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Crucial information missing ahead of transit vote, Toronto councillors say

Toronto council is being asked to commit to taking on new transit costs, but some councillors say there are crucial questions about the projects that aren’t resolved.
Nov. 8, 2016
By Ben Spurr

With a crucial transit agreement heading to council on Tuesday, some councillors say they don’t have enough information to approve the millions of dollars in spending it entails.

The proposed deal was approved last week by Mayor John Tory’s executive committee, and will govern cost-sharing between the city and province as the two governments partner to build and operate new LRT lines, and implement Tory’s SmartTrack project.

But although council is being asked to commit to taking on new transit costs, some councillors say there are crucial questions about the projects that won’t be resolved until after the council meeting.

“This is the thinnest transit agreement I’ve ever seen,” said Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale - High Park). “We agree in principle to pay all these provincial costs without knowing how we’re going to pay for it or exactly what we’re getting.”

A spokesperson from the mayor’s office said that council can’t afford to not approve the agreement. “Council has a clear choice this week: it can take the extensive information it has before it and decide to get on with building transit or it can ask for further study, further reports and further debate, which just means more delay,” wrote Amanda Galbraith in an email.

In addition to potential future costs, the recommendations before council seek a firm commitment for $71 million for SmartTrack planning and $217.5 million for GO Transit upgrades, much of which would support the province’s regional express rail program on which SmartTrack depends. The recommendations would also add $2 billion in SmartTrack capital costs to the city’s capital program.

On Monday, the Star detailed questions around tax increment financing, which city staff now acknowledge cannot pay for all of the city’s SmartTrack costs, as the mayor proposed during his 2014 election campaign.

Here are three more key questions that council likely won’t know the answer to by the time it votes:

How much will it cost the city to operate new transit?

The agreement would commit the city to paying operating and maintenance costs of provincial LRT projects. According to a city spokesperson, it would cost $227.4 million a year to operate and maintain the Eglinton Crosstown, Finch West, Sheppard East, and Eglinton West LRTs by 2026, assuming they all open by that time.

That sum would be offset by fares and other revenues from the LRTs, which under the terms of the agreement the city would be allowed to retain. But the city report didn’t provide a final figure for the net costs.

Using the city’s projections for the Crosstown, which were the most detailed in the report, the net costs for the four LRTs could be about half of the $227.4 million, or $113.7 million a year. That’s equivalent to a property tax increase of 4.2 per cent.

“It’s going to be a huge burden for the people of Toronto, and we don’t know how to pay for it,” said Councillor Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches - East York).

The agreement would also commit Toronto to paying for the operating and maintenance costs of the six new stations being added to the province’s regional express rail program and branded as SmartTrack stops. According to the city report, those costs have not yet been estimated.

What will SmartTrack service look like?

At last week’s meeting, city manager Peter Wallace said that in order for SmartTrack to function as projected, it was “an absolute necessity” that passengers be able to pay a TTC fare to ride it.

That is not guaranteed. Under the terms of the agreement, fares for SmartTrack would be set as part of a larger initiative being led by Metrolinx to integrate fares across all 10 transit operators in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. The terms of the proposed agreement say only that the fare integration process must “consider” fare-related requests from the city. Metrolinx won’t finish the fare integration project until next year, at the earliest.

The city’s proposal for SmartTrack also assumes being able to run trains through Union Station on GO’s Stouffville and Kitchener corridors, instead of turning them back at Union, as some GO trains currently do.

Asked whether “through service” for SmartTrack stations would be a part of regional express rail, Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins said it is “possible,” and is “under consideration as part of ongoing work.”

How will the western portion of SmartTrack be completed?

The western heavy rail spur that Tory originally pitched as part of SmartTrack has been replaced with an extension of the Crosstown LRT known as the Eglinton West.

The LRT would cost an estimated $2.5 billion, and the city would be responsible for paying to build it. Staff are counting on a federal contribution of $822.9 million, and a combined $470.1 million from the city of Mississauga and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority. None of the contributions have been confirmed, and some Mississauga councillors have balked at the idea of chipping in.

Without funding from Mississauga, the city could have to find another source of funding to extend the line all the way to the airport or the nearby Mississauga Airport Corporate Centre. At last week’s meeting, chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat described linking up with the employment-rich airport area as a “critical connection” and the primary rationale for building the LRT extension.

The lack of funding details for the extension have given ammunition to its critics of the project. Councillor John Campbell (Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre). He argued that with or without funding commitments from the GTAA or Mississauga, the Toronto should spend its money on transit projects like planned LRT lines on the waterfront, which he said are a higher priority. He said he plans to move a motion at council to defer approval of the Eglinton West LRT.

“Even if they said, oh we’re fully on board, should the city of Toronto be spending a billion dollars on a dubious link to the airport?” he asked.