When I look at the latest staff report outlining, ahem, progress on the Scarborough subway extension (SSE), I see a document absolutely packed with off-ramps, escape hatches, emergency brakes, and other sly bureaucratic opportunities for Mayor John Tory — or whoever is ostensibly driving this runaway train — to extricate the City from a catastrophically ill-conceived mega-project.
While he continues to gamely defend the latest indefensible iteration in the SSE, the mayor’s stubborn disinclination to pull one of the various rip chords being dangled in front of his face remains the great mysteries of his administration. Perhaps he should be looking a little more closely at the potential exits up ahead.
Let’s take them in order.
ESCAPE HATCH I
The most obvious of these — the one hidden in plain view — is the bureaucratic framing of yesterday’s “news”.
The City’s staff report bends over backwards to demonstrate that the cost of the line, which will be running under McCowan Road and now includes a fancy-schmancy bus terminal wedged into the flank of the Scarborough Town Centre, remains under the $3.56 billion plateau that could trigger a re-opening at council. But the new number — $3.35 billion — is dubious on its face because it reveals officialdom’s awareness of that upset limit. It’s like believing the car dealer’s pitch that the shiny new vehicle out on the lot is actually $19,999. It’s not.
Surely, we shouldn’t be dealing in loss-leader figures at this point.
Point is, Tory et al could respond to this top-line, made-for-the-evening-news figure with the sort of skepticism befitting someone who situates himself on the fiscally sensible centre-right. Any dispassionate reading of the report would produce a similar conclusion: that the staff is managing the politics, not the cost.
ESCAPE HATCH II
This one is hidden a bit further in to the staff report, down in the fifth appendix with the third-party review of the TTC’s cost estimate. The consultant offers up this chestnut of engineering caution:
In general, the TTC [order of magnitude estimate] is valid and appropriate for this stage of the project development (2% to 5% complete documentation). In our opinion, if the scope does not change, this is a valid estimate in 2015 dollars. Valid order of magnitude estimates (OMEs) typically anticipate a level of accuracy of -20% and +50% (reference AACE 2016 www.aacei.org/toc/toc_18R-97.pdf) assuming that the project scope does not change. However, if the scope changes, as with any and all construction budgets, the ability to fund and absorb the cost of scope changes is often problematic. [emphasis added]
Hmm. We’re using two-year-old numbers, a tiny fraction of the required documentation to prepare a sturdy estimate, and a big fat caveat about scope changes. The sheer hilariousness of that last point is worth highlighting: yesterday’s report surfaced specifically because of scope changes — a new bus station.
Of course, the politicians can say that the scope on such a giant undertaking will continue to change until it doesn’t. But the well-defended planning logic that goes into these endeavours is not unlike what you’ll hear from the mechanics at the garage or renovators: “While we’ve got the wheels off your car…while we’ve exposed the wall…while we’ve etc., etc., — we may as well do X, Y and Z because they’ll have to be done at some point and no time like the present, etc., etc.”
ESCAPE HATCH III
My favourite line in the staff report is the one that is perhaps the least technical part of the whole document, but contains the greatest degree of project risk. Read along with me:
Among its other major conclusions served up to the executive committee, the report “recommends City Council request the province and federal governments to confirm funding for the project.”
A formality? Shake your big head.
The Gardiner rebuild budget last fall suddenly grew by almost a billion dollars because it turned out, upon closer inspection, that the federal government wasn’t prepared to sink money into the great road. As it turns out, the confirmed funding that was part of the initial budget considered by council wasn’t so confirmed after all.
Which leads us to the next instalment in this shell game, which is the mayor’s surreal digression into toll road politics. As everyone remembers, Tory suddenly got religion on tolling the city’s two highways, but many people reckoned he had his eye on all those 905 toonies so he could find a way of putting fiscal duct tape over the hole his friends in Ottawa had produced.
But then Tory’s red friends at the pink palace decided to do a bait-and-switch on the tolls (the imposition of which requires provincial assent), and the city was left with nothing more than an unconvincing promise for gas tax revenues that will never materialize.
On top of all that, one might ask if the provincial contribution of $1.48 billion is a 2013 number or a year-of-expenditure number? It’s not a trite detail: After all, if Queen’s Park circa 2020 — by then firmly under the control of Premier Patrick Brown, who likely will owe no fealty to the long-suffering people of Scarborough — insists on paying in 2013 dollars instead of inflation-adjusted ones, we could be out by many more tens or even hundreds of millions. Et voila, we’re over that magic $3.56 billion!
In short, seeking all sorts of confirmation from the other orders seems like a good idea indeed. But remember to sit back and enjoy the tsunami of prevarication when such confirmation is sought.
Which brings me to the final:
ESCAPE HATCH IV
While many Canadian urbanists fantasize about getting all three orders of government to collaborate on important city-building projects, the reality is that such jointly-funded projects can degenerate into a hot mess. But the staff’s recommendation to re-engage the other orders offers all and sundry the possibility of injecting some sanity into an evidently insane situation.
If all three partners can agree amongst themselves that the costed-out reality of this political mis-adventure produces a form of absurdity that will reflect poorly on all sides, they can hit re-set and align behind a transit plan for Scarborough that actually makes sense and deliver benefits broadly, as opposed to those lucky few who will actually ride what amounts to the Trump Tower of subway projects.
All they have to do is stand in the same spot as they pull the emergency brake.
featured photo by Tsar Kasim