The Scarborough subway cannot be killed and will never die

By John Michael McGrath - Published on September 5, 2018
A photograph of a woman seen through the window of a Toronto subway car.
A TTC subway train heads west out of Kennedy Station, in Scarborough. (Kevin Van Paassen/Globe and Mail)

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On September 4, 2013, Glen Murray, then Ontario’s minister of transportation and infrastructure, stood at a podium in a Scarborough parking lot and declared that the province was committed to building a two-stop subway extension along the existing right-of-way for Scarborough Rapid Transit (SRT).

Murray’s announcement — which he made flanked by cabinet ministers and other Scarborough MPPs — turned an opportunistic byelection pledge into government policy: the Liberals would be “subway champions” for Scarborough, come hell or high water.

This was not the beginning of the Scarborough story: we know, thanks to the Globe and Mail’s reporting, that the Liberals had orchestrated the May 2013 city council vote that they later used as a pretext for tearing up existing transit plans. It also wasn’t the end: in 2016, Mayor John Tory’s office abandoned the SRT alignment in favour of a one-stop plan that was supposed to embed the subway in a broader transit network and incorporate light-rail lines that would actually deliver decent transit to Toronto east of Kennedy Road.

Except — whoops — the subway is now likely to be so expensive (no less than $3.35 billion, and likely quite a bit more) that there’ll be no money left for the rest of the “network” projects.

But wait! Here comes newly elected premier Doug Ford, who’s formally committed his government not only to building a subway to Scarborough but also to uploading the entire subway system to the province’s ledger as part of a plan to, transit riders are assured, spend $5 billion on new subways in the city. The Progressive Conservative government announced last week that it’s named a special adviser to help the government draw up “a plan to efficiently and effectively deliver on this key commitment.”

Even progressive politicians, such as mayoral candidate Jennifer Keesmaat, have basically accepted the Scarborough subway as a fait accompli. That marks a departure from four years ago, when Olivia Chow, running against both Tory and Ford, pledged to restore the pre-subway plans for Scarborough. Tory won that election, Ford won another, and Keesmaat seems to have learned a lesson.

Last week, the city’s former chief planner laid out her transit plan. Although it includes a number of pieces the city desperately needs — including both the Relief Line and the waterfront LRT — it also, in effect, concedes that some kind of subway is going to happen in Scarborough and leaves that bit up to the premier’s office.

Politically, this is a fair and obvious move for Keesmaat: the pro-LRT voices who’ve criticized the subway plan from day one have totally failed to move the needle against it, and progressives who want to actually win elections aren’t obligated to sacrifice themselves for this cause. (And, of course, there’s the small matter of Keesmaat’s signature literally being on the current one-stop subway plan.)

No matter who wins Toronto’s next municipal election, then, transit riders and taxpayers will lose as governments trip over each other to spend billions on this project. It seems almost like an afterthought at this point to say that the project is a colossal waste of money: whatever handful of riders eventually make it to Scarborough Centre to board a subway will have done so only after having spent longer on the bus; most of the time saved by eliminating every other station the SRT currently serves will be eaten up by road traffic. And the initial ridership projections used to justify all of this were, like the cost projections, optimistic.

But the new premier has a different plan, one that will be sold with different ridership projections, and we’ll start this whole dance all over again because, five years after Murray’s announcement, nobody has so much as started digging a hole anywhere. And despite what both Tory and Ford have claimed, nothing about this project has been delayed by city-council debates: it’s just not possible to do an unwise thing well.

Toronto is stuck with this white elephant as a political fact. The worst insult (for now) is how few of the politicians responsible for it are still on the stage. Mitzie Hunter, the Liberal MPP whose byelection win the subway was supposed to secure, just barely hung onto her seat in the recent provincial contest. Scores of other Liberals saw defeat or, like Murray, simply opted not to run again. Kathleen Wynne, arguably the person with final responsibility, is still in the legislature, but the subway failed to do what was always its most important job — not moving commuters, but keeping Liberals in power.

The Scarborough subway has already outlived one generation of political opportunists. There’s no reason to think it won’t outlive another.

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