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Matt Elliott: Scarborough subway escapes scrutiny despite mistakes and missteps

Protestors gathered at City Hall voicing their concerns about the Scarborough subway, which critics are already calling a white elephant. One of the protestors came dressed as one.
Protestors gathered at City Hall voicing their concerns about the Scarborough subway, which critics are already calling a white elephant. One of the protestors came dressed as one.

Toronto’s current Scarborough Subway plan began with a fundamental misunderstanding of the truth.

At a Toronto City Council meeting in July 2013, hours before councillors first voted to formally replace the approved light rail transit (LRT) plan for Scarborough with a subway, LRT-supporting Coun. Josh Matlow squared off with then-mayor Rob Ford.

Matlow wanted to know if Ford, a big subway fan, understood the nature of the LRT plan.

“Do you actually understand that it’s grade-separated? That it doesn’t rip out traffic lanes?” asked Matlow.

“It does rip out traffic lanes,” responded Ford. “You know what, councillor? LRTs go down the middle of the road. They tear up your roads!”

Ford was wrong. Objectively wrong. The LRT would have followed the existing Scarborough RT route, elevated and off-road.

But the facts didn’t seem to matter. Not to Ford and not to the gaggle of Toronto City Councillors and provincial MPPs who went on to champion the subway. They jumped on Ford’s subway bandwagon, letting his fundamental misunderstanding of the alternative plan — and LRT technology — stick in the minds of residents.

Ford’s misunderstanding wouldn’t be the only time someone was demonstrably wrong about matters related to the Scarborough subway.

The ridership projections pulled together in a mad rush by city planning staff were wrong too. They initially said up to 14,000 riders per hour would use the subway – it’s now estimated at about half that, 7,300 people per hour.

The budget figures were also wrong — multiple times. The initial estimated cost of $2.3 billion has grown to $3.35 billion so far.

The supposed grand compromise offered in January 2016, where the subway was reduced to just one stop and an Eglinton East LRT added to the plan? You guessed it: wrong. Though the subway remains with just one stop, there is no money available for the LRT.

The briefing note that emerged in July 2016 suggesting, among other things, that the LRT would no longer fit into the planned service corridor? Of course wrong. And there are now conflicting reports about the mysterious origins of that briefing note.

Just a hell of a track record, isn’t it?

Here’s the really unbelievable thing: despite the overwhelming legacy of incorrect information connected to the Scarborough Subway project, last week Toronto City Council voted 13-27 against a request from Matlow to have the city’s auditor general conduct a value-for-money analysis comparing the subway with the LRT.

Entirely absurd.

Absurd because this council routinely demands volumes of information to justify smaller projects. Both the Bloor Street bike lanes and the ongoing King Street transit pilot are subject to a remarkable level of analysis. Every business affected must be consulted, every user counted, every potential cost considered.

To put things into perspective, the subway will cost at least 6,700 times more than the Bloor bike lanes and 2,200 times more than the King pilot. Scrutiny, apparently, does not scale with project budgets.

With billions on the line, the recklessness is breathtaking. It’s astounding that someone could look at the history of this project and think there’s no need for further analysis. After all the mistakes, changes and fundamental untruths, how could anyone think there isn’t more trouble ahead for the Scarborough subway? Does anyone really see any light at the end of this long tunnel?

This post was originally published at on 2017-12-10T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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