LORINC: When a decision is not a decision — the undead Scarborough subway

feature-lorinc

In the midst of the Toronto Spring in early 2012, TTC chair Karen Stintz posed a question to me that has stuck in my mind ever since: “How do we know we’ve made a decision?” she wondered as her faction on council fought valiantly to reverse the ridiculous course set by Mayor Rob Ford when he decreed, on his first day in office, that Metrolinx down tools on the $8.7 billion transit plan approved by the McGuinty government in early 2010.

As history and the council record will show, the Stintz 26 ultimately prevailed, with Metrolinx and the City finally signing a deal last year for the four major projects. Council and the public debated the phony subway/LRT dichotomy every which way to Malvern, and then a decision was made.

Why Stintz and others insist on endlessly re-litigating that decision — by pushing to extend the Bloor-Danforth subway to Scarborough Town Centre instead of replacing the RT with an LRT — is not merely a mystery. It also throws her leadership judgment into question, largely because she’s now leading a group that is committing precisely the same sin as Ford did in 2010.

In a craven and deeply ironic bid to win votes in Scarborough next year, both sides are agitating to re-open the Metrolinx agreement, thereby creating more years of delay and forcing untold additional costs onto future taxpayers.

It’s unseemly, dishonest, fiscally irresponsible, and disappointing. Stop.

There’s a second dimension to this regrettable gambit that rarely gets discussed, and that is the opportunity cost associated with the incremental outlay for the subway extension (which is either $925 million or $500 million, depending on whom you believe).

Set aside, for a moment, the reality that council hasn’t identified the funding source, and seems unlikely to commit itself to the funding. My question is, what is the return on investment for the extra funding required to upgrade the line from an LRT to a subway? Will this change in plan produce more economic activity in that corridor? Will council approve more development that wasn’t heading towards those stops already? And besides the infrastructure spend itself, are there going to be other spin-offs that wouldn’t have been forthcoming with an LRT?

waterfront-donriver

I don’t know the answers to those questions, as I don’t think they’ve been seriously discussed. But let’s shift our gaze slightly to look at what that $500 million could deliver in terms of return on investment elsewhere in the city.

As it happens, that figure is approximately the amount Waterfront Toronto needs to rebuild the mouth of the Don River in the Portlands. For those who haven’t been paying attention, provincial environmental regulations prohibit development in the lower Donlands and the Portlands until the City creates suitable floodplain protection in the area.

We’ve all seen what high waters did to downtown Calgary in the past week-and-a-half, so the need for such infrastructure is anything but theoretical. Waterfront Toronto’s plan is to build two new naturalized channels through the Portlands, both of which will provide the required floodplains as well as park and recreational space.

Once they’re constructed, the rest of the Portlands can be redeveloped. But Waterfront Toronto officials point out that funding has yet to be identified.

What’s the return on investment? Consider that the flood protection berm under the newly opened Corktown Common, which cost $135 million, unlocked over $1 billion in public and private investment in the West Donlands vicinity (the area sits in the Don floodplain). That’s $8 in for every $1 spent. Not a bad profit.

The Portlands is a far larger and more desirable canvas, with better access to the lake, so it’s reasonable to assume that the City will earn back that $450 million investment many times over, with billions in new construction projects and thousands of jobs for residential, office, tourist, commercial and recreational uses.

Do we get the same kind of payback by spending the same sum on a subway that will run through an industrial corridor that doesn’t really lend itself to high density development in the first place? I think not.

My point is that if council, for the worst political reasons, believes it can find another $500 million from spending reallocations or taxes, perhaps we should first figure out where we’ll get the most economic bang for those hard-earned dollars.

I’d predict that in a disinterested side-by-side analysis with the Portlands flood plain project, that undead Scarborough subway would never leave the station. bottom

top photo by Jason Paris / bottom photo by Sam MacCutchan

24 comments

  1. When I look at the maps of the proposed Scarborough subway, it shows the “Scarborough Town Centre” station at McCowan. Unless someone moved the STC about a quarter of a mile or so to the east since I lived in Scarb’, that means the STC subway stop is actually a 5 minute walk from the actual mall. That seems a lot more inconvenient than walking across a platform to transfer at Kennedy.

    The lack of easy station access is why Scarborough residents falsely believe there is no rapid transit in Scarborough.

