$3.35 to $5+ billion for a one-stop subway to Scarborough Town Centre

At what point is the Scarborough subway plan too much money for too few riders? 
Mayor John Tory won't answer the question but it’s time to start asking when the multi-billion-dollar project no longer makes sense. 
By EDWARD KEENAN - Columnist ; March 2, 2017
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A subway is not the way to prosperity for Scarborough or Toronto
There are much better projects council could spend taxpayers’ money on. But our city politicians have put us on a path to transit bankruptcy.
By ROYSON JAMES - Toronto Politics Columnist ; March 6, 2017
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Scarborough subway boosters let residents’ imaginations overtake reality
They choose not to draw on actual expected benefits but instead ask people to just close their eyes and dream. 

By EDWARD KEENAN - Columnist ; March 9, 2017
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TORONTO STAR: “At what point is the Scarborough subway plan too much money for too few riders? ?
Mayor John Tory won't answer the question but it’s time to start asking when the multi-billion-dollar project no longer makes sense. 

By EDWARD KEENAN - Columnist ; March 2, 2017

The subway extension to the Scarborough Town Centre keeps getting more expensive. And the amount of service it is expected to deliver and number of riders it is expected to attract keep getting smaller.

Is there a point, one might ask, where we say it is too much to pay, for too little benefit? I thought we reached that point a long time ago. Longtime readers will know I have never thought the project made good sense. But Mayor John Tory does not think we have reached that point, and may not think there is such a point. Asked by Star reporters this week if there was any cost he would consider too high, he said, “I’m just not going to get into that.” And went on to say he wants to get on with building the thingrather than continuing to debate it. 

I’m not unsympathetic to exhaustion with the question — I think a large number of people in Toronto are tired of arguing about this, even hearing about it, again and again. I’m sure most of us would prefer to get on with riding it someday, whatever it is we’re building. How many times do we relitigate the same decision?

And yet there’s the tricky part. The idea that the decision — affirmed multiple times — is behind us kind of ignores that what we’re building, how much it will cost and how many people it is expected to carry keeps changing. Not a little bit. A lot.

We don’t need to go back into the dark ages of the Ford years when this process began to see how big the changes we’re talking about are. Just over a year ago, the subway extension plan went from three stops to one stop. At that time, the bill for the subway was said to be $2 billion, leaving enough committed money to also build a 17-stop Eglinton East LRT as well. And that one-stop subway extension was expected to attract 4,500 new riders to the line.

As of this week, the price tag has gone up to $3.35 billion — a preliminary estimate based on less than 5 per cent of the design work, one those putting it forward say could rise as high as $5 billion as more details are worked out. And now, because of how the extension interacts with different transit plans such as SmartTrack, the number of new riders expected to be drawn to the line over the current aging RT is down to 2,300. As my Star colleagues have put it: we’re now talking about $1.45 million per new rider. And the 17-stop LRT championed as an integral part of the one-stop plan is now in limbo, essentially unfunded.

A 67 per cent cost increase in one year. A 49 per cent decrease in anticipated new riders in the same period. A related 17-stop line abandoned.

Did we already decide? Or was the decision council made — like the others on this topic earlier — one made talking about what now seems like an entirely different project? And if, as we’re told is possible, the price goes up to $5 billion, what then? If it goes higher than that even, as studies of big infrastructure projects in general suggest we should anticipate as a possibility, what then?

These are staggering numbers we’re talking about. We can become numb to them over time — a few hundred million on this or that, a billion-dollar-increase here or there. But with the kind of money we’re discussing, even in today’s overheated real estate market, you could buy every projected new rider a detached house, and have enough money left to fund the TTC for a year with the change left over.

Two years ago, my colleague Royson James wrote about one unsung alternative: the existing RT, he said, could be rehabbed and updated with new trains like the ones they use on Vancouver’s SkyTrain, for a mere few hundred million dollars. The debate more recently has centred on the once-planned seven stop LRT that was once estimated to cost $1.48 billion, and many have argued it would better serve local residents by providing more stops closer to where they live while offering improvements on the existing RT technology.

There are reasons, clearly, why a majority of our politicians have preferred the subway option to those alternatives. And surely the cost estimates on those would grow, as they always do with infrastructure projects. But when you start with a much smaller number, a similar percentage increase still gives you a dramatically lower final price tag.

However much politicians want to wish the ongoing debate away, it is going to have to come back sooner or later: the current estimate — once you add financing and other costs detailed in the reports —is very close to the total funding already committed by the federal, provincial, and city governments. If the total soars past that $3.56 billion envelope as it seems likely it might, then we are going to have to decide how to pay the difference — and if we’re willing to. The plan already prices out the Eglinton East LRT which was approved in principle by council from the same funding envelope — so we already need to decide how and if we are going to pay for that.

