Councillor Josh Matlow

Toronto Star: Councillor takes on Toronto’s chief planner over ‘flawed’ subway numbers

Emails reveal conflict between Josh Matlow and Jennifer Keesmaat over seemingly inflated Scarborough ridership projections.


December 17

Toronto Star


Toronto's chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, has acknowledged the figures produced by city staff before council did a flip-flop on a Scarborough subway were produced in a rushed process.

Toronto’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, has acknowledged the figures produced by city staff before council did a flip-flop on a Scarborough subway were produced in a rushed process. Photo: CARLOS OSORIO / TORONTO STAR


As the public debate over the Scarborough subway continues, behind the scenes, the city’s chief planner and the most vocal opponent of the project on city council have been sparring over “flawed” numbers.


The war of words between Ward 22 (St. Paul’s) Councillor Josh Matlow and chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat escalated last month, during a back-and-forth obtained by the Star.


Their letters highlight continuing criticism over the justification for a three-stop, $3.56-billion subway. But they also draw attention to concerns over the part senior staff played in seeing a seven-stop, fully funded, $1.48-billion LRT cancelled.


Matlow first sent a public letter to Keesmaat on Sept. 18 about the numbers that influenced council’s 2013 subway decision, which followed on a memo sent by Keesmaat to all councillors about upcoming public consultations.


“I am writing you in advance of these meetings to request that Toronto residents and council are provided with accurate, reliable information with which to assess these transit projects,” Matlow wrote.


His concerns were focused on ridership figures first provided by city staff in July 2013, at a crucial meeting where council abruptly switched direction from the already approved LRT — at the urging of former mayor Rob Ford — to a subway that will cost $2 billion more.


The TTC had projected the ridership of a Scarborough subway at just 9,500 passengers travelling in the busiest direction during rush hour — using a standard measurement in transit planning. City staff put forward a significantly higher figure of 14,000 riders. Councillors used that number to justify building the higher-capacity subway.


Though planners say ridership is far from the only consideration, it is essential in determining what type of transit will best suit a region for years to come.


In his letter, Matlow pointed to a Star interview in July, in which Keesmaat admitted that the “rushed” analysis that produced that 14,000 ridership figure was “problematic.”


He asked that Keesmaat’s planning division show their work on how that number was reached.


In Keesmaat’s Oct. 9 reply, provided to the Star by her office, the chief planner outlines that staff are working on a new, more “robust” model that will be subject to peer review.


She balked at Matlow’s characterization of the city’s ridership number, saying that despite the fact that staff, under time constraints, presented their report “without an extensive due-diligence process and in which decisions were made in absence of an appropriate level of information,” the figure itself was still “accurate.”


More than a month later, on Nov. 19, Matlow emailed Keesmaat directly.


Requested by the Star through a freedom of information request, the letter was later provided by Keesmaat’s office.


“I was truly surprised by what you wrote,” Matlow began, accounting for the delay in responding.


“To suggest that a process that you yourself described as ‘problematic’ could produce a ridership number that isn’t problematic, is splitting hairs and comes across as spin to me,” he said.


The 14,000 number, he said, “doesn’t stand up to any reasonable scrutiny.” He accused Keesmaat of lacking the evidence to back up that figure.


“Recent and independent studies by Metrolinx and the TTC projected that the first leg of the relief subway line would carry approximately 11,000 (persons per hour per direction) during the a.m. peak hour,” Matlow wrote. “How is it possible that a line going through one of the most densely populated areas in the country could have lower ridership than a line serving a suburb?”


In her letter, Keesmaat attached a list of assumptions used to calculate the 14,000 number, which have been previously published. One of those assumptions, however, had a significant omission.


Matlow pointed out that a July 2013 staff report included the downtown relief line subway in a list of transit projects that were assumed to be in place by 2031 — and that was one of the drivers in the increased ridership projection. The list forwarded by Keesmaat in October leaves that still-hypothetical subway line out of the equation entirely. The TTC’s projection never included the relief line.


In closing, Matlow wrote: “There is still the opportunity for you to do the right thing.”


Keesmaat never responded to Matlow’s email. She did not respond to a Star request for comment Wednesday.


The original agreement with the province to build the LRT in Scarborough remains signed and in place. Staff continue to work on subway planning as directed by council.


Subway scuffle


Here are a few highlighted exchanges from the Matlow/Keesmaat letters.


On changing ridership


Matlow: “It is a positive step forward that staff are once again using the 9,500 figure developed by the TTC in the Terms of Reference for the (Scarborough subway extension) environmental assessment.”


Keesmaat: “The references to ‘upwards of 9,500 passengers’ reflects the fact that there is a range with a reported lower limit.”


Matlow: “I could understand if ‘upwards’ referred to an additional thousand or so riders but to suggest that a 50% increase could be captured by that wording is ridiculous.”


On that 14,000 number


Matlow: “How is it possible that a figure of this importance wasn’t shared even once in an email, or produced a paper trail as a result of modeling, if there was a process that even approached meriting inclusion in a report before council? If the planning department had evidence to support the validity of this number, it surely would have been shared by now.”


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