Many of you know that I have been advocating for an evidence-based transit plan in Scarborough for several years now. For those who haven’t been following recent developments, if you thought a 3-stop subway for $3.56 billion was a bad idea, Council might actually choose to build a single subway stop rather than a 24-station LRT network for Scarborough.
The $3.2 billion 1-stop subway shown in the map above would provide fast service from Scarborough Town Centre (STC) to Kennedy Station. It would also eliminate the need to transfer at Kennedy Station. But Scarborough is a big place, comprising 35% of Toronto’s land area. What about the rest of Scarborough that would be left on the bus?
For approximately the same City funding, we can choose instead to build 2 LRT lines. One would have 7 stops using the existing RT corridor to link STC and Centennial College to Kennedy Station. This project is part of the signed Metrolinx Master Agreement, and would be mostly funded by the provincial government. Then, with money saved by moving forward now with the approved LRT, Council could fund a new 17-stop extension of the Eglinton Crosstown through Kennedy, serving Kingston Rd, UofT Scarborough and several neighbourhoods in between.
I include this picture of the Centennial College station as a reminder that the 7-stop LRT will go through its own corridor on trains that have the same top speed as a subway (80 km/h).
Who Are We Building Transit For?
Combined, the LRT lines would provide rapid transit to the 96,200 existing residents and employees who are within walking distance of a station. That's 6 times more than a 1-stop subway. The 24 LRT stations’ geographic coverage better matches the needs of residents who want more than just to leave Scarborough.
As this map demonstrates, 48% of trips are local compared to just 23% ending downtown. The peak hour ridership for the subway is projected at 7,300 passengers, which is higher than the current RT but less than half the capacity of the LRT which is capable of handling 16,000 passengers per hour in one direction. Further, ridership projections for a 1-stop subway predict almost 8,000 fewer daily users in 2031 than the current 5-stop SRT has now.
These numbers suggests that the subway will run empty most of the day. While people want transit to get them to work or school in the morning, they also need transit to go shopping, see a movie or visit with friends and family.
As Toronto Star report Ben Spurr notes, the LRT network also does a better job of delivering transit access to marginalized communities by serving 25,900 people living in 5 Neighbourhood Improvement Areas (NIAs) and 3 former Priority Neighbourhoods. The 1-stop subway would only serve 1,700 NIA residents.
This slide from a City Planning presentation illustrates the potential of the STC precinct by overlaying the area’s street pattern (red), and boundary (blue), on a map of downtown Toronto. Tasked with providing a planning rationale for a subway stop, the City's Planning staff have developed a remarkable proposal for the area that would transform STC’s parking lots and ring roads into a more urban, pedestrian-friendly street grid.
It is unfortunate that some have falsely created an exclusive causal relationship between this visionary plan and the 1-stop subway. That’s simply misleading. The LRT would have more than double the capacity to serve projected ridership and its east-west alignment would better facilitate expansion of the STC area with an additional stop at McCowan – a flaw in the subway plan that City Planning already identifies in its report shown below.
This chart cites the enhanced development potential of an extra stop in the eastern portion (McCowan Precinct) of the STC area as being an advantage of a subway route along the current RT corridor.
As the above map shows, the 7-stop LRT is already planned to travel in the corridor used for the current RT and has a stop in the McCowan precinct of the STC area. That's one of the reasons why our Chief Planner previously stated that an LRT, rather than a subway, would better stimulate economic development, while also serving more low-income residents as well as students.
(If you are unable to click and play the embedded video above, please use this link)
“Torontonians just want us to start building something”
The suggestion implied by users of this now familiar refrain is that the 1-stop subway will be faster to build than the LRT. The recommendation before Council suggests otherwise:
“3. City Council request the City Manager and the Chief Executive Officer, Toronto Transit Commission to remove from consideration the 3-stop McCowan Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE) and continue to develop an SSE Express option, by conducting the following:
a. retaining the services of a third-party rail transit construction and cost –estimation expert to undertake a risk assessment and detailed review of the TTC's 5 percent design cost estimates for the McCowan corridor and other possible express subway alignment options”
Three important points that I think are worth highlighting in that recommendation: first, moving forward with the 1-stop option will require going back on the previous 3-stop plan. Second, the one stop subway is only at the 5% design stage. Finally, Staff are recommending that alignments other than McCowan be explored. In short, no one is going to pick up a shovel and start digging a tunnel after the vote, if Council chooses the one-stop subway.
It’s also important to note that Staff are presenting a completion date and cost that assumes a choice not even available to Council. The above chart states that the 1-stop subway will be in service by 2025, assuming that Council approves an alignment next week. But, as previously mentioned, the recommendation regarding the subway does not provide that option. This is a significant discrepancy that must be cleared up before Councillors vote on this issue.
