Transit City: not a war on cars

Rob Ford’s first day as mayor brought vows to kill Transit City in the name of fighting waste, stopping the “gravy train” and ending the war on cars. So why is he instead planning to sink the entire Transit City budget into building two short but expensive bits of subway instead? Here’s some insight.

Ford wants to take care of his suburban brethren. When you live way out in the sprawls of Etobicoke North, mass transit is a foreign concept. Owning a car to get around, commute, run errands, and visit friends and family is not an option, it’s a necessity, a way of life. That part of the city is designed around people’s car-centric lifestyle: wide streets, big-box shopping malls with expansive parking lots, and plenty of space in between everything. I’m not saying it’s bad in any way. Millions of people have chosen the suburban car-dependent lifestyle. And when you’ve always lived where the car is king, anything that gets in the way (construction, transit, cyclists) is an obstacle to you getting where you want to go. I know, I grew up in the suburbs, and I drove (or was driven) everywhere. So did everyone I knew.

Along comes Rob Ford, the champion of the suburbs and the slayer of waste. Why doesn’t Ford just cancel all transit expansion across the city? The way he’s going at Transit City you’d think he believes he has the power to do whatever he wants. There are three reasons why I believe he’s going after these two subway routes.

1) The Pan-Am Games. Toronto will host the Pan-American Games and Parapan American Games in 2015, and some large venues are to be built at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, which is not currently served by any rapid transit lines, except an express bus connection to the Scarborough RT at Scarborough Town Centre. Today we learned that Ford has directed TTC General Manager Gary Webster to come up with a plan to extend the Sheppard subway from its current terminus just east of Don Mills Road to Agincourt GO station, and it is widely anticipated that Ford will direct staff to extend the plan to U of T Scarborough via Scarborough Town Centre. In fact, I have heard that building rapid transit to U of T Scarborough was promised in Toronto’s bid for the Games, but I can’t find a reference for that just now.

2) The Scarborough RT. The ICTS cars currently in use on the Scarborough Rapid Transit track were built in the mid-1980’s, and no manufacturer in the world still builds them. They are reaching the end of their service life, which means that within the next few years the entire line will either be retrofitted for new technology, replaced entirely, or go out of service permanently. By extending the Bloor-Danforth subway to meet up with his planned Sheppard extension, Ford could solve the SRT dilemma while providing a direct subway link from Scarborough Town Centre to downtown.

3) The province has committed funding. More than $8 billion in provincial funds is earmarked for building Transit City over the next 10 years. Ford believes he can convince the province to redirect that funding to his subway plan, even though Ontario Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne has said many times that funding is not available for subway construction, and she has threatened to pull all of the funding before.

Of course, Transit City already covers all of these points, at lower cost to Toronto taxpayers. The Sheppard East LRT and replacement Scarborough LRT will easily handle the anticipated future loads on those routes, with far lower construction and operating costs than a subway. And the Scarborough RT is already fully grade separated, so replacing it with a subway offers no functional improvement. So why would penny-pinching Rob Ford want to build subways instead? There must be a fourth point.

4) It’s underground. Going back to the suburban lifestyle argument, Ford’s supporters are overwhelmingly made up of people who drive cars, and the majority of these won’t consider transit. Any transit improvement in Rob Ford’s Toronto has to include the caveat that it will not be in the way of vehicular traffic, no matter the cost.

But Transit City also covers that point! Most of the proposed lines are to be built in fully grade-separated lanes away from vehicular traffic, with independent signalling, in many places requiring the addition of vehicle traffic lanes and turning lanes at intersections. These suburban avenues already have access and turning restrictions that would be similar to that required to operate light rail in the centre (such as not being able to turn left over a concrete median – already quite common in Toronto) and plenty of space is available where roads need to be widened. In more densely populated areas where surface LRT can’t be implemented without removing traffic lanes, it is being built underground, functionally the same as a subway but at half the cost or less.

It makes no sense to me at all why a penny-pinching character like Rob Ford wants to toss billions of dollars to the wind to scrap a comprehensive, fully-funded, well-researched and easily expandable transportation plan for the whole city, not to mention that the vehicles are already ordered and the rails are already under construction. I could understand it from a cost reduction perspective, but Ford wants to replace it with grossly over-capacity service to one very small part of the city that may cost billions more than all of Transit City combined. It seems like Ford just doesn’t like trains, even though almost every major city in North America is now considering or building light rail transit. Another possibility is that Ford is going to do anything to be the anti-David Miller, which is going to be a disaster for Toronto.

Besides the possibility that the new City Council will refuse to go along with Ford’s subway plan, my only other hope is that once official studies show the enormous additional cost of the project for so little additional benefit, Ford will come to his senses and realize just how bad an idea it is to build suburban subways in Toronto. In fact I would respect him quite a bit more if this course of action played out. But given Ford’s history as a belligerent on Council, I doubt he’s open to compromise or changing his opinion when faced with facts.

With Ford at the helm, Toronto is going nowhere fast.

About Greg Burrell

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