Mayor Rob Ford managed to suppress his allergy to media events on Friday by turning up to wax enthusiastic at the launch of Toronto’s four largest groundhogs — the Lovat-built boring machines that will dig the tunnels for the 8.6-km Spadina subway extension into Vaughan.
As my colleague Patrick White reported in The Globe and Mail Friday, Mr. Ford declared that “[t]he start of the tunnel boring for this subway project is an important step in building a transportation city. It will be a major, major transportation hub connecting the TTC, York Region Transit, Viva, and GO.”
A momentous occasion, true, but talk about a long wait.
The moment of conception, as best I can tell, occurred around 1988 — the mayor, then 19, was enrolled at Carleton University — when Liberal labour minister Greg Sorbara first publicly bruited the notion of extending the Spadina line to York University. A year later, in what has become an achingly familiar half-measure, Queen’s Park and the TTC announced plans to spend $160 million on a 1.6-km extension of the existing line up to Sheppard (now the Downsview megastation).
That stop, as then–TTC general manager Al Leach explained to the Toronto Star, was strategically important because it could function as a kind of three-way junction, allowing an extension north towards York U./Steeles, as well as a second connection directed eastwards along Sheppard.
Metro, you see, had concocted a transit building strategy that proposed, among other things, a subway linking Spadina to the Scarborough Town Centre.
Estimated cost: $1.3 billion. Estimated date of completion: 2011.
The salient detail here is the time lag: a full 23 years from sound bite to ribbon-cutting. And no one’s going to ride the rocket to Vaughan for at least another four years, which brings us embarrassingly close to 30 years.
In terms of gestation, that kind of time lag isn’t in the same league as New York’s Second Avenue subway (first proposed in 1929; construction began in 2007). But it’s not difficult to predict that the completion of the long-promised Sheppard line could take another generation, thanks in part to Ford’s determination to finance it with non-existent funding.
Worth noting, too, that the two lines that did ultimately win approval — the Spadina extension and the Sheppard stubway — had very tenacious and powerful backers: Sorbara and former York University president Lorna Marsden for the former, and Mel Lastman and Paul Godfrey for the latter.
When I scan the political landscape today, I don’t see anyone comparable trumpeting the Sheppard line. Yes, the Fords have positioned the privately developed subway as a core part of their mandate. But the idea lacks prominent and outspoken cheerleaders from the other orders and the business/institutional community. Indeed, where are VIPs who were plugging away at this plan when Ford was just a yodeler from Etobicoke, and who will continue to push for it long after he’s gone? I suppose someone must want it to be built. I just don’t know whom.
A few other tidbits from the Spadina extension archives: The first Toronto council motion formally endorsing the project was moved, back in February 2005, by one Howard Moscoe, a lefty who understood a thing or two about transactional politics. (The motion passed unanimously.) Does Ford’s Sheppard scheme enjoy that kind of non-denominational backing?
Why? Because he’s lashed himself to a financially unattainable plan motivated more by conservative ideology than by transit economics. Even Ford supporters are beginning to question the notion of underwriting a $5 billion project with a trickle of cash from development charges and tax increment financing.
On the subject of money, the TTC timeline for the Spadina project duly notes the moments when the other orders stepped up to the plate: $670 million in the March 2006 Provincial budget; $697 million from the feds in the March 2007 budget; and another $200 million from Queen’s Park in December 2007. All those numbers, by the way, are evidence of the interestingly productive relationship between Dalton McGuinty Liberals and Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. The City of Toronto, focused on David Miller’s LRT plan, had very little to do with it.
Is there any evidence the brothers are trying to knit together a federal-Provincial deal to help fund Sheppard? Not that I can see.
What I do see, however, is that York Region powerbrokers like chair Bill Fisch and Peter Kent, a Tory cabinet minister and Thornhill MP, are continuing to shill for funds to extend the Yonge line up into Richmond Hill. Indeed, they’ve been making that case for years, with a pragmatic persistence that brings to mind Lorna Marsden’s long-slog campaign to bring the Spadina line up to York.
With Gordon Chong trying desperately to rig the math for Sheppard, and with the brothers doing precious little to build a GTA-wide political coalition for the project, who’d be surprised if the next tranche of subway funding — unveiled circa 2016 — found its way to the Yonge extension instead.
After all, it’s a safer bet for politicians looking to back the next boring project.
Photo by Neal Jennings