The road to Toronto’s transit woes

How did the city wind up here? One debacle at a time, writes Ivor Tossell


(J.P. Moczulski/Reuters)

Have you ever wondered why Toronto has a half-baked transit system? Well, you lucky people, here’s a learning opportunity: It happens like it happened today, one debacle at a time.

This afternoon, Toronto city councillors voted to build a subway extension to Scarborough Town Centre, but only on the strict condition that somebody else pays for half of it. Does this mean we’re getting a new subway? Who knows? What it means for sure is that we’ve bought ourselves six more months of arguing about a subway, and, if the past is any guide, years of delays to go with it.

And if, somehow, the money materializes and the plan goes through, then the city will still have scrapped a perfectly good, signed transit plan, raised taxes and put itself deep in hock for a project that doesn’t even crack the top-five list of transit improvements Toronto’s planners say it desperately needs. What’s more, it could lead to the cancellation of projects that are already underway, like the Sheppard LRT. For a few shining months, it looked like we were going to give rational planning a shot in this town. But no: It’s barbeque season, and the pork is on the grill.

Let’s recap: Toronto’s transit planners recognized many years ago that the Scarborough RT needed to be replaced. The thing is falling apart. Replacing it with a subway was long recognized as a crowd-pleasing possibility, but studies over the last decade have shown that it’s not a great fit for Scarborough. It would reduce the number of local stops, and the stops it would have could land giant subway-sized towers in quiet neighbourhoods that don’t want them. Rather than helping the community grow, it would be a billion-dollar people-tube, pneumatically whooshing commuters nonstop to Scarborough Town Centre.

The general sense was that the city could spend that money better, and besides, the LRT plan aligned with the progressive ideal that transit should be about building communities as well as pneumatic whooshing. So a plan was hatched in 2008 to replace the current set-up with a modern LRT, with newer, bigger trains, one that would run along the current route and could be expanded up into under-served neighbourhoods like Malvern. Former Toronto mayor David Miller convinced the province to pay for this, with no further hit to the city’s coffers.

But then came the turmoil of Rob Ford years, in which transit planning boiled down to regional grievance with a tunnel fetish. Suddenly, the parts of town that “needed” subways weren’t the ones with the ridership to warrant them, but the ones that felt sufficiently aggrieved to “deserve” them. And the parts of town that were originally set to receive an LRT line that would have been better than a subway on so many levels were told that this was somehow second-rate.

So it was a small miracle when councillors, led by TTC chair Karen Stintz, plucked Toronto’s transit plans from Ford’s grabby hands in early 2012, placing them safely out of reach on a high shelf. Consensus and compromise is a hard thing. Harder still is picking a plan and sticking to it. Yet Stintz looked like she’d pulled it off: Council even approved a signed, contractual master agreement for the Scarborough LRT (among other lines) with the province. It was inked. It was binding. It was real.

This is when Stintz and other councillors decided that what they really wanted was a Scarborough subway extension. Today, we finally confirmed our desire to change our order, having changed it twice already. This is bad enough when you do it at a restaurant. When you do it with a multi-billion dollar pact between three levels of government and 2.7 million baffled taxpayers, the odds get increasingly high that you’re never getting served. The TTC’s technocrats knew this when they filed their last report on the matter, which concluded that there are real upsides and downsides to both subway and LRT – but, please, they wrote, for the love of God, don’t delay everything by reopening this debate.

And of course, reopen the debate is exactly what Stintz et al just did. Cue the unintended consequences.

First, it quickly became clear that nobody knew what was going on with the money. We still don’t know how much it will cost – the TTC estimates $2.3 billion, but won’t be pinned down to a number within 30 per cent before it can study the damn thing – and we don’t know where the money is coming from, which introduces all manner of uncertainty.

For instance, square in the middle of yesterday’s debate, it emerged that the mayor might try transferring federal money earmarked for the Sheppard LRT. Now that the federal government is apparently on the hook for half of the costs, you can bet that we haven’t heard the last of this idea yet.

