Why are all the anti-Rob Fords panning subway construction?

Yes, I took the title of this post directly from a Google search query that hit my site this morning.

Why does it seem like pundits on the left are always talking up light rail over subways in Toronto? Is there some kind of bizarre pinko conspiracy? Do lefties hate subways? Are we afraid of tunnels? Do we think that only the downtown elite should have effective transit? Or are there partisans among us that will just disagree with anything Rob Ford says, just because he said it?

As a flag bearer of the lefty pinko kooks, let me tell you it’s none of these things. There are people out there who will automatically disagree with anything coming from Rob Ford, but those people are just contrarian dickheads, and would probably have disagreed just as vehemently with David Miller or Mel Lastman. It might come as a shock to neo-conservative Ford supporters, but the reason that lefties are upset about the subway plan is plain old fiscal responsibility. As Ford’s campaign so effectively put it, it’s about stopping the gravy train, and respecting taxpayers.

Subways are fantastic, and left wing kooks like me know it. Toronto’s subways have a capacity of about 30,000 people per hour, versus about 5,000 for light rail. They’re fast, although not faster than a grade-separated LRT, but subways don’t have to share road space with other modes of transportation. Plus, we already have rolling stock and service yards, although expanding the system means new vehicles, which means new facilities. Subways spawn development, although most sources now agree that light rail is at least as good, if not much better for neighbourhood building. Still, if the entire Transit City network could be built as subways instead, it would be a great service to all the people of Toronto.

But who would pay for it? Various sources say that Ford plans to get the private sector to pay for construction of the Sheppard Subway extension, through public-private partnerships (P3s), increased development fees, and something called tax-increment financing (TIF). With tax-increment financing, the city goes into debt to pay for the new subway line. Since land values should increase around the new subway, the increased tax revenues are dedicated to pay off the debt from building the subway. TIF areas have been used to pay for many urban redevelopments in the United States for over fifty years, but with a price tag of $4.2 billion, the Sheppard Subway would cost nearly 10x as much as any TIF development ever built. Of course, new development would not be instantaneous along the subway line. It won’t open for at least 10 years, and development on the existing Sheppard Subway has been clustered and slow to start. In the meantime, the cost of servicing the debt comes from within the city’s budget, which means either increased taxes or cuts to other city services.

What about operating the system? Subways cost around three to five times more than surface light rail to build, but they also cost about that much more to operate, and there is no new funding coming from any government to subsidize operations. When the subways are fully utilized, the extra expense is justified, and is mostly covered by increased fare revenue. However, the existing Sheppard Subway operates well below capacity. Even during rush hours, peak ridership is no more than 5,000 riders per hour, usually far less. In fact, in 2008, the TTC considered scrapping the Sheppard line altogether. Experience and thorough research shows that this will be the case for any new east-west subway built north of the Bloor-Danforth line, and it won’t take any pressure off of the city’s busy north-south lines. Even in the long-term, even if all of Ford’s tax-increment-financing development pans out, there won’t be enough ridership to pay for a subway. That means that this route’s high operating shortfall is offset by increased taxes and fares, and even more cuts to city services.

On the other hand, for the cost of building and operating a single subway, Toronto could build two or even three light rail surface routes. These rails don’t have to be built in the centre of existing roadways, but that reduces the cost significantly, and makes sense from a planning perspective. Even underground LRT is less expensive than heavy rail subway, but still much more expensive than surface rail. The light rail planned for suburban Toronto would have serviced demand for the foreseeable future, without relying on a sudden explosion of development and densification the likes of which the city has never seen. The at-grade LRT could be expanded to carry nearly 20,000 riders per hour, as future demand dictates. Plus, the first four Transit City LRT lines were fully funded from existing tax revenues, not a complicated and risky public debt issue.

This is not meant as a jab at suburban Toronto in any way, nor at Rob Ford personally, as much as I tend to disagree with his policies. For supporters of light rail transit, it’s not about being against subways, or against Rob Ford, just for the sake of being against them. It’s about intelligent expansion of Toronto’s rapid transit system, providing access to all residents of the city, in a financially sustainable and sensible way.

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About Greg Burrell

Greg is an accountant, cyclist and political observer living in Toronto, Canada with too many cats.
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  • FearlessFreep

    I love subways, but extending the Sheppard line is a bad idea (so was building it in the first place), and making the Eglinton line a full subway instead of a semi-underground LRT is dubious. It’ll be a month of Sundays before Sheppard and Eglinton outside the central core have dense enough populations to justify the additional expenses they’ll impose on a system that’s already financially strained. We simply can’t afford such construction.

    The original TransitCity plan would have had far greater benefits per dollar of taxpayers’ money spent on it.

  • FearlessFreep

    I love subways, but extending the Sheppard line is a bad idea (so was building it in the first place), and making the Eglinton line a full subway instead of a semi-underground LRT is dubious. It’ll be a month of Sundays before Sheppard and Eglinton outside the central core have dense enough populations to justify the additional expenses they’ll impose on a system that’s already financially strained. We simply can’t afford such construction.

    The original TransitCity plan would have had far greater benefits per dollar of taxpayers’ money spent on it.

