning and TTC staff to explore strategies to increase ridership.

That might mean adding more express bus service to create better linkages to the subway from areas like Malvern. It might mean increasing operating subsidies so the cost of a monthly Metropass isn’t out of reach for many.

It might mean scaling back Tory’s SmartTrack plan, so it doesn’t compete for Scarborough ridership.

It might mean encouraging super dense, high-rise development in the wide are around Scarborough Town Centre, even if that means expropriating more homes.

Many of these ideas won’t be popular, but all options must be on the table. Approving construction of the Scarborough subway with these ridership numbers would be an act of gross irresponsibility. Either find ways to honestly improve the numbers or cancel this misbegotten project. There should be no middle ground.

This post was originally published at on 2016-06-06T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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