How much money is too much? How many new riders served is too little? How much can a plan change before you admit the decision you made may no longer apply to the current facts?

The mayor doesn’t want to get into it. But voters should be asking those questions, whether he wants to answer them or not.

Edward Keenan writes on city issues ekeenan@thestar.ca . Follow: @thekeenanwire 

TORONTO STAR: “A subway is not the way to prosperity for Scarborough or Toronto”
There are much better projects council could spend taxpayers’ money on. But our city politicians have put us on a path to transit bankruptcy.

By ROYSON JAMES - Toronto Politics Columnist ; March 6, 2017

There are so many misconceptions and alternate facts circulating around how pampered, or not, Toronto taxpayers have become that the subject begs another column or two.

But there is also this.

Nobody is helped – and all taxpayers are angered and harmed – when valuable and tight tax dollars are spent on projects that have no chance of fulfilling the stated goal.

Such is the case of the extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway up to the Scarborough Town Centre.

The project would add one new station. An aggrieved constituency of Scarborough residents who feel they get no respect will be temporarily satiated. The corridor now served by an aging RT will get the highest order of transit, even if that is an overbuild. Politicians who have peddled trumped-up claims of benefits that will never be realized in our lifetime will get re-elected.

But will the subway deliver transit benefits to Scarborough residents in keeping with its bulging price tag? No. Will it deliver what transit projects in this city are supposed to deliver? No. 

Will it enhance the growth and viability of downtown Toronto? No. Does it improve access to work and school for the largest number of Scarborough residents? No.

And does it deliver growth and development in the corridor as promised? History says no – though developers will make lots of money while the residents who purchase the condos have only slightly improved access to the jobs because the jobs are spread out across the region and not where the subway runs.

Are there better transit modes and better routes and better ways to spend the $2 billion, that has risen to $3.35 billion, with alerts from the same estimators that it could jump to $5.2 billion, and a near certainty it will hit $6 billion?

Yes, yes, yes.

None of that will matter next week and next month and whenever city council debates this project. This is a runaway train that cannot be stopped. And it is a sorry tale of how dangerous and useless transit planning is in our city and the GTA.

I think I am right in there with the subway lovers. And I’ve written in this space that if the city wanted $500, $1,000 from me and all its citizens to set in motion a plan to blanket the region with subways, I’d sign up.

I’d start with linking the Yonge and University lines along Sheppard. I know that area and see how stupid it is not to be able to link both ends of the city. I’d take Sheppard Subway out east to link with the above Bloor-Danforth extension at Markham Rd. or McCowan. Then I’d extend the Yonge line to Newmarket, for crying out loud. And take the Bloor-Danforth line west out to the airport. And then I’d do the downtown relief line.

That’s the view of a regular guy who travels every now and then and gets subway envy from looking at transit maps in Paris and London and Barcelona and Washington.

But that view is so wrong. And so whack. And so uninformed. And so, so, so Toronto. It will bankrupt us, without achieving the goal of transit expansion: give commuters a better option to the car; make transit more competitive with driving; deliver new riders to transit and, by so doing, free up congested road space.

Everything else is hubris and political palaver and a colossal waste of money – which is where we are as a city region.

The transportation experts who have been studying our travel patterns for decades – and are not encumbered by the re-election agenda of their political masters – say this: Toronto’s subway system – and GO rail network – exists to deliver commuters to the downtown core where the majority of our jobs reside. In fulfilling this role, the system is a huge success. But the projects being promoted now do not address congestions and deliver new riders and support economic growth.

Much of the improvements in the suburbs should come from express buses, bus rapid transit and light rail on their own corridors.

To say this is to be branded a suburban hater, or worse. It is to go against the tide which says if the wilds of Jane and Highway 7 deserves a subway, then Scarborough Town Centre certainly deserves one. Maybe neither does. Maybe neither delivers the benefits we imagine.

Consider that 60 per cent of Scarborough residents who get around by transit are not heading downtown where the subway goes. Where is the transit for them?

Three of every four Scarborough residents heading downtown are already on transit, leaving limited growth potential for those going where the subway goes, downtown. In fact, the transit percentage use, or modal split, is higher than for East York or Etobicoke commuters heading downtown.

Yet the narrative propagated by our city politicians and believed ardently by citizens is the way to prosperity and self-worth is via the highest order transit, even if it costs $1.45 million and counting for every potential new rider – a performance that’s sure to bankrupt the system.

