Mayor Rob Ford’s plan to bury the 19-km Eglinton Crosstown LRT from end to end, instead of just through the crowded core of the city, will be rightly remembered as the single most expensive infrastructure mistake in Toronto history.
In fact, this optimistically-priced $8.2 billion scheme — which is $3.6 billion more than the original amount budgeted for the Crosstown, and includes $1.4 billion to replace the Scarborough RT — will make us harken back nostalgically to an innocent era of smaller flubs, like the Ontario government’s original Scarborough RT or even Mike Harris’ decision to cancel the Eglinton West subway after the province and Metro spent $100 million digging a tunnel stub that was subsequently filled in.
Ford’s vision of an Eglinton Crosstown that’s hidden from view will bring a deep blush of shame to the faces of future generations of Torontonians.
And here’s the pungent irony at the heart of this billion dollar boondoggle: Ford and his fiscally-conservative allies would never approve this kind of wasteful spending if they were using the city’s own money, as opposed to funds provided by Queen’s Park. When the cash is coming out of someone else’s coffers, however, those lofty principles vanish in a miasma of political opportunism.
Why Metrolinx and their bosses in the Liberal cabinet are continuing to play along, then, is anybody’s guess. As the agency’s vice-president of investment strategy and project evaluation John Howe remarked piously during Thursday’s Toronto Talks Mobility conference, “We need to demonstrate that we have credible leadership and projects selected on the basis of good evidence.”
My sense is that most Torontonians have yet to internalize the sheer magnitude of this looming screw-up in stark dollar terms. People’s eyes glaze over when politicians throw around big numbers, so a few comparisons are in order:
The $2.2 billion premium for concealing those awful streetcars from view is almost equivalent to the cost of the entire Spadina subway extension from Downsview to Vaughan city centre. It is slightly more than what the City will spend on all repairs to road and bridges between 2012 and 2020 [PDF]. And it represents one-seventh of the current provincial deficit, and that’s assuming the project comes in on budget, which is doubtful, given complications such as tunneling under the Don.
As a point of principle, any major transit infrastructure project must satisfy some basic tests before government agencies begin to spend the public’s money:
• The new service should provide residents and commuters with efficient transportation alternatives and reduce road congestion over the long run.
• It should be cost effective, insofar as the combination of borrowing and operating costs will eventually achieve an operating deficit comparable to those of other higher-order transit services within the same region.
• It should trigger more compact development patterns.
The proposed Eglinton Crosstown almost certainly fails on the first two, while the hoped-for intensification along the sprawling Eglinton corridor east of the Don (e.g., the Golden Mile) will take generations to materialize.
Consider point 1. The difference between the original Crosstown plan and the new version is at best cosmetic. The road allowances on Eglinton East are so wide that the city never planned to remove lanes to accommodate the right-of-way. But the additional cost of burying the line will mean fewer stations, so the utility of the project is actually reduced compared to the Transit City version.
As for point 2, consider this comparison: the St. Clair right-of-way, at 7.5 km, is about the same length as the stretch of Eglinton East that will be buried as per Ford’s plan. The St. Clair ROW’s capital cost infamously swelled by $58 million, from an estimated $48 million to $106 million — a detail Ford and others used to bludgeon Transit City. Burying the Crosstown east of Brentcliffe, where it was to emerge from a tunnel, will cost about thirty times more than the overrun on St. Clair West.
With that kind of cost structure, it’s difficult to imagine how Ford’s Crosstown will ever earn its keep. Of course, the capital outlay won’t be sitting on the city’s balance sheet, so council isn’t fretting about additional debt charges. Yet Metrolinx, which is looking at outsourcing the line through some kind of design-build-operate deal, is surely asking itself how much overhead and operating risk it must swallow in order to attract a private partner with profit expectations.
None of these questions have been answered in public, nor has there been a cold-eyed evaluation of the opportunity costs associated with the burial scheme.
Indeed, nothing about the new Crosstown has been scrutinized publicly. But that moment is looming. Next year, Metrolinx embarks on a series of environmental assessments, the first of which will deal with how the LRT will get over or under the Don River. Others will assess the environmental impact of burying the line.
The EAs, funded by Metrolinx, will be out for public consultation in early 2012. If the city and council obey their own procedures, those EAs should come before council, as was the case with the Transit City EAs on Finch and Sheppard.
When those reports do turn up on the city’s agenda, every councillor should ask themselves whether it makes financial sense to bury Eglinton from stem to stern. It would also be useful for them to know if Metrolinx, eying a Triple P deal, has developed a cost-benefit analysis of this scheme, and just when the public will have a chance to scrutinize said assessment.
God knows, that’s just the sort of accountability Rob Ford would have been demanding back when he was a crusading defender of the ordinary taxpayer. And I don’t think I’d be going too far out on a limb if I speculated that Ford, the city councillor, would have given this kind of wasteful scheme a big thumb’s down.