Councillor Josh Matlow

Toronto Star: One-stop subway plan needs ‘rethink’ with 25 LRT stops possible, critics say

SmartTrack plan loses Scarborough stop as council prepares to debate what a future transit network will cost the city


June 20, 2016

Jennifer Pagliaro

The Toronto Star


While the future of transit in Scarborough remains an open question, the Scarborough RT continues its regular runs.

While the future of transit in Scarborough remains an open question, the Scarborough RT continues its regular runs. (Carlos Osorio / Toronto Star)


A revised transit plan for Scarborough risks giving residents just one new rapid transit stop when 25 stops could be built at roughly the same cost, critics say.


Now that the estimate for a one-stop subway extension has ballooned to $2.9 billion, experts in city building and council critics say bad politics are trumping good planning. Two proposed LRT lines once championed by the city’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, could be built to create a network of 25 stops serving tens of thousands more people at the same cost.


The Star has also learned that Mayor John Tory’s signature SmartTrack plan has shed a station in Scarborough. Part of Tory’s pitch for 13 new local stations along existing GO Tracks — tied to the province’s plans to expand service — was that stations in Scarborough would serve residents looking to get downtown. But just five new “SmartTrack” stops have made the cut, reduced from an earlier seven-stop option. At least one Scarborough stop at Ellesmere Rd. will no longer be recommended. A station at Lawrence Ave. is part of the plan.


That’s the reality council now faces as city staff prepares to unveil recommendations for a future transit network on Tuesday. That debate, including what to build in Scarborough and at what cost, will begin anew at executive committee next week.



“For the same price, Scarborough could either receive a network of 25 rapid transit stops connecting Centennial College, U of T (Scarborough), Scarborough Town Centre and several neighbourhoods throughout Scarborough, versus spending $3 billion on one subway stop that would leave most Scarborough residents on the bus,” said Councillor Josh Matlow, who has been a vocal critic of the costly subway plan.


“I believe that city council, along with the province, needs to put Scarborough residents before politics.”


As criticism of a three-stop subway plan grew, Tory and Keesmaat announced a modified version in January. By reducing the subway extension to just a single stop, they said, the savings could be used to build an 18-stop LRT along Eglinton Ave. to the University of Toronto Scarborough campus.


But on Friday, Tory announced that the cost of building both lines was $1 billion more than expected — totaling $4.5 billion, when there is only $3.56 billion in funding committed from three levels of government.


Tory and Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government have said support for the one-stop subway extension remains unwavering. Though Tory said he is “determined” to still build the LRT, it is unclear how the city would pay for it.


Those questioning a one-stop subway extension at that cost say there’s an alternative already studied — the approved seven-stop LRT that would run completely separated from traffic in the existing Scarborough RT corridor, which still connects Scarborough Town Centre to Kennedy Station. That line was fully funded by the province, at $1.48 billion. And for a further $1.6 billion, the city could still build the 18-stop LRT — a total of 25 stops.


Ken Greenberg, former City of Toronto director of urban design and architecture, now principal of Greenberg Consultants, said it is “absurd” to invest $3 billion in available transit dollars in a single stop.


“While I understand how the politics of this arose and how people got dug in to these positions, there’s a point when the greater part of wisdom is to respond to new information and make sensible decisions based on the evidence,” he said.


“I think if you look at Scarborough and the need to spread development out of really intense areas in downtown Toronto . . . it seems intuitive to me that a form of transit like light rail that was proposed with seven stops would actually serve far more people better.”


Chief planner Keesmaat has previously pitched LRTs in Scarborough as the best city-building tool — allowing for midrise, medium-density development and creating walkable neighbourhoods that connect more residents to new jobs, schools and downtown destinations.


It’s Keesmaat, experts agreed, who now faces a difficult task when the report is debated by the executive committee on June 28 and when she stands before council in July.


In 2013, she argued the seven-stop LRT, which would still connect to the Scarborough Town Centre, was “more desirable” than a three-stop subway “based on the criteria that we have for great city-building, looking at economic development, supporting healthy neighbourhoods, affordability, choice in the system.”


But council under former mayor Rob Ford scrapped those plans — buoyed by ridership numbers hastily produced by Keesmaat’s planning division that just barely justified a subway — and backed that technology instead.


In January, Keesmaat presented the “optimized” plan that included the 18-stop LRT, what she argued was good city-building when questioned about the subway. Now that LRT is on the chopping block, Keesmaat has yet to speak publicly about the plan.


Building both LRT lines would serve at least six times the number of people and jobs within walking distance of a station, compared with a single subway stop at Scarborough Town Centre, based on a conservative analysis of the available data from the city and census data. The LRT network would also reach six underserved priority neighbourhoods. The one-stop subway serves just one.


There is demand for local stations within Scarborough that would not be served by a single subway stop.


City staff reported in January that nearly half of all the transit trips currently being taken in Scarborough — 99,000, or 48 per cent — also end in Scarborough. Of transit trips that begin in Scarborough, only 23 per cent end downtown.


A one-stop subway extension and just one new RER/SmartTrack stop between the existing Kennedy and Agincourt GO stations would leave thousands of people needing to take a bus daily to connect to rapid transit.


“There is a clear logic to extending the subway to Scarborough Town Centre both in terms of the transit network, and in terms of development potential, but if we take into consideration a constrained budget, it is clear that spending a similar amount building an LRT network in Scarborough will have a much bigger positive impact,” said UTSC urban geography professor Andre Sorensen, whose “Choices for Scarborough” study outlined the best transit options for the area.


“Our research showed that LRT would serve more people, create access to more jobs, and will open up more development opportunities than the proposed subway.”


Those who supported the one-stop subway plan on the back of the 18-stop LRT spine being added to the map say that without it, that plan falls apart.


“I think a lot of us set down our arms and accepted the Scarborough subway proposal because it included the LRT that delivered so much more transit bang for your buck,” said Cherise Burda, executive director of Ryerson University’s City Building Institute. “That’s what the gift is to Scarborough, is all of that transit that crosses all of those communities and goes to the university. It’s the part of the transit plan that got people on board.”


With files from Ben Spurr

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