Skip to content

Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

EDITORIAL: It’s time to stop the Scarborough Subway


Read more articles by

This is an editorial from the Spacing magazine team

Make no mistake: the current Scarborough subway extension (SSE) plan has become this generation’s version of the 1970s Spadina Expressway battle — a fork-in-the-road moment, the consequences of which will define Toronto for generations.

On June 3, 1971, then-premier Bill Davis cancelled a highway building mega-project that had been on Metro’s planning books for years, was already under construction, and represented the beginning of a dramatic, city-altering transportation strategy to ram major highways through Toronto neighbourhoods.

When Davis made his announcement — which triggered scathing criticism from then mayor William Dennison and Metro chairman Albert Campbell — he stated memorably, “If we are building a transportation system to serve the automobile, the Spadina Expressway would be a good place to start. But if we are building a transportation system to serve people, the Spadina Expressway is a good place to stop.”

As council prepares for this debate, we need desperately to pay homage to that history, and Davis’ courage, and learn from it. While the stakes do not involve bulldozing communities, the long-term impact on the city is comparably dire. 

In our view, the SSE not only fails to meet all the critical tests of fiscal and social sustainability, forward-looking transit planning, and economic development; the project will also severely impair the City’s ability to deliver vital infrastructure elsewhere in a community that has been under-served by rapid transit for decades.

Boosters, beginning with but not limited to Mayor John Tory, claim that what the City is doing is building transit, finally. But by any reasonable review of the facts, the SSE is really about NOT building rapid transit, and indeed making Toronto’s existing transit system even less functional than it currently is.

It is a move backwards, not a move forwards.

As in 1971, the decision to pull the emergency brake falls to Premier Kathleen Wynne, who has a singular opportunity to make the right choice.

We recognize that change is hard. We certainly acknowledge that both Wynne and Tory have tried their utmost to deliver on their respective campaign promises about the Scarborough subway (Wynne in the 2013 by-election and the 2014 general election; Tory in the 2014 mayoral race). Too often, politicians make election commitments that they later ignore in office. And there is absolutely no doubt they have both sought to honour their pledges to Scarborough residents.

But those same voters also want their elected representatives to protect their scarce tax dollars. What’s more, we believe Torontonians across the city expect their political representatives, both at the municipal and provincial levels, to exercise sage judgment when making decisions with far-reaching consequences for the city we all share. No one expects them to blindly pursue promises in the face of overwhelming evidence that such commitments will do more harm than good.


When members of the previous council first bruited the idea in late 2012, Torontonians were assured it would cost only $500 million more than the cost of transforming the Scarborough RT into a light-rapid transit (LRT) route. Backed by generous commitments from the federal and provincial governments, the previous council endorsed that vision, and voters reaffirmed it during the election.

Since then, a significant amount of new information has surfaced through the planning process that reveals the SSE will be far less functional, and far more expensive, than the proposal endorsed by council and residents in the last election.

In the two-plus years since those municipal and provincial campaigns, the anticipated cost has grown by more than 50%, with more budget escalation likely. Toronto taxpayers, in fact, will surely lose the savings promised by the Ontario government’s recently announced changes to hydro rates due to the inevitable cost escalation on this mega-project, which the City will have to cover somehow.


The new net daily ridership generated by the SSE, according to the City’s latest estimates, will serve the equivalent of less than one half of one percent of Scarborough residents on a typical weekday – a figure well below the 14,000 daily ridership figures initially promised. See this PDF for more background info

The decision last year to reduce the stations from three to one was taken to contain costs and use the savings to help finance a 17-stop LRT network that extends across Scarborough. We supported this compromise. That LRT network, as University of Toronto geographers Andre Sorensen and Paul Hess brilliantly explained in their 2015 study “Choices for Scarborough,” would serve more neighbourhoods, provide rapid transit to lower-income communities and post-secondary insitutions, and spur intensification and re-investment.

