LORINC: Expect Drummond’s report to muddle Ford’s transit plans

Every finance minister with even a dram of savvy knows that a critically-important part of the job description involves finding new and innovative ways of keeping the supplicants feeling somewhat defeated as budget day approaches.

In that distant era of federal surpluses, Paul Martin, it often appeared, would order the drones in the finance department to take incoming revenue estimates and hack off a zero or two so no one got too excited about spending the windfall. More locally, city financial officials ritually low ball assessment growth estimates and put out imaginary “pressure” numbers to scare the minions and the activists.

But Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals have devised an artful variation on the theme by first hiring and subsequently un-muzzling TD Bank economist Don Drummond.

This past week, Drummond, an ex-Department of Finance official with impeccable Liberal connections, came out with some scary pronouncements on future provincial spending and the credibility of the Liberals’ deficit predictions. Don’t for a moment think he’s freelancing: lacking a majority and faced with the increasingly imminent realities of budget-making in an aging society, the Liberals are more than happy to have Drummond serving as their in-house prophet of doom.

Much of the attention will fall on the two big spending programs — health care and education, with special focus on the former, given the Harper government’s recent decree that the 6% funding escalator, a fiscal artifact of the Liberals’ 2004 federal-provincial health accord — will go the way of all flesh.

Health and education, as Martin Regg Cohn points out, soak up 80% of all spending, which is why Drummond has warned that all ministries will face major cuts, perhaps as steep as 30%. But in this budget cycle, I don’t think he’s playing the usual fiscal mind games.

Which leads me to infrastructure in general and Metrolinx in particular.

While Drummond and the pundits weren’t talking about this aspect of provincial spending, it’s inconceivable that the province’s long-term infrastructure plans – among them the Metrolinx Big Move strategy and the $8.2 billion Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown — will emerge unscathed.

Over the next three years, according to the Ministry of Infrastructure, the province plans to spend $35 billion on a broad range of capital projects — sewers, schools, hospitals, bridges, and, of course, transit/transportation ventures. Thirty per cent of that number is $10.5 billion, just so we’re all clear on the math.

With Metrolinx still a year or so from offering up the big reveal on its financing strategy for the $50 billion/25 year Big Move plan, the lion’s share of the transit spend is drawn from the general revenue pot that is under pressure. And, as is clear from this overview, Queen’s Park doesn’t want those squeezed dollars just to pool in the City of Toronto. For all the obvious political considerations, the Liberals want to leave transit legacies in Waterloo, Ottawa and parts of the 905.

So what to do?

I’m guessing Dwight Duncan’s officials are now taking a good hard look at the $2.1 billion premium for burying the Crosstown for that ten-kilometre stretch between Laird and Kennedy — you know, the part where the right-of-way is wide enough to land a 747 with room left over for drive-thrus.

Sure, Metrolinx and Mayor Rob Ford have a memorandum of understanding – “non-binding,” as this document notes dryly – about submerging the Crosstown and pretending it’s a subway, a decision I’ve described previously in this space as the single costliest transit mistake in the city’s history.

But if you’re part of the province’s red-pencil brigade and looking for ways to pare government spending without impacting service, Ford’s plan must surely be a leading candidate. After all, the Crosstown burial ritual is politically contentious, technically complicated, financially risky and, from the perspective of service utility, pointless. What’s more, it is, as Renew Canada Magazine noted earlier this month in a widely-circulated assessment, Canada’s most expensive infrastructure scheme right now. I’d defy anyone to come up with a project wearing a larger bull’s-eye.

Now say you’re Mark Towhey, the mayor’s chief policy guy and spin-meister. His current headache is going to become a lot more migraine-like in weeks to come.

When McGuinty, in early 2010, moved to delay/reduce/slash (depending on your ideological biases) the Transit City plan in the name of fiscal probity, former mayor David Miller first went ballistic and then took to the TTC’s PA system to decry the changes. But Miller was a left-leaning/transit-expansion kind of guy, so no one was shocked to hear him calling for the expenditure of public funds.

Ford, well, that’s a different story now, isn’t it? As a fiscal hawk, he can hardly come out strong for spending money the province doesn’t have. Ford also wants a real life subway, the impossibility of which Gordon Chong will outline in February.

So if Dwight Duncan says the money for burying Eglinton is no longer on the table, Ford et al will be left doing their sucking/blowing routine. After all, in times of severe financial restraint and a shrinking job market, Ford and budget chair Mike Del Grande can’t just keep braying about the 2010 electoral mandate to justify their transit fantasies. A year into their term, they surely know that voters want all sorts of things, many of them contradictory (“More services! Less taxes!”).