  2. Old Toronto Resident and Transity City Supporter

    The SRT if replaced by LRT, will start construction after the Pan AM games in Summer 2015.
    The next Toronto Mayor election happens Fall 2014.
    I think whichever candidate for mayor does NOT run supporting a Subway, will not win. Stintz or Ford could say: “Well the shovels are not in the ground.”
    So do we want Stintz or Ford as Mayor?
    I know there are downsides to a Subway, such as not being able to extend it up to Malvern (although a Spur coming from the Sheppard LRT might be possible?).
    But there is the demand, this isn’t a Sheppard 2.0 Subway.
    Maybe if the Sheppard LRT had already been constructed, than Scarborougharians might have changed their view.
    Maybe in the long run, giving them this subway might garner their support for more transit elsewhere.
    Anyway, I think perhaps before City Council votes on this issue again, maybe they should do a poll on this matter. Can Olivia Chow, Adam Vaughan or Shelly Carroll win if they don’t support a Scarborough Subway?
    Do we really want 4 more years of Rob Ford or instead Karen Stintz?

  3. To bad we can’t just fire politico’s on city council for doing a horrible job. Maybe we can learn something from the Egyptians.

  4. Bubba, seriously? You know, it was not the people, but the army who fired this guy. I don’t think Canadian army is up to that task (thank goodness).

  5. The LRT/SRT is already grade separated. The subway would have less stations. It would move transit further away from more local residents and Scarborough Centre. The current alignment is Already Grade Separated. Where is the benefit in spending this money on this endeavour? Waterfront East LRT? Eglinton Crosstown to the airport? Other infrastructure updates? That’s a lot of money to waste.

  6. It’s very sad that politicians have decided to use Scarborough as a political football and a sop for their own sense of self-importance and political ambitions.

    Right now Scarborough needs better and faster transit covering more of the city. That won’t happen when too much money is spent and/or that money is spent too late.

    The analysis of the SRT conversion also looked at the Scarborough Subway option and decided that the LRT conversion was the better choice. Political wrangling is not going to change the City report or analysis and development circumstances have not changed in 5 years.

    Scarborough would benefit from having the LRT now, adding a branch up to Sheppard at Agincourt GO station, and future consideration of a Bloor Danforth extension east along Eglinton to Markham Road rather than up McCowan.

    Cheers, Moaz

  7. Curious if your first picture was taken at the Scarborough Historical Society in Highland Creek?

  8. Views like these perpetuate the idea that a place like Scarborough should be near the bottom of the list of places worthy of investment. How could high density development—and a return on investment—happen in a place like Scarborough, when there is a lack of investment in urban infrastructure in the first place? Views like these prematurely dwarf an area’s potential, and over time become self-perpetuating realities.

    The underlying judgement about the potential of Scarborough, and perhaps other suburbs, is a harsh verdict, despite the fact that Scarborough is an important part of the city. The population of the area of Scarborough is nearly 25% of the entire population of Toronto. No wonder the discussion on the Scarborough subway extension keeps re-entering the political arena—Ford, Stintz, and other political stakeholders recognize that the citizens of Scarborough are a significant contributors to the city, both as voters and as taxpayers. They also recognize that the people here feel—and have felt—neglected by the city for a long time, probably since the controversial amalgamation in 1998.

    While I agree that political indecision is often regressive, issues like this one that keep coming up, point to larger, nastier political and urban problems that have not been resolved. I think laying down verdicts on the potential of Scarborough and other suburbs are unfair self-fulfilling prophecies.

  9. Tina wrote: “Views like these perpetuate the idea that a place like Scarborough should be near the bottom of the list of places worthy of investment.”

    I think comments like that perpetuates the idea that people don’t read the entire article. John’s column never says NOT to invest in Scarborough. It says the current investment of LRT is ideal, not to overpay for something like a subway which has no business case.

    And more so, when the current admin tells people they are the best to manage city coffers yet do not provide a reliable business case then they are obviously politicking and not truly caring about the constituents they claim to be sticking up for.

  10. Tina,

    your argument can be applied pretty much anywhere. Say, why not invest in a subway network in Oshawa? Aren’t your verdicts on the potential of Oshawa unfair self-fulfilling prophecies?

  11. ^ Indeed, John asks the critical questions of return on investment. Perhaps, he should’ve suggested that with the extra $500 million, the LRT would be built all the way to Malvern, and theoretically provide much needed transport in one of the densest neighbourhoods in Scarborough, and then some. The improved transit links provided by an LRT system would bring neighbourhoods together and foster growth. Instead, he points out the Portlands as a moneymaker for the city. That part of the metropolis means nothing to Scarborough. If he feels that the extra investment on a B-D extension is moot, why not mention a couple of worthwhile investments for Scarborough?