Much, much more on this later. 

Royson James’ column appears weekly. rjames@thestar.ca 

TORONTO STAR: “Scarborough subway boosters let residents’ imaginations overtake reality”
They choose not to draw on actual expected benefits but instead ask people to just close their eyes and dream. 

By EDWARD KEENAN - Columnist ; March 9, 2017

Neethan Shan, the newest member of Toronto city council, trumpeted as a progressive by members of city council’s left, is fond of speculating on how much time the Scarborough subway extension could save people in his neighbourhood. He estimated “half an hour each way” earlier this month, and at the end of a debate at city council on Tuesday, he was saying it’d be 20 to 30 minutes faster each way than the status quo.

As my colleague Jennifer Pagliaro has pointed out, this number appears not to come from any study of the proposal at hand, but instead from the councillor’s imagination.

City staff have provided their own, non-imaginary estimate, based on careful study of what might actually be built. In their report in June, 2016, they estimated the subway would shave five minutes off travel times between Scarborough Town Centre and Kennedy compared to the existing RT, by not stopping in between. There’d be an additional time savings from eliminating the need to transfer between vehicles, which we might guess would be perhaps a minute or two. They didn’t include here estimations of total trip times, since these will vary wildly depending on where a rider starts out. For a rider who lives at Midland and Ellesmere, for instance, who currently walks to Midland RT and will instead have to take a 10-minute bus trip to Scarborough Town Centre to catch the new train, the total trip seems likely to be at least a few minutes longereach way.

But for the vast majority of current riders, who board at either Kennedy or Scarborough Town Centre, and for those who will live in the newly built residences and work in the newly built offices within walking distance of the station we are told this subway project is to inspire, the time savings will be five minutes each way. We can be fairly confident in this estimate, because — unlike, say, how to accurately project costs or anticipate scope changes ordered by politicians — variables like how quickly a vehicle can make a trip without stopping (versus how quickly the current vehicles do make the trip) are fairly well understood by those doing the planning.

Ten minutes a day, for 40,000 current riders and a couple thousand new ones. That’s not bad. Goodness knows our city government justified the $1.5 billion rebuild of the Gardiner Expressway East based on smaller projected time savings than that — and for far fewer people, too. But those numbers, apparently, are not enough for those advocating on behalf of this project.

Wouldn’t it be nice to think you could spend an hour more with your family? Why not pretend a subway can give you that? That’s what Councillor Shan did by talking up the vastly superior, super-fast train of his imagination.

It’s such a cool concept, the mayor decided more people should get into it. During presentations by the public on the proposal, John Tory invited some Scarborough residents to speculate on how much time they thought they might save. One deputant guessed 15 minutes.

Tory told reporters later that he was listening to people’s “lived experience.”

“Well, I guess, you know it’s funny because we have lots of experts and we get lots of reports from them but actually nothing substitutes for the experiences that people among the public actually have on a day-to-day basis,” he said. Ah, yes, the experiences the public has on a day-to-day basis of using infrastructure that has not been built yet. Don’t discount what they tell us about the lives they anticipate they might live a decade from now if a project they may or may not fully understand is built in a way that matches not the plan that exists but the best version of it they hope might come to be. 

You could call it “aspirational anecdotal evidence.” Or “faith-based evidence gathering.” The “speculative fiction” approach to projecting transit performance. 

“It doesn’t mean that the study is wrong and they’re right. It doesn’t mean that they’re wrong and the study’s right,” the mayor said. “It just means that this is all evidence that you collect with respect to both studies and people’s lived experiences and their expectations about how a subway will possibly impact on their lives.”

Well, for what it’s worth, my lived experience tells me to expect this thing to double in cost again before it is finished. And my expectation for how this subway will possibly impact on all our lives includes the effect of people being disappointed that the project, once complete, saves them far less time than they thought it might — contributing to a deeper entrenched cynicism about how expensive political promises fail to match up with reality. And my further expectation is that the money it eats up will prevent the city from building other much-needed projects. I hope I am wrong about all of those things.

I do not expect the city to change its mind on this project. I think that for better or for worse, the subway extension has been debated to exhaustion, and has won the approval, however dubious I find it, of political majorities at multiple levels of government. It’s hard to see it being overturned.

But when the project’s boosters choose not to cite its actual expected benefits but instead encourage people to just close their eyes and imagine something far faster than they are planning to build, I become all the more convinced they have probably made a mistake. If they don’t find the actual facts about their own proposal persuasive enough, why should I? 

With files from Jennifer Pagliaro.

Edward Keenan writes on city issues ekeenan@thestar.ca . Follow: @thekeenanwire