As the #CodeRedTO supporters no doubt realize, a moment of reckoning is, ahem, about to pull into the station.

My prediction is that it will arrive in the form of Don Drummond’s 2012 provincial budget, at which point the mayor may have no choice but to mind the gap.



  1. There’s a certain irony here for those who have watched the transit file for a long time. When times are good, expensive transit plans abound, but little is built. There is always an economic downturn and/or a major change in political fortune to reshape the debate.

    The whole subway vs LRT (or any comparatively less expensive form of transit) discussion turns on the question of proposing a network that has a fighting chance of getting built because it doesn’t cost so much and can actually be well underway before the inevitable cyclical crunch arrives.

    We’re now in an era when it will be claimed that transit is “something we cannot afford” just when huge expansion and investment is so badly overdue.

  2. This is why I love Lorinc and Spacing — your opinion stuff is always in front of the mainstream media’s curve. Just super-good analysis. 

  3. The Eglinton project is one where we can have the cake and eat it too. If built as originally planned, part underground and part above, we’d have the billions left over to do dozens of kilometres of dedicated corridors for LRT, BRT and even to build a city-wide network of physically separated bikeways. It’s still time for city leaders from the public, private and NGO sectors to stop this madness. The provincial government also needs to be consistent with good ideas like the green belt, places to grow and lots of good planning at Metrolinx and stop playing political games and show leadership when it’s needed.
    One final comment; when moving at similar speeds in dedicated corridors, people prefer to go above ground, enjoying the sun, trees, people and shops which makes it great for local business. Only rats (and non-transit users) like the darkness of the caves. Small businesses along the corridor have to wake up and realize that underground is their death sentence in so many ways.
    Gil Penalosa, ED 8-80 Cities

  4. The eastern section of Eglinton should be elevated, like the SkyTrain in Vancouver. Streetcars stop at red lights and are inferior to subways but tunneling is a waste of money here.

  5. Time to get GTA MPPs from ALL THREE parties in a room and get them to agree on a new revenue stream for transit.

    Road tolls, sales tax, whatever. Just get some sort of funding stream going.

    We’ve all had enough of this shell game.

  6. Oh Gil,

    Thanks for your insight and lowering the discussion to name calling. Your effort is greatly appreciated!

    Rats? You mean the ones that have left the subway lines literally overflowing during rush hou in evrery major city across the world? Perhaps not everyone is unemployed like you and doesn’t have time to waste treating transit like we are backpacking through Spain.

    The polls are overwhelming – the people want subways. Not under every street mind you, but certainly as part of a coherent network like real world cities (London, Paris, New York, etc).

    You don’t have to like it, but you must accept it. And you think we want to spend $8 billion to putt along at 21km/hr and sit behind cars turning left at every red light? The destination IS the point of public transit because it allows us to get back to what’s important in our life – like our families.

    I have seen your utopia on St.Clair and normal people want no part of it!

  7. @Andrew

    I believe the Eglinton LRT, like the rest of the defunct Transit City lines was going to employ Signal priority on surface portions. Meaning – The LRT would flip a “swtich” when it reached a certain distance from a traffic light, set off a timer, and that traffic light would be green by the time the LRT would get to the intersection.

    Meaning, the LRT would only stop and start to let passengers on and off, just like a subway.

  8. @JW, the Eglinton LRT is designed to run in its own grade separated lane from traffic. There will be no cars turning left in front of the train. As mentioned by another poster, signal priority will be used to allow the train to proceed through intersections when needed.

    These are the kinds of untruths that  do not allow us to have a reasonable discussion about the LRT plan. A surface LRT will also do away with the buses so there will be less congestion on the road. 

    And really, would a left turn annoyance warrant wasting 2 billion dollars to bury the whole thing?

  9. @JW

    Funny you should mention London and Paris… both are building LRT in a big way.

    Of course the polls show that everybody wants subways. Everybody also wants a Porsche… yet I see more Toyotas on the road than Porsches.

    I wonder why that is??

  10. ” sit behind cars turning left at every red light”

    isn’t it strange that those opposed to Transit City are under some weird misconception that it will share a lane with left turning cars?

    Get educated before posting this stuff. Please.

  11. Truefriction said “I believe the Eglinton LRT, like the rest of the defunct Transit City lines was going to employ Signal priority on surface portions.”

    Well, assuming the Roads Department didn’t veto it because a ward councillor was hearing from “war on car” residents, or it was always promptly repaired when the detector circuits failed…

  12. JW, get a clue before you open your big neo-conservative mouth.

  13. To join the choir @JW, 21km/h AVERAGE SPEED is actually on par for local transit, or at least what it should be. Driving a private automobile in mixed and moderately congested traffic yields similar speeds.