And if the other levels of government don’t pony up, and the plans fall through, what are we left with? More endless delays. You can’t turn government infrastructure projects, laden with approvals, contracts, and sub-contracts on a dime.

The provincial Liberals have been no help in this mess. The Minister of Transportation and the Premier, apparently reading from the world’s worst parenting textbook, have alternated between drawing lines in the sand and offering to negotiate.

And then there’s Rob Ford, the luckiest man in Toronto, who’s spent a year fulminating on the sidelines until council’s endless fumbling dropped the prize right back into his lap. Ford is so far out to lunch on this one that, under fire in council yesterday, he admitted that he didn’t even know where or how the LRT route he and Stintz want to scrap was supposed to run. That is literally the first thing a person should know about a gazillion-dollar project before taking that money and blowing it out a cannon. He did not know it.

So here we are, having gone from a plan that was locked in and paid for, to a plan that we don’t know how to pay for even if we cancel other projects and put ourselves deep in debt, which still might not get built, which the mayor doesn’t totally understand, which we don’t need in the first place because Scarborough was going to get brand-new, top-rate transit anyway. Hooray!

Toronto has a half-baked transit system because its expansion has forever been a matter of pork over planning. You can do as many clear-eyed ridership studies as you like, but shovels only hit the ground when it becomes politically expedient to lob a few billion dollars at a given end of town.

This isn’t about subways or LRTs. It’s about the importance of those rare politicians who, rather than treating transit plans as election platforms or legacy trophies, are willing to give the planning process a shred of respect, and treat the plans they sign with a sliver of conviction. When you endlessly change your mind on megaprojects, everything falls apart, and all we get is not what we need, but what’s politically opportune: Overbuilt subway extensions to Ikea in North York and patches of grass in Vaughan; underbuilt RTs in Scarborough; and unbuilt lines where they’re needed everywhere else.

The rest of us – downtowner and commuter alike – will be waiting as crammed-full trains pass us by at Yonge and Queen, while you lot get it together.

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The road to Toronto’s transit woes

  1. The best hope now is for both the Federal and provincial government to notify city council within the next 72 hours that there will be no money at all unless they get to work on the original, non-stupid plan.

  2. Brilliant column.

  3. Nailed it.

  4. There is no justifiable reason to build subway north of the city proper… subways are needed in the actual core… LRT’s are more than capable of handling the rest… what a waste of money, these clowns will screw Toronto over for generationS.

  5. The hammering of Ford in the meeting when Ford started ranting about LRT tearing up city streets was glorious.

    But the pathetic thing is that Ford voters will probably believe that Ford was right all along, because the “downtown elites” just don’t see things with the clear mind that they do.

    • because that’s the only mantra those morons have to go on…

  6. I don’t have a thing I can say except. You’re right on all counts. Stupid politicians seem to be the order of the day in Toronto. A contract?? What’s that?? A transit study by experts that has been paid for what’s that? Who cares about contracts or studies not them. Sue the bunch for incompetence and public waste IMO

  7. The subway would eliminate the need for a transfer at Kennedy station. That is a huge deal. An efficient big city shouldn’t have a series of transfers interrupting rapid transit.

    • I don’t like transferring from the subway to a bus to get home. I demand a subway too.

    • YEAH! I hate transferring onto the GO train, lets turn that into the GTA Subway! (end sarcasm)

    • transfers are unavoidable if ridership changes along the route as it does between the Danforth area (i.e. east end of Danforth subway) and Scarborough town centre ; Ottawa got heavily into minimizing transfers as did Kitchener in the 1970s (with the removal of the trolley along King St in favour of a spaghetti-like arrangement ) and both are now building urban rail and in Ottawa’s case transferless trips or routes that were too complicated to understand will be replaced by trips requiring a transfer (between the subway and the local bus ).

    • Tell that to New York, London, etc, etc. How small are you?