The spike in proposed re-development activity along Eglinton East in the Golden Mile, triggered by the Crosstown, provides hard proof that LRTs spur the sort of intensification Toronto needs, especially as more families and newcomers need to look to the inner suburbs for affordable housing options.

The SSE may produce some luxury condo development near Scarborough Town Centre, but even that impact is highly concentrated. Broadly, it fails all the tests of good land use planning and makes a mockery of Toronto council’s oft-repeated goals of using transit infrastructure investment to promote social equity and provide lower income residents with better access to labour markets.


If built downtown, the SSE tunnel would extend from Front Street to Eglinton. As many other critics have observed, its cost, which will likely top out at almost $5 billion, ensures that other transit projects will be cancelled or delayed indefinitely. The result is that it will make Toronto more, not less, car dependent, because the city’s staggering population growth – 4.7% in the last five years alone — will not be matched by commensurate growth in its transit service.

Both the federal and provincial Liberals have boasted about their policy commitments to reduce carbon. But their investment in the SSE achieves exactly the opposite. By investing a disproportionate and potentially growing sum in one project with a marginal impact on net new ridership, the City and its federal and provincial partners are effectively foisting more vehicular traffic, congestion and emissions on Scarborough neighbourhoods.

Opportunity Cost

Staff reports never have an opportunity cost section, which is a shame, because we believe policy-makers and members of the general public should know how the impact of one decision affects others. This blind spot is perverse. The mayor and his allies in Scarborough are counting on the fact that most people can’t really fathom numbers so large. But the harsh reality is that this boondoggle will severely cripple the City’s ability to build not only the Scarborough LRT but also other far less risky transit projects, such as the Queen’s Quay East LRT.

And because there will be so little additional ridership, the increasing costs won’t be offset by growing revenues, which means future councils will have to jack up transit fares and increase the TTC subsidy. Those decisions, in turn, will force reductions to other city services and take that much more of a bite out of commuters’ pocketbooks. The SSE’s aftershocks will be felt for decades to come.

To Premier Wynne and Mayor Tory, we say this: these trade-offs fail to pass the test of common sense. They reveal that both your governments are motivated more by political expediency than a commitment to the city’s long-term health.

The good news is that you have options that will provide far greater benefits to far more people and more businesses, in a far shorter period of time, and at much less cost.

As Premier Davis did a generation ago, we ask that you do the right thing for the City of Toronto, and stop this runaway train.

photo by Matt Weibe

The editors of Spacing ask that you add your voice on our petition




  1. Thanks for doing this, and publicizing the petition, and calling upon two leaders to change minds and the disastrous course that we’re being embarked upon. But pressure could/should also be brought to bear on Councillors Bailao, Palacio, McMahon, Colle, and Burnside to name 5, and also up to the federal level of government too.

    However, opposition to this folly needs to be nuanced to ensure that it’s quite clear there’s support for improving transit in Scarborough: the proponents are pretty base in implying the downtown elites etc. just don’t care about Scarborough, and want them to suffer etc. As a pot-sweetener, and to speed up transit provision (as surface constructs are far faster), I’ve been promoting usage of the Gatineau Hydro corridor for some form of transitway, starting within Scarborough. It’s quite wide, we still kinda own it, it’s long, it’s off-road so transit is sped up without harming car traffic, and by running diagonally, it’s a shortcut, and so some routes could even bypass Scarborough Town Centre maybe as they hurried along to Centennial and UTSCC or the Zoo. It might even be some 401 Relief, especially if GO buses could also use any transitway.

    And while you came close to a chief point in saying this Suspect Subway Extension may produce some luxury condos at STC, we’ve reached a point (perhaps in 2015 with that Sorensen/Hess study) you really should be asking if this isn’t clearly in the public/taxpayer interest, then ‘qui bono’? Construction interests, concrete providers, and the owners of the STC are major players though absolutely there are many transit users involved, and the SRT is beyond rough.