    Then, Tina’s comment would’ve been a lot less scathing.

    As a Scarborough resident, I support the LRT and previous Transit City plans. Inter-neighbourhood transport, considering Scarborough’s size, is a better investment in the long run than having a more convenient way of getting from Scarborough Town Centre to Downtown.

  12. Obviously nowhere in the article does it explicitly state, “do NOT invest in Scarborough.” Anyone with half a brain can make that observation. But if you read more deeply into the article, you come across troubling statements like these:

    “Do we get the same kind of payback by spending the same sum on a subway that will run through an industrial corridor that doesn’t really lend itself to high density development in the first place? I think not.”

    Actually, over the last few years there has been significant densification, especially in Scarborough Center. Residential and commercial developments have brought more traffic to the area, and there is plenty of room for growth. To make the assumption that Scarborough is an “industrial corridor that doesn’t really lend itself to high density development” is a premature condemnation to the potential of the area. For such a significant portion of the city, the lack of significant infrastructural investment [subways] is very troubling. The LRT makes fiscal sense, but a subway could have made fiscal sense too, if the right urban strategies have been set up and if urban infrastructural investment in the suburbs was a priority. Sound urban plans and business cases for the Scarborough extension have not yet been created, and the view that they’re not as worthy an investment as other parts of the city, only delay them from ever materializing.

  13. I think almost everyone is upset with the Transit City proposal for the SRT – i.e. maintaining the forced transfer at Kennedy. I traditional solution was to extend B-D to STC. The better solution is to connect the SRT to an elevated Eglinton LRT to provide a one-seat ride to the spine of Toronto. If people would stop and think, they would realize that this is a less expensive option that also provides more service to Scarborough. The problem is that emotions are too high since Scarborough has been played by the politicians, and they may not realize the best solution without a better public relations campaign.

  14. The point is to extend transit routes for everyone and to allow rapid transit for Scarborough residents. LRT is an excellent choice – it is fast, separated from traffic and accessible with enough stops for residents in the area. On an LRT you travel in daylight, see where you are and what you are passing. I think framing this discussion as “subways or we are second class” is a distortion of the transit discussion which ultimately serves the interests of those who want nothing but cars on streets, and want transit out of sight and out of their way. An LRT is a great choice and we should extend that network across the city.

  15. John said:
    “the (new) STC subway stop is actually a 5 minute walk from the actual mall. That seems a lot more inconvenient than walking across a platform to transfer at Kennedy.”

    In a way, I think you are correct. It the subway option is chosen, the next thing will be to ratain the SRT from Midland to McCowan – and maybe extend it to Centennial and add a station at Brimley.

  16. Transportation minister Glen Murray tweeted the following in response to the column:

    “Glen Murray @Glen4ONT
    @JohnLorinc For our gov’t is about high quality, fast, efficient rapid transit 4 Scarborough. It is about new jobs & businesses in Scbgh.”

  17. If the proposed subway will turn a profit, go ahead and build it, otherwise Scarborough residents can fork over $800/person to build the line and more $/year to run it. We shouldn’t build anything unless it turns a profit or we agree to new visible, dedicated taxes to pay for it — it’s called putting your money where your mouth is. I have not seen one good reason why all this money should be spent on a subway other than childish arguments like “we deserve it”, “we’re tired of being 2nd class citizens”, and other such drivel. Sorry, that is not a good enough reason to blow $500M.

    And yes, that criteria should have been applied to the Sheppard subway, our current subway extension to who-knows-where and any other project we intend to build.

    We aren’t exactly getting a lot of support from the upper levels of government — that means we need to be very careful in how we spend our money, or we agree to increase taxes to speed up the process.

    Oh, finally, if think we can magically get transit dolllars from getting rid of unions/gravy/waste/etc — you are really saying you will put up with the status quo — because unions/gravy/waste will always be here — people have complained about this for centuries — that’s reality.

  18. Walter, the decision to separate the SRT and Eglinton Crosstown services was made by the TTC. The Transit City plan was a continuous service … but the Scarborough-Malvern LRT (east on Eglinton and then northwards) would have been physically separated from both lines.

    If the plan is to retain the SRT alignment from Midland to McCowan and extend to Centennial, why not just build the LRT instead … and while you’re at it, run a branch of the LRT northwards to Sheppard (Agincourt GO station) or even Steeles (Miliken GO station). Since Metrolinx owns the track some kind of compromise could be found…and I bet it would cost less than the $500 million claimed for the subway extension (which might be possible if it only goes up to Ellesmere and doesn’t cross the 401).

