Keesmaat’s comments follow a Star probe into the events that led to the reversal of the original transit plan, based on emails and reports obtained through a freedom of information request.
She said staff were put in a “compromised” position, saying there wasn’t time or interest in having the proper technical analysis ahead of the council flip-flop on the LRT.
But Councillor Josh Matlow (open Josh Matlow’s policard), who has advocated for the LRT and led the concerns over ridership numbers, said staff need to provide council with numbers they can support — or not give them at all.
“I’ve always contended that council’s decision to replace a fully funded, traffic-separated, seven-stop LRT with a three-stop subway extension that increases our debt and taxes, will cost at least $2 billion more, and serve fewer residents in Scarborough, was made without the necessary evidence and facts at the table.
“This may be the biggest scandal ever to hit city hall,” Matlow told the Star.
In May 2013, a surprise motion resurrected the subway option, even though the city had already signed an agreement with the provincial agency Metrolinx to build an LRT for the same riders.
In June, a letter signed by Metrolinx president and CEO Bruce McCuaig requested that council confirm its position on transit for Scarborough, or face delays.
Though senior staff warned they had little time to prepare, at a July 2013 meeting just over two weeks later, a report signed off on by city manager Joe Pennachetti and TTC CEO Andy Byford laid out the two options and told council to decide.
That report was the first to include the new ridership figure, which said the subway could draw 14,000 riders per peak-hour — a standard metric in transit planning. But that number was significantly higher than an earlier 9,500 per peak-hour figure put forward by the TTC.
Ridership projections — how many people might ride during the busiest hours — are vital because they help planners and politicians decide which type of transit is best along particular routes.
If an area doesn’t draw enough riders to meet a subway’s capacity, it will cost the city dearly to operate it. Toronto knows that all too well, as it continues to struggle to cover the cost of running the vastly underutilized Sheppard subway — absorbing what could be as high as a $10-per-ride subsidy.
When council was given the 9,500 figure, following more extensive studies, councillors approved a less expensive LRT.
The accepted minimum threshold for a subway is 15,000. So, when the 14,000 number appeared that July, suddenly making a subway look more justified, some, like Matlow, were baffled about how it got there.
According to Keesmaat, whose support for an LRT was well known going into the meeting, her own planning division was responsible for the number, and it was requested by senior city and TTC staff working on the July 2013 report.
Keesmaat said it was arrived at using updated population and jobs numbers and different assumptions — including that many of the yet-to-be-started transit priorities such as the Sheppard and Finch LRTs were already built.
But in an email from Keesmaat to Byford just a week before the meeting, the chief planner went on the offensive — apparently not aware the number came from her own department.
“It is my understanding that your support of a subway for Scarborough is based on the projected increase in ridership,” she wrote. “I would like a more fulsome understanding of … how you attained this number.”
Byford responds that the number did not come from the TTC. “I have not forecast more riders,” he wrote.
It’s not clear whether Keesmaat continued to investigate.
The Star asked for copies of all emails and documents related to ridership in the lead-up to the July meeting. None mentions the 14,000 figure.
The city’s director of transportation planning, Tim Laspa, said it wasn’t “necessarily documented” in emails, but was discussed in meetings.
Though the report to council presented the ridership as a range of 9,500 to 14,000, there was little qualification or concern expressed by staff — including Keesmat, Byford and Pennachetti — under questioning from councillors, that the new numbers were anything but solid.
Both Keesmaat and Pennachetti have said the process was “rushed,” but both told the Star they believed councillors had all the necessary information before them.
“It is a misrepresentation to say they were presented without warning. The city manager warned again and again of the rushed nature of the process,” Keesmaat said in an email.
Byford said the city updated the ridership number and that his answers “were based on the best available information at that time,” adding he told council he still supported the LRT but that the “new, city-derived figures would make a subway viable.”
The numbers remain problematic today.
Data recently crunched for the Star shows that the area proposed for the original Scarborough subway alignment — from Kennedy station, running north in line with McCowan Rd. to Scarborough Town Centre — would be within walking distance of just 10,635 people and 4,690 jobs.
Planners consider many factors when projecting ridership, including how many riders might transfer from a bus. But studies have found one of the most critical factors is density around the line.
Studying another proposal, the eastern section of a proposed relief line running through the downtown core from Pape station to King station, Metrolinx and the TTC produced ridership numbers ranging from 10,800 to 11,700 — below the ridership suggested for Scarborough.
Recent population and jobs data provided to the Star by the Ontario Growth Secretariat shows the density around just three stations for the downtown relief line — Pape, King and St. Andrew — already exceeds Scarborough numbers, with a combined 15,075 residents and 261,035 jobs. Those numbers don’t include additional density along the full stretch between King and Pape if the proposed subway passed through Regent Park, King East, Queen East and Riverdale.
How, then, is it possible the stated Scarborough ridership is significantly higher?
“To suggest that a suburban area could possibly create higher ridership than downtown Toronto, one of the most densely populated areas in the entire country, makes absolutely no sense,” Matlow said.
Asked whether she feels confident council should rely on the numbers used to justify the subway in 2013, Keesmaat said: “We’re not relying on them, and you’re asking an irrelevant question . . . Today we’ve moved far beyond that analysis and have good, robust numbers that we are working with.
“They’re dated. … They don’t actually matter anymore.”
Keesmaat declined to provide the new numbers, saying they’re not ready yet but should be this fall, when council is expected to decide on an alignment for the subway. That renewed study will also take into consideration Mayor John Tory (open John Tory’s policard)’s SmartTrack plan, which both the city and TTC have said runs the risk of serving the same riders and decreasing ridership numbers for both.
Some, like Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker (open Glenn De Baeremaeker’s policard), whom Tory put in charge of championing the subway, argues council did make a “fact-based” decision, and disagrees with Keesmaat’s assessment.
“We rely on our professional staff to give us their professional advice and a professional analysis of options, and that’s what they did.”
De Baeremaeker said he would still support a subway even with lower ridership. “If it’s at 9,000 it still merits being built,” he said, arguing that, in “fairness,” Scarborough should have equal access to transit with other areas.
Councillor Joe Mihevc (open Joe Mihevc’s policard), who voted for the subway in July but switched his support to LRT at a later October vote, said he didn’t rely on the 14,000 figure. He said he stopped supporting the subway when it became clear costs would exceed earlier estimates.
“This is not about good transit planning whatsoever,” Mihevc said. “The math behind this issue does not go in the direction of the subway.”
Depending on where the subway is built, costs could still increase by at least $300 million more, according to the city.
LRT advocates argue that without shovels in the ground, the decision to build a subway is not yet closed. In an email this week, Byford pointed out that as of now, the city and Metrolinx still have a signed agreement — a contract to build the LRT.