Mayoral candidate Sarah Thomson wants me to write about her campaign, so here goes:
Let’s start with a fact check of her plan to “complete” Toronto’s subway system by building 58 kilometres of new lines (33 km along Eglinton, the Downtown Relief Line and an extension of Sheppard to Scarborough Town Centre).
Claim: “Construction cost estimates, based on forming a public-private-partnership to help finance, build and maintain a subway line are approximately $200 million per kilometer.”
Fact: The 5.5 km Sheppard line cost $1 billion or $180 million/km (2002 figures). The 8.6 km Spadina extension to Vaughan will cost $2.6 billion (2009), or $300 million/km — 50% more than her claim.
Claim: A 33 km Eglinton line, from Lester B. Pearson to Kennedy, will cost $6.6 billion.
Fact: Using a cost-per-kilometre estimate based on the Spadina project, we’re looking at $10 billion, and that’s in 2009 dollars. But even if Thomson commenced the project on her first day in office, such a massive undertaking would take well over a decade to plan and build. Inflation alone would drive up the budget by at least 20% to 30%.
Claim: The city could generate $400 million to $500 million by imposing a $5 toll on the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner, “based on 2006 traffic counts.” [PDF]
Fact: Her math suggests daily average volumes of 220,000 to 270,000 cars. According to the City’s transportation department spokesperson Steve Johnston, the number is 160,000 vehicles, which would yield a more modest $290 million annually, and that’s assuming no toll-related decline in traffic.
Claim: “While surface networks appear cheaper to build, they only have a 30-year life span and must be completely rebuilt three times in order to match the 90 year life of a subway system.”
Fact: If Thomson would care to scrutinize the TTC’s capital budget, she’d see that over 90% goes toward state-of-good-repair/legislated upgrades, with much of that associated with subway maintenance (track replacement, tunnel repairs, signals, etc.). She may also want to bone up on the reasons behind the 1995 Russell Hill subway collision.
Thomson recently admitted that she hasn’t yet turned her business-like focus to the small matter of the operating side of her grand vision. So allow me:
First, she’ll need to almost double the size of the subway fleet, so add up to $2 billion to her tab.
Second, the TTC, like most transit agencies, operates at a loss: fare and ad revenue covers 74% of expenses, and the city pays the balance (the subsidy was $140 million in 2008, and is now closer to $400 million due to ridership growth). In other words, more TTC means more subsidy, payable by Toronto residents and businesses. There’s no easy way to calculate how much 58 kilometres of new subway line will add to the operating deficit*; suffice it to say the number won’t be trivial.
Third, she’ll need to account for financing costs, overruns, business interruption fees, contingencies, strike delays and profit margins. Had enough?
No one expects Subway Sarah to win in October, but the persistence of this dream — Jane Pitfield ran on a similar pledge in 2006 — points to two unavoidable conclusions: one, that a city this size should, indeed, have a much more extensive subway system than it does; and two, that the disconnect between the Toronto’s aspirations and its wherewithal has never been greater.
The oft-touted panacea of private sector involvement doesn’t necessarily lead to savings, and can, in fact, backfire, as London’s spectacularly over-budget Jubilee Line extension showed (the final tab exceeded $7 billion Cdn. for the 16-km project).
On the other hand, the Region of Madrid, over the past twenty years, managed to drive ahead with a massive expansion of its now 284-km Metro, underwritten by very long-term bonds, innovative project management and — here’s the kicker — the financial heft of a regional government serving a national capital.
Point is, Thomson can spin her subway visions until she’s blue in the face, and the think tanks can keep cranking out those headline-grabbing gridlock/smog studies. But in the end, only one number really matters, and that’s the quantum of the Ontario government’s political will. Which, as we all know, is zero.
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* Allocating costs and revenues among the TTC’s bus, streetcar and subway lines is notoriously difficult. There are about 1.3 million daily boardings on the subway system, slightly less than the total for TTC buses and streetcars combined. One dodgy interpretation of the rider data suggests the cost recovery from the fare box for the surface network is below 50%, which implies the subway service may be in the break-even range. But without a feeder network of buses and streetcars, the subway would be starved for passengers. (Thanks to Steve Munro for the analysis.)
photo by Arieh Singer