There is a sense of desperation in the air about Toronto’s transit projects. They have been talked about endlessly, but still there is no agreement on what should be built, or where the money is going to come from to pay for them.
John Tory announcing Smart Track during the 2014 election
To understand Toronto’s transit mess we have to begin with the history. With the election of the provincial Liberals in 2003 the premier, Dalton McGuinty, promised funding for transit in the GTA, later the GTHA, Greater Toronto, Hamilton Area. In time the province published their plan, called “The Big Move.” It proposed that the province spend $50 billion over the next 25 years on rapid transit. In time the plan was adopted at both the provincial and municipal levels.
David Miller was the mayor of Toronto, and he and his team went to work to design the projects for the city. Miller was impressed with Light Rapid Transit (LRT) technology. It was less expensive than subways because the lines traveled on the surface, but they were still fast and could move a lot of people. Miller’s team designed seven new LRT lines for Toronto. These were later cut back to four projects by the province, over the objections of Miller. The four were the Eglinton Crosstown, Sheppard east, Finch, and the Scarborough Line. “Transit City” was the name given to the projects. All of the capital costs to build the projects was to be paid for by the province. City council and the province adopted the projects as Toronto’s contribution towards the Big Move.
In 2010 Rob Ford was elected major. On the day that he was inaugurated, the new mayor declared, “The war against the car is over!” and “Transit City is dead!” Later he explained his transit policy was, “Subways! Subways! Subways!”
Rob Ford is the real source of John Tory’s transit problems. By the 2014 election Ford had not only disgraced himself with allegations, and later the admission of drug abuse, but the transit file was a mess. Council supported his proposal to convert the Sheppard line into a subway, but when it was shown to be financially unfeasible, the council voted to convert the line back into a LRT. At Ford’s insistence, the Eglinton LRT line was to be entirely underground, but council later changed it back into the original proposal where the central 10 km would be underground and the rest would run on the surface.
The one transit success of Ford was to change the Scarborough LRT into a subway. It has proved to be the biggest headache of all. This was done with the support of the province and the federal governments. Originally the $1.48 billion cost of the LRT was to be paid for by the province, but by converting it into a subway the costs ballooned. All additional costs are to be paid for by the city. Today it is a one stop subway extension from Kennedy to the Scarborough Town Centre. The estimated cost is $3.2 billion, but some critics say it will cost $5 billion.
The Scarborough subway is a project that gives politics a bad name. The provincial Liberals and federal Conservatives supported it because subways were demanded by vote rich Scarborough. The reality is that there will not be enough riders to support a subway. Royson James, the Star columnist recently commented, “How can a city in such deep financial rut decide to spend more than $3 billion on a one stop subway that will deliver 4,300 new riders?”
That was the Toronto transit situation going into the 2014 election, and then it got worse thanks to John Tory. In the heat of the election Tory supported the Scarborough subway. He must have known that this would be a financial drain on the city, but he needed Scarborough votes and he knew that subways were popular.
Since he was elected mayor Tory has been doing cartwheels trying to justify his continued support of the subway. The latest effort was an op ed piece he wrote in the Star on June 28th. In it he argued that if council backtracked on the subway, maybe the LRT would not go ahead. Then he said we should worry about credibility, and concluded by saying Scarborough residents do not use transit as much as others in the city and should be encouraged to use transit with the building of a subway. None of these arguments hold water.
Finally he uses the article to attack his critics by saying they believe the cost of the Scarborough subway, “is too much to spend on this part of the city.” That is simply not true. Every critic I have read or talked to wants to see good transit in Scarborough, but it needs to be appropriate transit. John Tory of all people should know that we cannot waste tax dollars. Using the money that would be spent for the subway, the city could build excellent transit in Scarborough. But Tory will not support it because to change his mind would demonstrate that the subway was a foolish plan from the beginning and his support of the plan would make him look foolish.
Then there is the rest of the transit file. During the 2014 municipal election John Tory suddenly came forward with his plan for transit for Toronto that he called “Smart Track.” He described it as a “surface subway” running along existing rail lines that would provide 22 new stations.
Here was a candidate with no access to transit or financial experts making a promise that, if elected, he would create a transit system that would solve the problems of gridlock not only for Torontonians but for commuters living in the GTA. Other candidates, like Olivia Chow, criticized Smart Track, saying that the proposal for the west end of the city was unworkable. Others said it was just a campaign gimmick with a bunch of lines on a map.
But Tory persisted, and the voters anxious to support anything that would move transit forward, and doubly anxious to reject the other major candidate, Doug Ford, elected Tory by a wide margin, but since that time Smart Track has proven not so smart at all.
The critics turned out to be right. The projects in the west end have proven to be unworkable and have been largely abandoned. In the east end the Smart Track lines are duplicating existing Metrolinx projects called Regional Express Rail. What is left of Tory’s proposal is six new stations that will be run by Metrolinx, a far cry from the promise of 22 stations that he used to get elected.
What is perhaps most infuriating is that John Tory is still claiming that Smart Track is a success. That is like saying black is white and demanding people believe him. It was certainly a success for him. It got him elected mayor. But has it brought better transit? Perhaps marginally, but that’s a generous assessment.
The public is increasingly cynical about politics and politicians. In Britain millions, apparently, voted for Briexit to register their distrust of the political elites. In the U.S. the Republicans will nominate the Donald who mouths right wing slogans with simplistic solutions that provide no solutions at all. And in Toronto we elected Rob Ford who knew nothing about transit, and John Tory who got elected promising transit solutions that were developed on a back of an envelope.
If we can’t do better a taxpayer’s revolt awaits because we have not even begun to talk about how we are going to pay for all this.