  8. Never any money for Northern Ontario roads or trains but Ontario has money for subways?

  9. Is it not clear yet that Ford’s goal is not to build a subway but to cancel the 4 LRT projects? By transferring the federal money from Sheppard LRT to the B-D subway extension, he kills two birds with one stone. Two down, two to go? Mammolitti was clear, speaking for his constituents, that they were willing to wait 50 years to get a subway instead of an LRT. Then there’s Eglinton. We would have already have had a subway under Eglinton but Mike Harris, Tim Hudak, Jim Flaherty and the mayor’s dad, Doug Ford Sr. scrapped that subway and filled in the hole.

  10. Opportunistic politicians and columnists have fanned the flames of suburban resentment to the point where logic is a distant memory. All this railing against supposedly entitled downtown “elites” — yet it’s Scarberians’ whining that has made the City spend an extra 1 to 1.5 BILLION dollars so they’d be spared the indignity of walking 20 metres and waiting 2-5 minutes.

    Now _that’s_ entitlement. How ironic.

    • Two to five minutes,.. how are you that stupid or just entirely unread to the situation. To get downtown to my own city of Toronto… I have to wait 30 minutes for a bus that is consistently 15 minutes early or 20 minutes late but never on time, I then take the RT if it is running that day, then switch to the subway at Kennedy, it takes me an hour and a half to go a distance that takes a car twenty minutes, 40 minutes in traffic. How can you call Scarborough a part of Toronto if it has no direct attachment to the rest of the city and it would be faster to commute from Barrie.

      • The Council vote dealt with two options to replace the SRT: a subway or an LRT. My post dealt with two options to replace the SRT: a subway or an LRT. Your post dealt with the entirety of your commute. As Sesame Street likes to point out, one of these things is not like the other. No, I’m not stupid. Yes, I sympathize with your plight. Yes, your comment should’ve been in another thread.

        The LRT option had been depicted as causing so much human suffering as to warrant the 1 to 1.5 billion dollars extra for the subway option. I calculated the effect as such:

        1) The proposed LRT will be 5 minutes slower from end to end than the subway option. That’s the first 5 minutes.
        2) Unlike the current 3 flights of stairs, the LRT transfer would be on the same platform: exit the LRT car, walk possibly 20 metres, enter the subway car. I figure that should add 30 seconds to the LRT trip over a transfer-free subway.
        3) TTC figures peg Bloor-Danforth subway headway (service frequency) at 2 minutes minimum, 5 minutes maximum. Average wait for a subway when transferring from an LRT: 3.5 minutes.

        Add them up and you see the total human suffering to be foisted upon Scarborough commuters if we decide not to spend 1 to 1.5 billion dollars: 9 minutes. I leave it to everyone to decide whether 9 minutes is worth up to a billion and a half, and whether that makes Scarborough subway proponents entitled.

        To put it another way: the extra money spent to get a 3-subway stop that would save an average of 9 minutes could’ve paid for the ENTIRE Scarborough Malvern LRT, giving many Scarborough residents a fast, smooth fast-forward ride to the Bloor-Danforth line. I argue that would’ve been a much better use of transit money toward Scarborough needs.

      • To address your situation Moore directly:

        – How will a 3-stop subway affect the 30 minutes it takes you to wait for a bus?
        – How will that subway affect that bus’ unreliable schedule?
        – How will that subway vs. an LRT affect the unreliability of the SRT? (In both cases, the SRT will be gone.)

        The magic subway only covers a tiny corner of Scarborough. It’s not a magic bullet. It will have minimal impact of the masses who, like you, encounter much bigger problems before they even get to that subway.

        • I would be close enough to the proposed stations to walk over and jump on the subway directly or an LRT if either one is made. At worst, a 15 minute walk would be much better than a 15 to 30 minute wait to find out your bus isn’t even coming.

          The extension should be out to Whitby if you ask me. We should also add an LRT on the west side for future expansion of the infrastructure. It is such a short sided debate to be going on about LRT vs Subway.

          This would allow business to grow outside of Toronto so commuters aren’t stuck cramming into one city. People may even commute out of TO for work instead of the current 90% commuting in.

