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Skeptics reluctant to board the Ford train

As promised, new Toronto mayor Rob Ford has taken significant steps to kill Transit City, Toronto’s plan to build several new LRT lines in the coming years. Ford’s most recent move has been to encourage an extension of the Sheppard subway, which has only slightly more ridership (about 46,000/weekday) as the Finch bus line or the Spadina streetcar. Among the many problems with Ford’s proposal: a subway extension would cost much more, serve fewer people, cost the city and province a lot of money in plan redevelopment, and it would not be built until Ford loses what is left of his hair…not to mention the next municipal election.

The Sheppard subway extension would cost more than ten times as much as the LRT line proposed under Transit City.  The mayor’s office is proposing a $13 billion extension to the existing subway line, instead of the $1.1 billion LRT line adopted in the Transit City plan. At least $5 billion would be raised through development cost levies and tax increment financing (TIF). TIF has been used extensively in the US, normally in areas that have suffered disinvestment for years, have a majority of low-income residents, low land values and often, an under-used rail line. When the state DOT takes on a transit-oriented development in the area, TIF is used to leverage funds: the city floats a bond and the money from the increased property values upon completion is used to fund the development. However, TIF hasn’t been used in Canada; to use it in Toronto, the proposed subway development would have to be approved by the province of Ontario. The laws governing TIF and development-cost levies would need to be updated. None of this is likely to happen before this year’s provincial election, and in Canada, governmental regime changes are death knells to public transit proposals.

There is a whole literature around public-private partnerships (or P3s), which have been very common in the past two decades. State infrastructure is expensive, whether it is hospitals, highways or LRT lines. In order to finance these projects, all three levels of government have become accustomed to contributing a part of the capital costs, while the private sector carries the majority of the burden. This in itself is not unusual in Canada: Vancouver’s Canada Line was built this way. While they seem to be good for the municipal budget, P3s often speed through crucial stages such as public participation. Private companies are not elected officials or state authorities; they aren’t as concerned about involving local residents in the planning process. This is part of their appeal for state authorities: a more streamlined process (as former BC Minister of Transport Kevin Falcon put it, when he eliminated TransLink’s elected board in favour of one made up of his private-sector appointees). Councillor Doug Ford, Rob Ford’s brother, recently said that he believed in the strong mayor system, where the mayor “should have veto power…he should have enough power to stop council.” Any P3 has the potential for less public control and less accountability.

There’s also the issue of ownership and maintenance of the line after its construction, and this is where things get a little sticky. Vancouver transit passengers complain to TransLink, for example, when they can’t find maps of the station, they want more security at stations, etc. But in fact, the British Columbia Rapid Transit Company (a subsidiary of TransLink) runs the Expo and Millennium lines, and ProTrans BC runs the Canada Line. This complexity is invisible to the frustrated passenger, and as a result TransLink, as a provincial body, bears the brunt of the criticism; it takes longer for TransLink to implement changes in customer service, orientation and other operational issues since it must go through an intermediary.

Ford argues that P3s using private funding are commonly used in Hong Kong (skeptics have pointed out that there might be a slight discrepancy in the densities between Toronto and Hong Kong). The Sheppard-Yonge corridor has attracted condo development, as John Lorinc and Kelly Grant point out (“What it will take to make subway plan a reality”Globe and Mail), and there may well be developers interested in backing a new subway line. But the fact is that development has been much slower than either Mel Lastman or Rob Ford would like, and the ridership of the Sheppard line is no higher than the city’s busiest bus and streetcar lines. If the Sheppard extension is built and new development doesn’t happen as quickly as planned, the public will have to provide the funding shortfall.

A Sheppard subway extension would probably serve fewer people than the proposed LRT: the subway line would be 8km long and have 7 stops, while the LRT would be 12 km and have 26 stops. Anyone who’s driven or taken the bus along the busy section between Kennedy and Morningside will tell you that better transit is definitely needed here; a subway line would bypass this section altogether. Despite the Province’s (and Premier McGuinty’s) lackluster support of Transit City, the plan did propose much better service for Toronto’s suburbs, where the immigrant population is high; immigrants in Toronto have a much higher transit commuting rate than non-immigrants. Ford’s argument that “everyone wants subways” doesn’t fly either…despite the miniscule amount of subway infrastructure in the inner suburbs, there is barely any difference in ridership between the suburbs and the downtown. David Hulchanski’s “Three Cities” report, tracing thirty years of income polarization in Toronto, showed that 31% of those living in the inner city travelled to work by transit compared to 33% of those who lived in the outer suburbs.

Outside of the thorny acronymous issues of TIF and PPP, there is the incredible amount of taxpayers’ time and money Ford is wasting on forcing the TTC and Metrolinx to drop the plans they’ve been working on for years and instantly come up with a new subway plan. Everyone has been frustrated at the slow pace of building and financing expensive subway lines, and that was the appeal of the Transit City plan. Ford’s proposal, even if it made any financial sense, would take years and years to get off the ground, and by then Ford and McGuinty won’t be in power any more (remember the proposed Queen subway line?) Transit City, for all its criticisms, was adopted and funded by the Province. Ground has been broken. Contracts have been signed. We have only to recall the tumultuous history of the original Sheppard subway to know how rare this is, and how hard Toronto residents, councillors, and transit advocates fought to get a plan that worked for the growing inner suburbs. Bringing all of this momentum to a screeching halt has left Toronto with one hell of a concussion; Transit City languishes in a tangled heap. When your skeptics are people like Dr. Eric Miller and former city budget chief Shelley Carroll, you might want to call in the paramedics and do some damage control.


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