This week, Toronto’s city council vainly rehashed arguments over the Scarborough subway. A report from the city’s auditor general brought the subject back to the floor to absolve the mayor’s office and TTC leadership of charges that they willfully misled the public about the costs of the light rail alternative the city and province are still legally committed to building.
(That’s right: Four years into this farce, and the city hasn’t even gotten Queen’s Park’s signature on a binding agreement to pay for the subway Liberals championed in order to get Mitzie Hunter elected in an August 2013 by-election.)
The arguments against the Scarborough subway are as well-known as they are irrelevant to this discussion: it’s an enormously expensive one-stop subway extension (almost certain to blow through its current budget of $3.55 billion, necessitating further tax increases) that kiboshed a more affordable plan which would’ve served more people across a greater area of Scarborough. Nobody in charge cares: voters rewarded Liberal mendacity on this file with 20 of Toronto’s 22 seats in 2014.
Breathing new life into this dead-tired debate, Metrolinx, the regional transit body whose advice was ignored and overruled when the Liberals decided to do their best Rob Ford imitation, released a report this week that presents six possible futures for the GTA. Titled “Navigating Uncertainty,” its intent is to show policymakers how they might accommodate and shape different outcomes.
The six scenarios run from the optimistic to the gloomy, each making different assumptions about future technological and economic trends. Maybe residents of the Golden Horseshoe will commute along a comprehensive network of transit and autonomous vehicles; maybe VR will make commuting a thing of the past; or maybe the region will enter a pronounced economic decline due to global trends.
Yet for all these variables, there is one constant: none of the six scenarios has good news for the Scarborough subway. And while you won’t actually find the word Scarborough anywhere in the document, several of Metrolinx’s imagined futures implicitly call the whole subway exercise into question.
Take, for example, the future in which cheap self-driving electric cars abound. The advent of “guilt-free commuting” could lead to dramatically more commuters on the road, especially in the GTA’s more sprawling suburbs. But private car services won’t be obliged to consider geographic or cost equity the way public transit agencies are, which could leave low-income commuters behind.
The solution, the report argues, is to invest in suburban transit systems — but instead of massive, expensive vanity projects, the report advocates cheaper, more flexible bus rapid transit routes. In Toronto’s case, for the cost of the Scarborough subway ($3.5 billion? Do I hear $4? $4.5?), the city could build a vast network of BRT lines wherever it liked.
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In another scenario, Metrolinx emphasizes that the best transit plan is a good land-use plan around transit investments. Toronto has tried the “build it and they will come” approach to subway building with the Sheppard line, and while there’s been some condo development along Sheppard Avenue, it has failed to generate significant subway ridership in what’s still a car-oriented part of the city. There’s no reason to think city council will do any better planning for their one subway stop at Scarborough Centre.
This is especially true given that the only consistent rationale for the subway is that Toronto’s eastern tier “deserves” a subway: the extension certainly hasn’t been sold to Scarborough voters as something that will drive the kind of massive change necessary to actually make it a success.
What about climate change? Here, Metrolinx stresses the need for a redundant network of transit services, so that if an extreme weather event closes one part of the system, others can take up the slack. Even outside the climate-change context, transit redundancy is sound planning — so it’s unfortunate that Toronto is gambling billions on a single point of failure: if anything (weather, fire, medical or police emergency) closes the Scarborough Centre station, tens of thousands of people will have to rely on buses, unless they’re within walking/cycling distance of Kennedy or Warden stations.
The subway plan manages to be even less resilient than the current creaky Scarborough RT it will replace. Of course, plenty of riders don’t even realize they’ll lose the SRT when the subway opens — but what’s one more deception on top of all the others?
Other scenarios in Metrolinx’s report don’t touch on technology or planning choices, yet they still provide grounds for skepticism of Toronto’s plan. The “economic decline” scenario, which imagines a GTA left behind by global trends, doesn’t open an obvious line of attack on the subway, for example, but it’s already a profound waste of money — it’s not going to become more affordable if Ontario finds itself poorer than expected.
All of this is predictable. The Scarborough subway isn’t just a bad choice by the Liberals at Queen’s Park and by Toronto city council: it’s bad by nearly every metric we have for assessing these kinds of decisions. So it’s not really a surprise that Metrolinx’s effort to predict the future is so damning, if only implicitly.
It won’t matter, of course: the Liberals have made squandering billions of dollars a core part of their political program, and the Progressive Conservatives are, if anything, even more subway-crazy. The New Democrats have carefully said they’ll “respect the decision of city council,” which leaves at least the chance of undoing this disaster should sanity ever return to city hall. But the NDP also watched Olivia Chow’s defeat in 2014 and aren’t sticking their necks out any farther.
So we’re left with the worst-case scenario: nobody is willing to change course despite ever-growing evidence that we’ve made a terrible mistake. And nobody will be able to say they weren’t warned, repeatedly.
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