          I think a big question here is how much stress this would relieve on the local streets and particularly the 401. This is not even mentioning the savings in fuel consumption that go towards buses and cars.

          The RT shuts down more often than not in the winter if it is A)too cold and B)if it snows. 5 cm can shut down the RT atm. If you don’t think spending some money to get rid of that at the very least, would be worth it, then we are on a completely different page.

          I really don’t care if it is a subway OR an LRT. It would cut my trip down to one hour max, which is far more reasonable than 1 1/2 to 2 hours. I can not speak for everyone of course. Further away you are to the proposed stations, less of an impact it will have. This is not some miracle cure and we might even find more problems in the long run after it is done but Scarborough has been waiting for this expansion for approx, 20 years now. We made large dividers on major streets and pillar systems to hold the tracks of an LRT but the city was cheap and bought a broken RT system and did not finish the line.

          We should likely be addressing the antiquated automation system and subway cars themselves. Yes this costs an absolute fortune but the amount of money it will cost later when the city starts to shut down due to lack of infrastructure is unbelievable.

          This issue will not be solved by a simple subway extension and it will not be solved by an LRT solely. The infrastructure has been ignored for so long, the problem is far greater than a small extension. The main reason this extension won’t do enough is because it is 20 years too late.

          They are debating an issue that should have been tackled 20 years ago. In 20 years we will be arguing what we need to be doing today. Infrastructure pays for itself in the long run so not spending it is fool hardy but as many have said, I am no city planner, I didn’t study this. Take it with a grain of salt.

          • [The extension should be out to Whitby if you ask me.]
            That’s what GO is for.

  11. I think what we need is a Robert Moses like figure to guide Metrolinx and get the city out of it. Check the story of this figure, who was thrust into the role of planning the southern New York State system of parkways and bridges. It was taken out of the hands of city control by the state to avoid the petty jealousies among boroughs an suburbs and graft that had been a fixture of New York City.

    Moses was not a public transit advocate and he was more or less a dictator, but he got things done and done on time and on budget.

    I thought Metrolinx was the agency that was going to accomplish those kinds of things, but again we stand disappointed in Toronto.

    • Moses was a deity to those who agreed with him. If you even had a slight disagreement with him, you were apparently beyond the pale and not worthy of serious consideration. His adoration of the automobile, while in keeping with the times, look less and less wise from today’s standpoint. There has to be a happy medium between a transit expert running the show, and elected politicians throwing spanners in the works.

  12. Best summation yet, even went soft on Stintz & left De Baeremaeker out of it ;).

  13. Try to watch Toronto City Council Live on Rogers cable. It beats Duck Dynasty. Been like that for decades – hence the old style, disfunctional TTC and ancient transit system.While the Mayor keeps telling the taxpayers about their “great and beautiful city”, the world rolls along and build state of the art public transit.

  14. Subway extentions are at least years overdue. Even David Miller’s plan was late. When the city plans to increase density in areas such as Yonge and St Clair and Yonge and Eglinton etc. with no plan to increase transit capaicity, there is surely a recipe for disaster. As much as it was paid for and approved I never liked the rapid transit plan. the routes are great but what happens when the city out grows them?
    I most BIG cities I’ve been in there are subways and regional trains that all interconnect. Toronto is a long way from that. Why are there no subway or other TTC stations located at local GO stations?

  15. on another note, when the original subway was built back in the 50s, tunnels were designed to connect the yonge line with the bloor danforth line. I’m not sure if they were ever used to transport people but they were used to move trains from on line to another. Maybe the TTC should be looking at ways to utilise these EXISTING tunnels to transport people downtown faster. NYC has express trains. Blasting out some room for one or 2 more rows of tracks on existing lines would definitely move people faster…. and would probably cost less than building a new feeder line to downtown

    • Interesting information. Where can we find out more about this? I think you’re on to something – there are probably any number of short-term solutions we could be employing that would ease the strain until we’re able to handle this with PROPER infrastructure planning.

