Doug Ford's $28.5 billion Toronto transit gambit

We've seen plenty of ambitious transit announcements in this city before. With this one, the province thinks it's hit pay dirt
By Steve Paikin - Published on April 10, 2019
politicians at a transit announcement
Premier Doug Ford unveils his government’s new transit plan for Toronto at a GO Transit maintenance yard on Wednesday. (Steve Paikin)

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It would be understandable for people in Ontario's capital city to have developed a bit of skepticism about politicians’ transit announcements. 

Rapid transit in Scarborough alone has seen half a dozen different incarnations over the past decade — from an LRT, to a one-stop subway, to a three-stop subway. And for all the debates and votes at city council, no plan has actually seemed any closer to getting a shovel in the ground. 

But Premier Doug Ford seems bound and determined to change that and has even promised to put the power of the provincial purse behind it. 

On Wednesday, at a GO Transit maintenance yard in Etobicoke, Ford unveiled the latest incarnation of rapid-transit planning for Toronto. It is breathtaking in its ambition and groundbreaking in its approach. It remains to be seen whether this plan has any more likelihood of happening than its many predecessors. 

Here's the gist of what the Ontario government has planned — four new transit lines totalling $28.5 billion in expenditures. 

  • A new, $10.9 billion "Ontario Line," integrated into the current Toronto Transit Commission’s subway network; it would go south from the Ontario Science Centre and then west to the Canadian National Exhibition/Ontario Place
  • A $5.6 billion Yonge North Subway Extension, which would go from Finch Station up to Richmond Hill
  • A $5.5 billion, three-stop Scarborough subway extension that would travel from Kennedy Station, on the Bloor-Danforth line (Line 2), to McCowan Road
  • A $4.7 billion Eglinton Crosstown West Extension, from Mount Dennis to Toronto-Pearson Airport

While the plans seem to be backstopped by some significant political capital at Queen's Park, they will ultimately rise or fall on whether the three levels of government can find the money to turn them from pipe dreams into reality. 

The dollar amounts are staggering, and unlike the previous government, the Progressive Conservatives have no plans to sell billions in shares of Crown assets (such as Hydro One) to raise the money. 

Ford has committed Ontario to ponying up $11.2 billion of the total $28.5 billion price tag. The federal government has already earmarked $4.8 billion toward Toronto's transit needs. But Ford will be looking for the feds to double — if not triple — that contribution to make this happen. He’s also expected to try to negotiate a contribution from the city and to continue talks in hopes of uploading ownership of the subways to Queen's Park. 

The most intriguing development here is the “Ontario Line,” no doubt so named so that riders won’t forget which level of government made it happen. Officials confirm it will be a "freestanding" line, meaning it won't use the same technology, rolling stock, or track size as the existing subway system. But they insist it will still be seamlessly integrated into the Eglinton Crosstown LRT and Line 2. At a technical briefing prior to the announcement, Metrolinx officials stated that removing the constraint of having to use all the same equipment as the existing subway network should allow the relief line to accomodate new features such as quieter, driverless trains; some of the line would run aboveground and some below. They also say that it could facilitate a broader procurement process, which would likely result in more and better bids. 

The government will employ the P3 (public-private partnership) process but won't use the traditional "design, bid, build" approach, which it says can result in too many unanticipated and unpleasant surprises. Instead, it will simply tell prospective bidders what it wants, in broad strokes, allowing the bidders to come up with their own innovative approaches to meeting the criteria. 

This version of the relief line is significantly longer than the one previously planned. Officials expect the 19-kilometre line to divert 9,000 passengers per hour (at peak times) from the Yonge line (Line 1) — it’ll carry a total of 400,000 passengers per day. It could also make trips from, say, Exhibition Place to Queen Street 15 minutes shorter than they are on the current streetcar route. 

The relief line would have seven so-called interfaces (Ontario Place, Osgoode and Queen stations, East Harbour, Gerrard, Pape, and the science centre) but would also feature many more stops along the way. The exact number and layout will be determined by the successful bidder. And fares for the relief line would be integrated into the regular TTC system; there'd be no separate fare required to use it. 

Metrolinx hopes the relief line will be up and running by 2027, which seems ambitious. The current Eglinton Crosstown LRT will take 10 years to complete (admittedly, it's a few kilometres longer). But the notion that a more complicated relief line that’s nearly twice as expensive could be delivered in less time seems unlikely, although Metrolinx officials insist it can be done.  

The Ontario government rolled out several of its heavy-hitters for today’s announcement. Flanking the premier were Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek (“People are counting on us to make their communities better, and we're going to get underway right away”); Infrastructure Minister Monte McNaughton (“The TTC runs a very good transit system, but they’re just not the best organization to build the new lines that we need”); and three backbench MPPs. York Region mayors Maurizio Bevilacqua (Vaughan) and Frank Scarpitti (Markham) were also in attendance and could barely contain their smiles. Scarpitti even live-streamed the announcement using his own smartphone.

However, conspicuous by his absence was the mayor of Toronto, in whose city the vast majority of the work would occur. John Tory is in an awkward place on this issue. Ford says his municipal counterpart was invited to attend and share the podium. But the mayor’s office declined, stating that it hadn’t been briefed on what was in the announcement and didn’t want the mayor’s presence to be seen as an endorsement of a plan that council hadn’t approved.

“How can we expect co-operation from city hall when Ford has kept Mayor Tory in the dark about his plans?” said Mike Schreiner, leader of the Ontario Greens, in a statement. “And how can we expect buy-in from Ottawa when Ford has been waging war over climate action?”

The NDP’s transit critic, Jessica Bell (University–Rosedale), attended the announcement and questioned how a five-page press release from the government could possibly offer adequate details about the plans, given that there are billions of dollars at stake.

While the province’s announcement is light on details, it is also unquestionably bold in its vision. However, it does take the opposite approach to how transit has traditionally been built. In the past, Toronto city council has determined which projects needed building before begging other levels of government for the money.

This time, the province has initiated the plan and has, in some cases, contradicted what council had already approved — and it’s the province that intends to find the money to make it all happen. Ford may have undermined his own bargaining position by admitting that the province would “backstop” the entire cost should the federal government decline to pony up more. (The feds have already earmarked billions for four projects: a differently configured relief line, a retrofit of Bloor-Yonge Station, SmartTrack, and a one-stop Scarborough subway extension).

The premier seemed genuinely giddy while making today’s announcement, laughing on several occasions during his speech — so pleased was he to be unveiling “North America’s biggest rapid-transit plans.” 

He also referenced his late brother, the former mayor of Toronto. “This one’s for you, Rob,” Ford said, noting what a champion of “subways, subways, subways” his brother had been.

It may be churlish to point out that if Toronto’s original Transit City plan had been built when approved years ago during David Miller’s mayoralty, people in Scarborough would already be riding on a light-rail transit line — built at one-third of the projected cost of the subway. The current (and much-maligned) Scarborough RT is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2026; the new subway is slated to be built “before 2030.” Does that mean people in Scarborough will be riding buses for perhaps four years while they wait for their new subway to be built?

The premier really didn’t have an answer for that. 

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