Councillor Josh Matlow

Toronto Star: Transit debate continues to rumble before Toronto digs in on digging down

Could taking the one-stop subway plan for Scarborough above ground save the city cash?

January 29, 2016
Jennifer Pagliaro
The Toronto Star

The Bloor Viaduct stretch over the Don Valley is among the numerous areas where the Toronto subway already travels in the open air.

The Bloor Viaduct stretch over the Don Valley is among the numerous areas where the Toronto subway already travels in the open air. Photo: TARA WALTON / TORONTO STAR

To bury it or not to bury it? That’s the next big question for the Scarborough subway.

As the city faces ongoing budget pressures, experts and councillors say the city should study whether running the subway above ground instead of below could save significant cash for the same level of service.

“There’s no need to put the whole thing underground,” said senior transportation consultant Edward Levy of the new plan for a one-stop tunneled subway along McCowan Rd.

That plan, created by the city’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, and endorsed by Mayor John Tory behind the scenes before it was presented last week, emerged after years of a debate some at city hall have likened to “warfare.”

There was the 2013 defection by council from a fully funded, seven-stop LRT that was signed, sealed and nearly delivered, in favour of a three-stop subway that would cost $2 billion more. It was peak “subways, subways, subways” in the era of former mayor Rob Ford. That period, and plan, is now said to have lacked any real focus on facts.

Tory was told that without the subway — one he promised to build alongside his own heavy-rail SmartTrack plan — there could be no peace.

So, keeping the subway but cutting two stops for what is said to have lopped more than $1 billion off the $3.56-billion price tag, Scarborough could also have a 17-stop LRT along Eglinton Ave., Keesmaat said. A political compromise.

Levy called it a “political nightmare.”

Before the city digs in on digging down, he said, they should look at whether the six-kilometre corridor beneath the aging Scarborough RT could provide a thrifty alternative and never interfere with traffic.

“To create a tunnel where there is already a 90 per cent viable right-of-way is, to me, a terrible waste,” Levy said.

With a nod from Tory’s executive committee this week, there was little debate Thursday that the new plan should now move forward.

But there was also no specific direction on whether city staff, when they return later this year with their analysis, should provide a detailed accounting of the alternatives.

“The reason that I’m so supportive of moving this forward, and quite frankly not today adding a bell here and a whistle there — more things to be studied and so on — is (that) the real bottom line is we have not, after all this time … built any transit in Scarborough,” Tory said in closing the item for discussion Thursday.

Earlier, the mayor said he would be willing to look at anything that might provide cost-effective transit for Scarborough quickly.

But is the current proposal the most cost-effective?

Councillor Josh Matlow — the most vocal opponent of the original three-stop subway — said that, now that the city has a plan to improve transit in Scarborough, council needs to work on making it the best plan possible.

“I believe it’s incumbent upon us to look for cost savings no matter what project we work on, and I expect the residents of Scarborough and all Torontonians would want us to do that,” he said. “Given how obvious this question now is, I’d be shocked if staff wouldn’t come back to council having fully explored this option.”

Those who say they fought valiantly for the subway’s existence and have approached the reworked plan with caution say council should just proceed with the plan as-is.

“I think we’ve looked at every single option there is,” said Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, describing the call to go above-ground as a “superficial” conversation. “I just want us to build.”

TTC chair Councillor Josh Colle said he’s asked staff privately to look at issues related to going above-ground and expects to see an answer in their future analysis. That request hasn’t been made formally, but he said he hasn’t ruled out asking the TTC at an upcoming board meeting to study it.

TTC spokesperson Brad Ross said the commission will consider those questions in discussions with the city, but it’s too early to determine whether an above-ground plan can work.

Building a subway in the RT corridor was contemplated amid the turmoil of the 2013 debate.

As council moved toward adopting a three-stop plan routed along McCowan Rd., then-transportation minister Glen Murray unveiled the province’s own competing plan — one that would make use of the existing SRT corridor and bring the subway above ground from Kennedy Station.

Metrolinx presented a report from Toronto consultants 4Transit on whether it could work. The short answer was yes, with several challenges:

Sharp turns would be required out of Kennedy Station and at Ellesmere Rd. The consultants said those issues could be resolved by rebuilding Kennedy Station northwest of its current location, tying in with redesign plans already underway for the Eglinton Crosstown line.

Of major concern was passenger inconvenience for three years during which the SRT would be decommissioned and the subway not yet built, making bus replacements necessary to bridge the gap.

Also, the corridor would need to be widened to accommodate larger subway structures, which would mean expropriating neighbouring land.

The TTC raised another issue of ice buildup on the exposed power rails and blowing leaves. But Levy said the TTC already manages those infrequent issues where Lines 1 and 2 on the current subway network run above-ground. “This is not Iqaluit,” he said.

Following Murray’s pitch, the TTC argued there was “no clear advantage of the provincial proposal” in terms of cost or time — a sentiment shared at the time by city staff.

But the question of cost was never fully settled, with TTC and Metrolinx disagreeing on various points — a difference of hundreds of millions. The TTC argued it would cost the same to build a two-stop subway to Scarborough City Centre regardless of whether it was above or below ground. A one-stop subway was never considered.

Whether there are savings to be had also depends on the actual cost of Keesmaat’s one-stop subway plan.

While the estimated “more than $1 billion” savings were based on a $500 million per-station cost, the TTC reported in May that one of the original subway stations considered at Lawrence and eliminated by the new plan would have cost only $160 million. More exact cost estimates on that plan, Keesmaat said, also require further study.


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