Time for fact-based decision-making on the Scarborough subway
'Before Toronto city council debates the Scarborough subway again they should engage a qualified consulting firm to prepare an updated, value-for-money comparison of the subway and LRT options.’
By R. MICHAEL WARREN (former corporate director, Ontario deputy minister, TTC chief general manager and Canada Post CEO. r.michael.warren @gmail.com )
March 15, 2017
Before Toronto city council debates the Scarborough subway again they should engage a qualified consulting firm to prepare an updated, value-for-money comparison of the subway and LRT options. The ballooning cost and falling ridership forecasts for the subway makes it essential that council base their final decision on facts, rather than on expensive political pandering to Scarborough voters.
City, provincial and federal taxpayers will all be on the hook for the runaway subway costs, which could reach $3.93 billion – up from $2 billion only a year ago. We should insist through our MPs, MPPs and city councillors on knowing the results of an objective comparison before the mayor and council stumble further down this road.
It’s been five years since an expert panel created by city council provided an objective cost-benefit-analysis of the two options. They found a modern LRT to be superior to a subway extension on all counts: funding, transit service, economic development, sustainability and social impact.
In 2013, Metrolinx recommended replacing the aging RT with a modern LRT at a cost of $1.8 billion. The province committed to paying the cost of an LRT as part of the larger light rail network across the city.
The Pembina Institute also concluded that an LRT offered the best value for taxpayer money. It found that a three-stop subway option would cost twice as much as a seven-stop LRT, but would attract only 23 million riders a year compared to 31 million for an LRT.
When council debated this issue last June they were presented with a briefing note from TTC CEO Andy Byford. It left the false impression that the LRT would cost $2.97 billion instead of the actual figure of $1.8 billion. It’s impossible to know how many councillors were swayed by this misleading information.
The Scarborough Transit Action group has complained about this decision-making process. They maintain that Byford’s actions allegedly breached the Toronto Public Service bylaw. Their complaint went first to the city ombudsman. She called the allegations “very serious” and has referred them to the city’s auditor general for a determination of possible wrongdoing.
The action group stressed there should be an “objective and complete comparison of costs, delivery dates and funding commitments from higher levels of government for the seven-stop LRT option.” They added that “solid evidence-based decision-making must be used for all significant infrastructure sending.” Amen to that.
The latest city staff report makes the need for a fact-based comparison even more necessary. Last year council approved reducing the subway to one-stop from three in order to reduce the price to $2 billion. That would have freed up $1.6 billion for an 18-stop LRT along Eglinton Ave. East.
That council decision is no longer viable. The cost of the subway alone is now forecast to balloon to $3.93 billion. This exceeds the total government approved funding envelope of $3.56 billion.
The report also concluded the number of new riders attracted by a subway has fallen by half to only 2,300. Every new rider attracted by the subway will now cost a staggering $1.45 million.
When Tory talks about his SmartTrack plan he stresses it will go though “a rigorous examination process.” He says “the express purpose of what we are doing here is to move forward with a fact-based, transparent process.”
So why a fact-based approach for SmartTrack but not for a Scarborough subway? Tory has been shameless in courting Scarborough ratepayers by conditioning them to think they deserve a subway simply because other parts of Toronto have one.
But the escalating price and dwindling ridership of his option must be weighing on the mayor. He acknowledged as much last June when he tried to defend a subway extension in a Star opinion piece.
Now, instead of doubling down, he should call for a value-for-money comparison. The results could provide Tory with the political coverage he needs to reconsider his indefensible position.
In the same op-ed, Tory acknowledged that “the original decision to cancel the planned LRT in Scarborough and extend the subway instead was made without enough information and process.”
The worst transit boondoggle in the city’s history can be avoided by asking for the comparative analysis missing since council began debating this issue. Tory should also make sure the next council vote is not flawed by a misleading TTC report.
R. Michael Warren is a former corporate director, Ontario deputy minister, TTC chief general manager and Canada Post CEO. r.michael.warren @gmail.com