    Also, while you mention the length of what this subway might be in core terms, the real need for that sort of length of subway is IN the core, and not so much as a Yonge Relief Line perhaps (as we could maybe use GO trains and express buses on Mount Pleasant/Jarvis and have a reversible transitway on Jarvis please), but providing (finally) something east-west in the lower west core between the pinch point at the base of High Park and in to the core, beside the King/Queen high transit demand, the GO trains, and the clogged Gardiner/Lakeshore. The opportunity costs of the decades of Fail to provide robust transit where it’s needed/planned eg. DRL west via Front St., is really high, and we’re allowing more condos to be built exactly where a surface transitway could be installed fairly quickly for not too much money.

    This Globe piece with Msrs. Levy, Crowley and Soberman was damning, for more authority.

  2. It is clear that the inability of the transfer LRT supporters to make any compromise is a gigantic source of the problems we have today. People of Scarborough just want to be connected to the Yonge spine of Toronto with rapid transit. The connected SRT/ECLRT met the objective and could have been optimized to lower the costs. Instead, the desired needs of Scarborough were ignored and we have a solution that is way more expensive – and now it is too late to go back (to the connected SRT/ECLRT).
    I have also advocated for improved rapid transit in Scarborough. I think the key is in elevated transit, which Vancouver has built to be #1 in Canada (in length of rapid transit line) and Montreal is building. Costs are in the low $100M/km range.
    Go from Centennial to STC, then along Ellesmere to Vic Park and into the Don Valley. Go straight downtown with stops are Science Centre, Flemmingdon and Thorncliffe. If people don’t want the elevated transit, chose a different route – the option is not a TBM tunneled subway for $500M/km. If Ellesmere doesn’t like this, try going across Lawrence. If this doesn’t work, use the Gatineau corridor to reach the Don Valley. From the Don Valley, it is a 2km cut-and-cover run to downtown. East of Centennial, you can have branches to UTSC, Malvern,or Zoo. Once you have committed to elevated, there is minimal cost difference between going above a road, on side of road, in the hydro corridor, or in the valley.
    Just please, please, please, don’t try to revert back to the Transit City transfer LRT solution. It is was got us into this mess in the first place.

  3. I’m not sure where you’re getting the 5 billion dollar figure from. This current price tag (3.35 billion I believe) includes a 30% contingency buffer. It is simply unknown at this point whether this costing is accurate, but spreading alarmist disinformation instead of the facts hurts your cause and your credibility.

  4. Spacing did the first major media investigation of the Scarborough subway debacle, back in 2014, based on extensive access to information requests. We obtained a document from Metrolinx predicting the final capital cost could be 40-50% above early estimates. The current costing, $3.15b, is based on 5% of design completion. You can do the math. Here’s the link to our story:

  5. There are two contingencies in the SSE budget. The 30% amount is standard at this point in design when so little is known. As the design progresses and risks are either found or eliminated from consideration, the contingency goes down. Some of this transfers to the base cost (before contingency) where a real extra cost is identified, and some goes into the other bucket called “management reserve” for a risk that is no longer applicable. That management reserve is initially set at 10% and is specifically for scope changes in the project as distinct from unforeseen conditions. The intent is that spending from the management reserve requires approval at very senior executive levels, and it’s not just a slush fund to cover up shortcomings in projects estimates (as was done on the Spadina extension when the stations came in way over budget). By the time the work is tendered and design gets up to 30%, the contingency should be much lower because the issues it was intended to cover have in many cases been dealt with. The 40-50% contingency level is based on an industry standard for designs at the current stage, and the project is being conservative in this allowance. Note that this would be 40-50% over the base cost, not over the total cost. In other words, it would not be $3.5 billion + 50% because that $3.5b already includes a 30% contingency.

