It is Time to Get Toronto’s Transit Moving Again

It is Time to Get Toronto’s Transit Moving Again

1.27.2012 | News

For the past year, Toronto’s transit expansion plans have been in a state of limbo. This is primarily due to a declaration by our Mayor that Transit City – the fully-funded, shovel-ready light rail plan which Council approved – was “cancelled”, and that he would instead build a few subway stops along Sheppard.

Recently, the voices of Councillors and  Toronto Transit Commissioners have expressed interest in transit expansion ideas that depart from the Mayor’s costly vision. In the short-term, this would mean directing funds to other areas of the City that are in greater need of a higher order of transit.

Instead of listening and embracing reasonable suggestions, the Mayor maintains that he will not deviate from his preferred vision. In a recent letter posted to his Facebook, the Mayor repeats his reasoning that transit riders want rapid transit and subways are the only solution. Subways may be the preferred option to surface rail until one studies the cost-effectiveness of each. In a world of unlimited finances, subways may be the preferred option. In Toronto’s current fiscal reality, we have $8.2 billion at our disposal, and so we must be creative in its use to maximize results for our City.

Subways are many times more expensive to build than is light rail, and much more expensive to run.  When we have limited building and operation dollars for Transit in Toronto, and city-wide ridership pressures, building a few subway stops along a small section of Sheppard is not a complete transit solution. It is an expensive, unrealistic and irresponsible use of tax dollars. The alternative plan offers 3 light rail lines that reach under-serviced and over-crowded transit areas along Sheppard, Finch, and Eglinton.

The Mayor’s original plan for the Sheppard subway was to have it entirely financed privately and that not a cent of taxpayer money would go into the project. “I’m not quite sure where taxpayers’ money is coming in, when we’re using private money” he said. Even though his “private sector” financing model was contingent on tax and development incentives – which in actuality translate to prolonged costs to taxpayers – technically his promised plan still did not involve the direct and up-front use of tax dollars. Today however, we now know that any Mayor Ford subway plan will be paid for directly with tax money. Gordon Chong (the consultant hired to develop the business model for Mayor Ford’s subway plan) recently stated that up to 90% of any subway plan along Sheppard will be funded by tax dollars. When you think of the transit expansion projects that can be delivered with our very limited capital money, a subway 90% covered by taxpayers is not a cost-effective use of public dollars. The Sheppard subway envisioned by the Mayor is unaffordable to build.

The existing Sheppard subway line does not and will not pay for its own operation for decades. It does not attract enough riders to cover its operational costs. As this chart shows, the current density around the Sheppard subway line is only 68 people/jobs per-hectare (PJH). A subway is only economically viable when the PJH along the subway line is 115-195. As we can see by the chart, the projected ridership even beyond 2031 will not reach this minimum economic viability.  This means that the TTC’s limited operational dollars are taken from other places on the system to cover the cost of operating the current Sheppard subway.

Another claim of the Mayor is that on March 31, 2011 The City of Toronto was in agreement with the Province of Ontario and Metrolinx on a plan to bury the Eglinton LRT and build a subway on Sheppard. This “agreement” known as the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is a non-binding document that was proposed and signed by the Mayor only, and does not have the approval of TTC planning staff, the Toronto Transit Commission, or include the authorization of Council. In other words, it is a document without legal authority. Council is tasked with approving major policy decisions such as transit expansion plans, not the Mayor. This is why we have recently been reading about Commissioners and Councillors who want to revisit transit plans and approve a new plan that makes economic and transit sense. Regardless of what new plan comes forward, citizens can be assured that Council will approve a transit expansion plan that makes the best use of your tax dollars.

The Mayor cites a Pembina Institute (a policy analysis firm) report to support his subway plan. The Pembina Institute is a great source for analyses of TTC expansion proposals. This is why it is important not to ‘cherry-pick’ the information it provides. In a response to Mayor Ford’s claim that the Pembina Institute supports his case for subways it published an article which clarifies “…the entire LRT plan would have served more Torontonians per dollar invested than the mayor’s current plan as well as reducing more greenhouse gas emissions and removing more vehicles from our severely congested streets.” The Mayor needs to come clean with TTC Riders, citizens and taxpayers when it comes to the facts.

The Mayor claims that LRTs are slow. The top speed for an LRT is just marginally slower than the top speed for a subway (LRT 27km/hr, subway 32KM/hr). True, surface rail has to contend with the traffic stream, but with the flexibility around how and where LRTs are built, LRTs can be a very efficient and flexible rapid transit solution. In addition, LRTs tend to encourage economic development in the communities they service, offer increased safety by encouraging more ‘eyes on the street’, they are more accessible, and offer an operational affordability because they do not require expensive-to-run underground stations.

Moreover, because dedicated LRT lanes are built down the centre of wide suburban avenues like Sheppard, Finch, and the outskirts of Eglinton, they act to reduce road congestion; they hold more people than buses and streetcars and are modular so they can be expanded as necessary.

Light Rail offers a real rapid transit solution for Toronto. The LRT lines in the Transit City plan have their Environmental Assessments complete, their public consultations complete and have funding in place approved by Council. The projects are truly shovel-ready. LRTs are a deliverable transit solution. None of this can be said for the Mayor’s subway plan. The Mayor’s subway plan is simply a house of cards. How it will fall will be up to Council.

Foregoing our LRT obligations will cost the city at least $65 million in cancellation penalties. When the TTC is struggling to find funding to maintain current service levels, spending $65 million to cancel ready-to-deliver transit expansion plans is downright irresponsible.

Having recently travelled the extremely crowded Finch bus, I can say with some authority that Finch riders need a transit solution fast. Finch riders want us to provide a plan that makes sense, and is quick to deliver and the Finch LRT is the best way to achieve this.

As a Councillor it is my role to ensure your tax dollars are spent they best way they can be. As a TTC Commissioner it is my role to ensure that transit planning in Toronto makes sense. Recently we are hearing the voices of other Councillors and Commissioners who also want transit expansion to make sense in this City. I am encouraged that whatever transit plan comes forward, it will be a plan that your Council will approve and we will make decisions based on the best evidence available and good transit planning principles.

We need to get Toronto moving, and you can rest assured I will continue to work towards that goal for TTC riders, for taxpayers and for Toronto’s citizens.

Consider joining the TTC Riders group and visiting CodeRedTO’s website. Also pay attention to the agendas for upcoming Toronto Transit Commission Meetings. Transit expansion plans will soon come to the Commission. You should consider making a deputation to tell the Commission how you feel about Transit in Toronto.

-Maria