  • ibhattac

    Just cross posting here from my analysis on the urbantoronto forums as I don’t feel like typing this all out again.”At times like these it is worth recalling that the absolute minimum floor for subway supportive population is about the equivalent density of 100 to 115 persons/hectare, if not more, around a station stop. With LRT this minimum floor is about 70 persons/hectare, and works all the way up to 140 persons/hectare (Metrolinx, Pembina, TTC, Viva, etc, etc.)For the sake of argument, let’s take neighbourhood #118 (Tam O Shanter/Sullivan) on the City of Toronto neighbourhood profile page. It’s a neighbourhood that straddles Sheppard. It had about 27,420 people in the 2006 census. Let’s be generous and say they grew at about 3% to 28,000 people, give or take. This is not an unreasonable assumption based on the growth rate between 2001 and 2006. I’m using my scale incorrectly, the geographic area for that neighbourhood is about 5.7 million square metres, or about 570 hectares. That’s about 49 people per hectare. This suggests that the subway will be cost-inefficient.We need to get about 65,550 people into that neighbourhood to get to that 115 people per hectare benchmark and make one subway stop cost-effective. There’s perhaps 28,000 there right now. We need to move an additional 37,550 people into the community. The census average household size for that neighbourhood was 3 persons per household. Therefore, we need to add an additional 12,516 households into that community. Assuming 1 household is 1 residential dwelling unit, anyone willing to bet how receptive the resident’s associations and ratepayer groups will be to adding 12,516 additional units of new housing housing onto their leafy streets? For context there’s only about 700 additional new units in the pipeline for that neighbourhood. Only 11,816 units to go to support a solitary subway stop!”

    • ibhattac

      Oops, I meant to say if I’m using my scale correctly. Lol.

    • Thanks for posting this! You went into a lot more detail than I was going to and those are interesting numbers. The gist of it is Sheppard will never see the density to support a subway, and there are many areas in Toronto which could much better use a properly-scaled transit investment.

      • ibhattac


    • But on’t we want to encourage greater population density anyway?  Isn’t the idea to spur investment in housing in the area, especially vertical structures such as condos, that will house more people in less space and create more vibrant inner suburbs?

      • ibhattac

        Hello Mike,

        I’m not at all objecting to density. Done thoughtfully, density can be wonderful, add vibrancy to a community, provide more housing options. Done incorrectly, it can be a disaster.

        All of that doesn’t take into account the kind of capacity upgrades that would be required depending upon the destinations of all those new users. If they’re heading to the core for their work, then you’ve got that perennial challenge at Yonge/Bloor. If they’re commuting out to York / Durham / Peel, then you’ve got capacity issues at the other end.

        Regardless, I was just trying to illustrate the extent to which existing ‘stable’ neighbourhoods would need to be redeveloped/intensified in order to support local higher-order transit stops if we’re going to insist on subways over LRT, or perhaps even some kind of BRT on its own separated lanes. I’m not even sure that many neighbourhoods could be intensified to the extent necessary to support a local subway station, but that’s an aside.

        Ultimately, I just have trouble imagining any residents’/ratepayers’ association supporting the kind of residential/commercial intensification that would be required in the inner suburbs, let alone a Councillor bringing the idea to their community.


        • Thanks for the reply man.  I think you make some valid points, sorry I took so long to reply.  What do you think of the ida of using the old CP rail lines that run across Toronto as new GO lines?  It would take the pressure off of arteries from people who cross the city for work (i.e. people who live in Ajax and travel to Mississauga to work)?

  • Maybe if Ford was so gung-ho on a mainly north-south line that turned to head downtown, we’d be bitching less about it. Something needs to be done about the congestion on the YUS line before we start packing more people onto Sheppard. At the very least, the downtown relief line, extended northward to Sheppard, would be a far better plan than what Ford wants now.

    • Seriously?  More investment in transit for downtown?  When do we invest in the inner suburbs like Scarborough and Etobicoke?  

      • An investment /to/ downtown from the suburbs. Rather than stupidly pile more people onto the YUS and Bloor-Danforth lines which are running at or above capacity, what’s needed are new lines that add capacity into and out of the core. You can build the fuck out of Finch and Sheppard and Eglinton but if all those lines do are pack more people onto the YUS line, which barely handles the usership it has now, what do you think is going to happen?

  • So once again Toronto will fail to take the big steps it needs to take because we can’t afford to?  This is how Mike Harris cut our plans to run subways.  Who knows where our transit development would have been by now if we hadn’t listened and voted for this short sighted approach.  I’m about as left wing as they come man but I support subway expansion.  We should have been doing this years ago.  The projected improvement in congestion from the Transit City plan is zero or “traffic neutral”.  They actually expect that system to make no improvement in the current level of gridlock because of the expected growth in population.  So we are literally embarking on a massive plan to maintain the status quo, which is a disaster.  So when we finish that project and still live in a traffic nightmare, where do we go from there?  Back to the drawing board?  It’s a plan to go nowhere.  This poverty of ambition is Toronto’s (and Canada’s) greatest weakness.  I don’t support very many of Rob Ford’s policies either but at least he’s trying some bold action on the transit file instead of trying to maintain the ridiculously inadequate current situation.

  • Luthier

    Subways are great if they are planned well. His extension is just poorly planned and does not solve the problems of transit in the city. TransitCity tried to tackle that program instead of concentrating on dumping money in one route. Now we won’t see either.