  6. A brief response to Walter, with some thanks for another set of thoughtful (at first skim) options. We need to have regional, sub-regional and milk run services, somehow, and we also need new ways of getting places in new-ish corridors, based on the origin-destination patterns ie. data. And getting to the Yonge spine may be a good desire, but major trouble is it’s overloaded, and????
    Some of the LRTs may not be so good; I don’t know the areas/details well enough to truly say, but the Eglinton E. LRT seems pretty OK/ready to go/needed. For the regional, maybe the RER/Smart Track and maybe the Smart Spur option (if it was honestly explored), might be excellent. Sub-regional: wish we could get to thinking of the Gatineau corridor; maybe a different technology is an idea, but that’s part of our problem – new technologies can be less perfect, right?

  7. It’s actually the North York bullies that have three subway lines and all of the subway construction in the past 40 years, that don’t care about the people of Scarborough or anyone else for that matter, besides their own tribe. Subway, LRT and RER, equality for the people of Scarborough NOW!

  8. Thanks for the very well written and insightful article on the debate around the subway for public transit in Toronto. Everything that you say applies to the subway in Vancouver.

    Rather than support the inexpensive tram line in harmony with the communities (LRT in mixed traffic) in Vancouver, the mayor is fighting communities for Bombardier to extend its proprietary and obsolete linear induction technology in a costly six kilometre $3 billion subway in earthquake prone Vancouver. Even the federal government seems complicit and has upped its funding to 40% to provide the “zillions” for the subway which Bombardier needs to extend its proprietary and obsolete linear induction technology in Vancouver.

    What we require is an independent group of engineers (civil, mechanical and electrical) who evaluate three bids to select the most technically sound “transportation alternative” having the lowest operating, maintenance and capital costs and which cuts road congestion the most. If it is smart cars on existing roads, it is cars. If it is public transit, it is public transit.

    When we had our last public transit strike in Vancouver, we had more cars on the roads and traffic flow improved without buses cutting in and out of traffic. Think about it.

  9. I agree with Hamish that the Yonge line is overcrowded, but it is also true that every Transit City line (except for the Waterfront West LRT) fed either the YUS or BD line and did not add any extra routes to the downtown. Eglinton East LRT (SMLRT) and SLRT both fed the BD line, and these passengers would be transferring at Y-B the same as with the SSE.
    If SRT was connected to ECLRT, it is true that Scarborough is connected to Yonge, but riders can just as easily transfer to Spadina (when they realize they can’t get on the Yonge train). With this SRT/ECLRT, there would be no doubt that the DRL would be built to Eglinton. Then, the riders could have switched to DRL (at Science Centre) and not contributed to either Yonge ridership or Y-B transfers.
    My next thought was a whole new line from Scarborough to Downtown – again, keeping all riders off both BD and Yonge. About 20km of elevated line would be in the $2B to $2.5B range and the final job from Don Valley to downtown (~3km) could eat up another $1B+. Essentially, for similar cost to the SSE, we could get a mostly elevated LRT or other mini-metro line (similar to Vancouver) running straight to the heart of downtown.

  10. The 2016 projected life-cycle costs of the one stop Scarborough subway are over almost $5.5 Billion alone (although over a longer time period than the build costs). Combined with $3.5 Billion build costs and operating costs the real cost is well over $10 BILLION in 2016 dollars, and will likely be double that over time with interest.

    The Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE) JUNE 2016 Business Case.
    NOTE: Table 15: Life Cycle Expenditure (NPV $2016 millions)

  11. I can’t believe we are still having this selfish short sighted discussion. The subway technology is the only long term viable kind. LRT tech is short sighted and selfish. It is self evident the subway is the only way for transit in the east to move forward given our enviroment. I encourage people to look past their own needs and to think critically for themselves. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and beliefs but I have to say I am very dissapointed in Torstar and all its media associates and their continuous one sided and clearly opinion(?) based position and lack of forward vision. The debate is OVER. Scarborough and all its hard working citizens get their subway. For today AND tomorrow.