    Perhaps everyone who wants a subway in Scarborough might do well to ask themselves and their councilors and MPPs 3 questions.

    1. Do I want a subway just because it is a subway?
    2. Knowing that there are costs and benefits to LRT as compared to a subway, do I still want a subway?
    3. Is the Bloor-Danforth line extension to Ellesmere and McCowan (it is possible but unlikely that the line would get to Sheppard & McCowan) the best subway for Scarborough (as compared to an extension eastwards along Eglinton to Markham Road or further)?

    Cheers, Moaz

  19. Regarding Moaz 3 questions, and the “we deserve it” mentality:

    >> The original RT was to use CLRVs (current streetcar fleet)
    >> The last time Scarborough saw light rail was the Kingston Radial to (Birchmount/Kingston) previously to West Hill, in the ’40s

    >> Transit City lines from Don Mills Station to Morningside with a branch up to the Zoo (and down to UTSC, and … continuing over to Rouge Hill on some insane alignment? … acting like a ROW streetcar (except with TONNES of space for one, stops slightly further apart than existing routes — probably one stop north of Sheppard = Zoo, one stop south = UTSC)

    >> The Scarborough-Malvern line along Eglinton from Kennedy to Kingston and up Markham Road … acting like a ROW streetcar (except with TONNES of space for one, stops slightly further apart than existing routes)

    >> The RT alignment through the Scarborough Town Centre and extended up to Sheppard via Markham, and on to Malvern … not the ROW … with the capacity for growth (McRoberts? Just sayin … better integrated Ellesmere, stop at Brimley, at CentennialSC, at Sheppard, on McLevin/Nuggett, at Malvern Centre

    –OR– 3 stations @ $150m each (plus tunneling between)
    Lawrence East station: Lawrence/McCowan
    Scarborough Centre station: not at the mall, one block east at (north of) Ellesmere/McCowan
    Sheppard East station: Sheppard/McCowan

    Scarborough has the opportunity to URBANIZE … these lines will be the “Queen” and “Spadina” lines … only … with … more … space! for cars … this is a ‘win-win’ that sounds good.

  20. (attached to previous comment of mine)

    Scarborough Town Centre isn’t the destination of every trip … I’m somewhat surprised the Steeles East and Eglinton East bus routes don’t some how end up there … this allows for multiple routes, less diversions, more duplication, and the use and expansion of an existing spine.

    the singular advantage of the subway is an almost-better connection at Ellesmere (still a walk up to “Scarborough Centre subway station” at McCowan/Bushby

  21. I thought the decision to separate the SRT from the ECLRT was when TTC realized that too many SRT riders would stay on the ECLRT. Running ECLRT at the same service as SRT was not possible due to the in-median operation and half the service on ECLRT would not allow a single rider to board between Kennedy and Don Mills. The only solution, since they refused to look at elevating Eglinton, was to force Scarberians to transfer at Kennedy.

    The answers are:
    1. Yes, and because of the forced transfer at Kennedy.
    2. They do not know the costs and benefits of a continuous SRT and elevated ECLRT since it has not talked about. They obvious prefer the absence of a transfer and service mainly to the heart of Scarborough, then to a separate LRT line.
    3. The B-D extension to STC and Sheppard (I am certain that will be part of the deal) may not be the best, but it is better than what had been proposed. The elevation over Egliton would be less than half the extra that the subway is. The extension of the B-D to Kingston Road would be a future extension along a denser part to Scarborough and with better station spacing since it would not have the big curve where stations are not possible.

  22. After Monday, the relevance of this post has gone waaaay up.

  23. The transfer at Kennedy between subway and RT isn’t that bad. It could be improved by building a single hall with platforms for subway and LRT side-by-side on the same level. Kennedy ought to get some grand architecture for being the convergence point of so many important transit lines–it’s one of the busiest stations in the system. No more mediocrity in terms of station architecture.

  24. Interestingly enough, the original plans for rapid transit in this city from the 1910s would have involved underground streetcar rapid transit under Yonge and Bay st. If people were so hard pressed about making a transfer then I suppose the city could eventually convert the subway lines to LRT to create some kind of gargantuan city wide web of seamless and integrated light rail. They could even convert the Sheppard subway for LRTs to integrate it with the Sheppard East LRT. At the end of the day would you rather get quality transit service at an affordable price or going with a really expensive option, tearing up the plans yet again and garnering up further mistrust from the skilled urban planning and civil engineering sectors? Think about that..

Comments are closed.