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.