    Rapid transit tends to have average speeds of about 30km/h.

  14. I think a good compromise for Eglinton east would be to run at grade, but to have tunnels – or, more likely, underpasses – underneath the most major intersections: Vic Park-Eglinton Sq, Warden and Kennedy.  This is sort of what you see in Calgary, where the C-train (which is quite a hefty piece of equipment) runs in the median, but often burrows under major intersections.

  15. “Funny you should mention London and Paris… both are building LRT in a big way.”

    True. But as a complement to their already extensive and comprehensive subway networks. Which Toronto lacks at the moment. 

  16. @ Reiver

    Yes – Shrugging off 2 billion is sort of what left us in this mess in the first place. And yes, I am aware of Eglinton but you should be made aware of what Finch West and Sheppard East were supposed to look like.

    LRT can be true rapid transit – but not in the Transit City form.

  17. @ LUKE V

    Yes – big cities are building LRT, but ONLY because they have a backbone of subways to completment local regional LRT based transit. Please take a look at an underground map of London or Paris.

    The areas that are building LRT from scratch do not have the population to justify subways.

  18. @ Ben

    Fair comment. But Transit City was not intended to be true rapid transit. It was always intended to be a Neighbourhood Regeneration project. Those are HIS words, not mine. Those words are spoken on this very website (Episode 2 if I remember correctly).

    So a former mayor who admits his “transportation policy” was nothing more than a “neighbourhood regeneration project” is ok yet I am the bad guy for actually asking for a “transportation policy” to be a….”transportation policy”?

    LRT definitely has a place in this city, but it must come after 4 East/West subway lines are created and 4 North/South subway lines are created. The good news is we are already at 3 and 1/3rd. Eglinton will be 4 and finishing the final 2/3rd of Sheppard will be 5. The DRL will complete the remaining 3 lines (the east/west at the base and extending north/south at both ends) and we can use LRT to fill in the gaps from there.

    Now THAT is a coherent Transportation Policy!

  19. @JW

    “The areas that are building LRT from scratch do not have the population to justify subways.”

    Well yeah, that’s the point. North York & Scarborough lack the population density to justify subways.

    And the NIMBY attitude of low-density neighbourhoods will fight tooth-and-nail to keep it that way.

  20. @JW

    While I don’t begrudge you subways everywhere and anywhere, it is fiscally irresponsible, and logistically implausible. 

    To wit, Metrolinx and TTC have identified a very optimistic 100 people and jobs/hectare benchmark to support subway. 100 people per hectare is 10,000 people per square kilometre. It really should be closer to 25,000, but I digress.

    In practice you’re talking about increasing, for example, the density of Scarborough by 7,000 people per square kilometre. Average household size in Toronto is 2.8 persons. I’m not sure the people of Scarborough would accept an additional 2,500 units of housing per every square kilometre (7,000 people divided by 2.8 persons). At minimum, I know I wouldn’t without significant demonstration of thought. I’d rather have mixed communities where I have a greater opportunity of commuting locally to my place of work than live in a skyscraper jungle just so I can have a slightly speedier commute downtown after years of digging and disruption. I say slightly speedier, because you and those 7000 other people are probably heading in the same direction, thus probably not improving outcomes that greatly from what it is now.

    Anyway. why don’t we go down this path a little more and extend the subway argument to the whole of Toronto. Toronto is  641 square kilometres. Using the TTC/Metrolinx benchmark, we would need 6.41 million people and jobs (641 sq. km x 10,0000 people and jobs per square kilometre) in Toronto to make subways financially sound in a world of limited to no subsidy form other levels of government. It’s all your money anyway, so I’m not sure why someone would purposely build a form of transit requiring incredibly high densities in low density areas apart from politics. And yes, most stops probably don’t recover their costs on the TTC – that’s a different discussion altogether, and probably worth FOI’ing the TTC.

    To put that in context, even the most wildly optimistic population projections for the City of Toronto put as at 3.5 million or so people by the 2030s. The Federal government is also slowly but surely chipping away at the annual number of immigrants into Canada, most of whom no longer settle in Toronto anyway.

    If we can get 6 million people into Toronto, let’s go for it and build subways everywhere. But if not, why is LRT such a horrendous, horrendous idea in an age of supposed fiscal restraint and austerity. Or is that restraint only for the other guy and not you?

    And yea, I know feeder routes can help offset the density requirement, but then you’re really talking about a series of Union Stations set up around the City capturing commuters from the GTA, which means we really have to have a model where the suburbs are nothing more than bedroom communities and all the jobs are in downtown TO. That isn’t happening – not anymore.

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