      I have to wonder how many possible short-term solutions are being disregarded and unexamined so that we can continue arguing over huge ill-conceived projects – that come with huge contracts that just *may* be an incentive to keep more cost-effective work-arounds hidden from public view.

      BTW – last I checked transportation planning is a legitimate profession – requiring (gee, wadayano) degrees and everything. How about we start a petition making it illegal for politicians to ‘design’ transit systems – unless they are legitimate credentialed transportation planners?

      Same law, btw, should apply to ‘urban planners’. Urban planners and transportation planners should be required to work together, but they are NOT the same thing, and neither is qualified or trained to do the other’s job. And BOTH should be answerable to the public – who should not only get *some* say, but should be able to determine the direction of city planning. Citizens are not here to serve the city planners, the city planners are here – by law – to serve the citizens. But you would never know that based on the continuing Barnum and Bailey acts of social engineering we’ve been getting from City Hall for decades now.

    • Tunnelling ‘express’ lines under the YUS line would be prohibitively expensive, as these tunnels would have be bored, and not cut-and-cover like the Yonge line was between Union and Eglinton. In any case, the capacity would quickly fill up, thus meaning we would be having this same conversation 10 years later, and several dozen billion dollars poorer.

  16. Too bad the city council, if you can call it that, can’t read and is now gearing up for an election next year. I’m 72 I probably won’t live long enough to see any transit improvements in this town. Like watching 5 year olds try to decide on what kind of topping to put on their ice cream

  17. Key events were not presented in this article. MoveOntario 2020 was announced prior to the 2007 Ontario Provincial election. David Miller announced he would not run for re-election in September 2009. March 2010 Ontario 2010 budget $4billion dollars of funding is delayed, pushing out start dates of the projects, many had promised completion dates by PanAm games. Delaying the project and a Toronto municipal election were key triggers in what happend with the LRT plans.

  18. What’s smarter? 1.1 Billion EXTRA MONEY for a shorter line, less stops………..or a new subway line Kennedy Station to Kennedy and Sheppard Station EXPRESS (one way trip less than 5 minutes) -ONE TUNNEL – ONE TRAIN – ONE TRACK (cost about 1.4 Million) 100 Million each from each level of government buys a whole new subway line.

  19. After you write this article, I’m sure you walk into voting booths and vote for big government parties, in a spate of continued cognitive dissonance.

  20. Your as bad as those other NDP losers on city council all you worry about is downtown.You have had a subway for 60 years and transit since the early 1900’s,suck it up and wait a couple of minutes not hours like other tax payers.

  21. this sounds like the neverending debate for a second Sydney (Australia) airport: years after Badgery’s Creek was approved as the site and millions spent on acquiring the land, the next govt decided to change its mind, and now the debate is on again – albeit in hibernate mode – and it seems like it’ll be the next generation who’ll go through this all over again. It seems like there’s no sense of urgency whatsoever.

  22. All this talk about internal Toronto transit…but what about the rest of us in Ontario ? Due to geography many Southern Ontario drivers are forced to waste hours upon hours just trying to get past Toronto. There has to be improvements for East-West traffic because the 401 is not adequate, and the 407 is too expensive. Perhaps many of the exits off the 401 should be closed permanently so that Torontonians will stop using it like a city street and start using whatever public transit they come up with.

  23. There is only one project that is really important that is not in the original Transit City plan. That would be one that would join the LRT at Pape to the LRT at Union (a downtown bypass).
    Some variant of this has been in the planning since at the least the 1990s, and arguably going back to the 1970s. Somehow this part was missed. However, Transitcity should be approved as it was planned. An Eglinton Transitway has been an identified requirement since the 1970s. I would tell Toronto, leave the plan alone. Build a DRL yourself, because otherwise the city growth will collapse due to it being uncompetitive, due to ridiculous commuting times. Restart now and you will be at 2030 with critical needs identified in 1970 still unfilled. Toronto has had great basic planning, shame about the BS politics that ensure nothing needed is done.

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