The 7-stop LRT, on the other hand, was at 100% design stage and shovel-ready in 2010. In fact, it was originally slated to be in operation for the Pan Am Games last year. However, circumstances have changed since then and two changes will have to be considered.
The first, and most significant, is a redesign of the LRT platform at Kennedy Station.
The diagram above, depicting the 7-stop LRT in red at the “concourse” level, is from the 2010 approved Environmental Assessment. After Council rejected the plan in favour of a 3-stop subway in 2013, Metrolinx allowed for the Eglinton Crosstown terminus (in blue) to take the concourse level. While a different alignment would be required (the Crosstown is east-west while the Scarborough LRT is north-south), the obvious solution is to run the 7-stop LRT from the subway level. The change would involve additional design work but it would result in a further improved transfer to the subway.
The other change required would be at Lawrence station. The LRT shares the same corridor with the Stoufville GO line for a portion of its 7.6 km. An additional commuter station at Lawrence was recently announced as part of GO RER/SmartTrack at the same proposed site of the LRT stop. There is a strong possiblity that having both stops in the same place would either not be technically feasible or justified from a ridership perspective. I would anticipate that this issue would require some investigation from City Staff and Metrolinx, but it doesn’t strike me as a particulary complex issue.
The two issues cited above will require some additional work but, even with those revisions, the LRT is inarguably far more advanced than the subway. Perhaps that’s why someone found it necessary to release a TTC briefing note earlier this week that presented some rather unrealistic scenarios that made the possiblity of a return to the 7-stop option seem more difficult than it needs to be.
The most egregious suggestion was that construction on the LRT could not begin until the Crosstown Station at Kennedy was finished in 2021, making the completion date late 2026. With all due respect to the TTC, this makes no sense. There has been no explanation, reasonable or otherwise, provided as to why construction couldn’t start on the other 7.6km of the route first. Start at Sheppard. Start in the middle. Start anywhere else. Finish at Kennedy Station. Or, given that the Crosstown platform would be constructed on top of the LRT platform, it is reasonable to think that work could be done on both at the same time.
The same briefing note used the later construction date to escalate the costs of the LRT to $3 billion due to inflation, creating sticker shock amongst some members of Council. This stated rise in cost is misleading. An escalated cost due to inflation does not mean an increase in the real cost. The value of the commitment remains constant.
As shown in the Master Agreement, the provincial government committed its project funding in 2010 dollars. Paying the inflated cost of that contribution in the year of expenditure does not change the impact to the Province in real terms.
Of more importance, and notably absent from the TTC briefing note, the LRT is a provincial project.
Queen’s Park is responsible for both the initial capital costs and, as shown in this section of the Master Agreement (Page 95 – Schedule G), the ongoing maintenance costs as well.
There is some disagreement as to whether the City would be responsible for operating costs. The wording in the agreement seen above states that the TTC will operate the LRT “under contract with Metrolinx”. The agreement further states that “an operating agreement between Metrolinx and the TTC will be prepared…on commercial terms”. It seems clear to me that Metrolinx will pay the TTC to operate the LRT, but others are steadfast in alternative interpretations.
Either way, all of the ongoing costs associated with the subway will be Toronto’s responsibility.
The above chart shows the 60-year Life Cycle costs (2016 dollars) for the 1-stop subway. The City will be responsible for $1.76 billion in recapitalization costs (replacing tracks, signals, trains, tunnel segments, etc) and $1.087 billion in operating and maintenance costs.
To be fair, let’s say that the operating costs for the LRT would be borne by the City. And, because the operating and maintenance costs aren’t broken out, let’s say that the maintenance costs are a very low percentage of the $1.087 billion. Together, that leads to a very conservative estimate of $2 billion in ongoing costs the City will have to pay for the subway that it would not be responsible for with the LRT.
When we choose to build large infrastructure projects that benefit relatively few people, like the underused Sheppard subway, poorly planned Union-Pearson Express (UPX), and unnecessary Gardiner East rebuild, there is less funding available to serve your real needs.
A 24-station LRT network would not only provide more transit for Scarborough residents but would also leave an average of at least $33 million extra every single year for the next 60 years available for daycare spaces, youth recreation programs, parks, libraries, and affordable housing.
Despite a steady diet of populist rhetoric, the project isn’t even that popular. Poll after poll shows that Scarborough residents see through pandering statements, caring more about whether new transit will take them where they need to go rather than the type of vehicle.
Council will meet on July 12 with an opportunity to put people before politics. Let’s move forward move with 24 stops for Scarborough.