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Mayor John Tory set to back another look at a Sheppard subway extension

Mayor says he "respects" a move by Councillor Jim Karygiannis to resurrect the long-dead project ahead of Scarborough transit debate.
July 12, 2016
By Jennifer Pagliaro and Ben Spurr

Mayor John Tory is set to back an attempt to revive the controversial Sheppard subway extension, so as to secure votes this week for another subway extension to the Scarborough Town Centre.

Rookie Councillor Jim Karygiannis says he will move on Tuesday that council reconsider a Sheppard subway extension once championed by former mayor Rob Ford, asking staff to re-examine a proposal that an expert panel and council killed years ago.

It’s a move that Tory, who promised to make “evidence-based” decisions and has advocated against reopening transit decisions, appears willing to endorse.

“I think that I’ll be getting his support on this,” Karygiannis said Monday after a private meeting organized by Tory’s office last week. “We are of like minds.”

Tory’s office told the Star that because the province has stalled plans for an agreed-upon light-rail line along Sheppard Ave., the mayor “respects the desire for Councillor Karygiannis to gather more information on the extension of the Sheppard subway.”

Transit plans headed to council for debate and approval Tuesday include a single-stop addition to the Bloor-Danforth subway in Scarborough, a six-kilometre, $3.2-billion underground project Tory has advocated to build. But critics are pushing instead for a seven-stop LRT along the above-ground route of the aging Scarborough RT - a cheaper project that could leave money to build a second LRT with 17 stops along Eglinton Ave.

Karygiannis is among a group of newer councillors who have yet to push the button - red or green - on the Scarborough subway controversy, putting them in the midst of a tug-of-war on City Hall’s second floor.

The Ward 39 (Scarborough-Agincourt) councillor said he’ll refuse to back the one-stop subway extension unless the mayor and others support another look at extending the Sheppard subway.

Tory’s backing would echo an earlier debate over the fate of the eastern Gardiner Expressway, in which Tory, to win Karygiannis’ vote, agreed to a clause calling for a study of tunneling that section of the expressway.

City council voted to build an LRT instead of a subway on Sheppard in 2012, following a council revolt against Ford.

The decision was backed by a report from an expert panel that determined a 25-stop LRT would outperform the seven-stop subway in key areas such as economic development, ridership, connectivity, social equity and accessibility.

The LRT would run 13 kilometres from Don Mills station on the Sheppard subway line to east of Morningside Ave. The subway would have extended the existing Sheppard line by eight kilometres eastward, bending south to connect to the Scarborough Town Centre.

While the LRT’s $1-billion cost is fully funded by the provincial and federal governments, the subway was estimated to cost $2.7 billion to $3.7 billion - meaning the city would have to find at least $1.7 billion to build the line.

Crucially, the expert panel found that at its busiest hour in its busiest direction, the Sheppard subway extension would carry just 4,200 passengers - a number that would leave trains as much as 90 per cent empty at rush hour. The LRT, with a lower capacity, would carry 3,000.

The existing five-stop Sheppard subway line, from Yonge to Don Mills, is by far the least used on the TTC’s network.

The province agreed to build the LRT, with estimated completion in 2021. But last year it was announced that construction would not begin until at least 2021, following the completion of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT and the Finch West LRT.

The transit agency has yet to give a firm timeline, but insists the Sheppard LRT is still part of its plans.

“It’s still one of our funded projects . . . We haven't changed our view that it still has value,” Metrolinx president and CEO Bruce McCuaig told reporters after the agency’s board meeting last month.

However, agency and city officials privately acknowledge that the fate of the project is up in the air, thanks in part to a lack of support from local politicians, some of whom have publicly advocated for a subway instead.

“The Sheppard LRT, quite frankly, is in limbo,” the city’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat told councillors at executive committee last month.

The uncertainty has presented problems for planners as they put together the 15-year transit network that will go to council on Tuesday. It’s also unclear what would happen to the committed funds if the LRT were scrapped.

“We’re paying staff and we really appreciate their input, but the thing is: Build and they will come,” Karygiannis said of the subway extension’s potential. “We can listen to staff and we can take staff’s advice, but this city shouldn’t be run by staff.”

Karygiannis isn’t the only undecided rookie with questions about the one-stop Scarborough subway.

Councillor John Campbell, a fiscal conservative who represents Ward 4 (Etobicoke Centre), said he believes there could still be money saved by taking the route above ground in the existing RT corridor.

He told the Star he’ll move his own motion to continue looking at the SRT route, asking for further study of that alignment.

When Councillor Josh Matlow tried to make the same request — when staff had yet to report on the implications of running a one-stop subway all or part above ground — he met resistance from both Tory and staff.

But in a report last month, staff explained how the technical challenges of taking the subway above ground make it more costly, with a need to still tunnel several long stretches.

On Monday, Tory did not rule out continuing to explore that option. His office didn’t specifically answer when asked if he would support Campbell’s motion.

“While city staff have made it clear that a surface route is not a viable option and would be more expensive, the mayor and Councillor Campbell agree that we need to continue to explore how to reduce the cost of the Bloor-Danforth extension,” Tory’s spokesperson Amanda Galbraith wrote in an email.

Other rookies say they’ve already made up their minds about the one-stop subway.

“I am accepting of staff’s recommendations on this,” said Councillor Stephen Holyday (Ward 3, Etobicoke Centre). “I think people 50 years from now will think that it was wise to extend the subway.”

Attention will also be on more experienced councillors who appear to have flip-flopped.

Some who opposed the subway to replace the SRT last term - Councillors Mary-Margaret McMahon, Denzil Minnan-Wong and Jaye Robinson - are now members of Tory’s executive committee and have backed the move towards a one-stop plan.

Matlow, who backs the plan to build LRTs in Scarborough, said Monday he hopes the debate on Tuesday is “guided by the facts.”

“One of the reasons that it’s taken so long to move forward with improving transit for Scarborough, along with other parts of the city, is that too many decisions have put politics before people,” he said. “That’s got to change.”