On the Scarborough subway, voters will once again reap what they’ve sown

OPINION: If the electorate won’t punish politicians for making unkeepable promises, writes John Michael McGrath, then who can blame the Tories for making one more?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on January 15, 2019
looking in a window on a Toronto subway car
The Progressive Conservatives want to amend the Scarborough subway plan to include stations that were cut for cost reasons in 2016. (Kevin Van Paassen/Globe and Mail)

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In a fast-paced world that’s always changing, it’s important for us to hang on to the things that provide a sense of consistency and continuity. January is cold. Children and puppies are cute. Politicians are looking to gum up the Scarborough subway again. That last one’s like a comforting mug of hot chocolate. Except it’s terrible.

The Progressive Conservative government and its leader, Premier Doug Ford, are looking once more to revisit the plan for the subway extension. This time, they want to bring back some of the stations that were cut for cost reasons during the last revision, in 2016. How to pay for them? It seems that private-market fairy dust will be added to the pile of unicorns that the subway plan has been based on since its conception. (For more on why the Scarborough subway extension doesn’t make financial or any other kind of sense, see here and here.)

There’s nothing wrong with inviting developers to build near transit stations. I wish the TTC would do more of that, and I wish they’d done it more effectively with past projects. But there are more than a few inconvenient facts that any plan to bring in private money needs to contend with. For starters, the stations that were cut in 2016 were cut because they wouldn’t have netted many riders. Why would private developers sink money into places that don’t have the traffic?

The boosters will tell you that those predictions were based on ridership figures for the current (dilapidated) Scarborough RT, which never drove redevelopment the way that a subway would. Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that this reasoning is sound. It still leaves the question of where, exactly, development will go. The three-stop subway extension that Ford envisioned during his brief time as a Toronto city councillor would have traversed mainly low-density neighbourhoods that tend to oppose the kind of high-rise intensification that new transit lines have driven in other parts of Toronto (such as midtown, where the Eglinton Crosstown LRT is under construction).

And even if those communities welcome the intensification, and even if developers build it, there’s still the matter of how much money the government can squeeze out of the private sector before it kills the goose that lays the golden eggs. Subway stations cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and neither Toronto nor Ontario has a history of extracting anything close to that kind of money for single developments. There are some interesting policies in other jurisdictions — São Paulo is worth reading up on — but you can’t just wave a magic wand and apply them in a totally different context.

So, to summarize: the Tories are proposing to upend a transit plan that’s already in progress for dubious benefits that they probably won’t be able to deliver. It’s the “cut city council in half in the middle of an election” of transit planning. But in the government’s defence, there’s no reason for it to fear any repercussions.

Rob Ford won the 2010 Toronto mayoral election partly on a promise to build a subway to Scarborough. The Ontario Liberals won the 2013 Scarborough–Guildwood byelection and the 2014 provincial election partly on a promise to build a subway to Scarborough. John Tory won the 2014 mayoral election for the same reason; by the 2018 contest, the matter had been so firmly settled that Tory’s main opponent, Jennifer Keesmaat, didn’t even bother with the issue.

I’m not here to blame voters for making bad calls. Voters want what they want, and if the forces for transit sanity in Toronto keep losing the argument, then they need to make better arguments. But despite having won, the subway-mongers can’t seem to keep themselves from mucking about with the plan in ways that will, if nothing else, delay the day that someone in Scarborough will finally be able to board a train.

Voters have never punished a politician yet for making blue-sky promises about the Scarborough subway, and since planning timelines are longer than election cycles, there’s no reason to think this won’t all happen again after 2022. Unless, that is, voters decide to do something crazy — like turf politicians who promise them everything for nothing.

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