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At what point is the Scarborough subway plan too much money for too few riders? Keenan
Mayor John Tory won't answer the question but it’s time to start asking when the multi-billion-dollar project no longer makes sense.
March 1, 2017
Edward Keenan

The subway extension to the Scarborough Town Centre keeps getting more expensive. And the amount of service it is expected to deliver and number of riders it is expected to attract keep getting smaller.

Is there a point, one might ask, where we say it is too much to pay, for too little benefit? I thought we reached that point a long time ago. Longtime readers will know I have never thought the project made good sense. But Mayor John Tory does not think we have reached that point, and may not think there is such a point. Asked by Star reporters this week if there was any cost he would consider too high, he said, “I’m just not going to get into that.” And went on to say he wants to get on with building the thing rather than continuing to debate it.

I’m not unsympathetic to exhaustion with the question — I think a large number of people in Toronto are tired of arguing about this, even hearing about it, again and again. I’m sure most of us would prefer to get on with riding it someday, whatever it is we’re building. How many times do we relitigate the same decision?

And yet there’s the tricky part. The idea that the decision — affirmed multiple times — is behind us kind of ignores that what we’re building, how much it will cost and how many people it is expected to carry keeps changing. Not a little bit. A lot.

We don’t need to go back into the dark ages of the Ford years when this process began to see how big the changes we’re talking about are. Just over a year ago, the subway extension plan went from three stops to one stop. At that time, the bill for the subway was said to be $2 billion, leaving enough committed money to also build a 17-stop Eglinton East LRT as well. And that one-stop subway extension was expected to attract 4,500 new riders to the line.

As of this week, the price tag has gone up to $3.35 billion — a preliminary estimate based on less than 5 per cent of the design work, one those putting it forward say could rise as high as $5 billion as more details are worked out. And now, because of how the extension interacts with different transit plans such as SmartTrack, the number of new riders expected to be drawn to the line over the current aging RT is down to 2,300. As my Star colleagues have put it: we’re now talking about $1.45 million per new rider. And the 17-stop LRT championed as an integral part of the one-stop plan is now in limbo, essentially unfunded.

A 67 per cent cost increase in one year. A 49 per cent decrease in anticipated new riders in the same period. A related 17-stop line abandoned.

Did we already decide? Or was the decision council made — like the others on this topic earlier — one made talking about what now seems like an entirely different project? And if, as we’re told is possible, the price goes up to $5 billion, what then? If it goes higher than that even, as studies of big infrastructure projects in general suggest we should anticipate as a possibility, what then?

These are staggering numbers we’re talking about. We can become numb to them over time — a few hundred million on this or that, a billion-dollar-increase here or there. But with the kind of money we’re discussing, even in today’s overheated real estate market, you could buy every projected new rider a detached house, and have enough money left to fund the TTC for a year with the change left over.

Two years ago, my colleague Royson James wrote about one unsung alternative: the existing RT, he said, could be rehabbed and updated with new trains like the ones they use on Vancouver’s SkyTrain, for a mere few hundred million dollars. The debate more recently has centred on the once-planned seven stop LRT that was once estimated to cost $1.48 billion, and many have argued it would better serve local residents by providing more stops closer to where they live while offering improvements on the existing RT technology.

There are reasons, clearly, why a majority of our politicians have preferred the subway option to those alternatives. And surely the cost estimates on those would grow, as they always do with infrastructure projects. But when you start with a much smaller number, a similar percentage increase still gives you a dramatically lower final price tag.

However much politicians want to wish the ongoing debate away, it is going to have to come back sooner or later: the current estimate — once you add financing and other costs detailed in the reports —is very close to the total funding already committed by the federal, provincial, and city governments. If the total soars past that $3.56 billion envelope as it seems likely it might, then we are going to have to decide how to pay the difference — and if we’re willing to. The plan already prices out the Eglinton East LRT which was approved in principle by council from the same funding envelope — so we already need to decide how and if we are going to pay for that.

How much money is too much? How many new riders served is too little? How much can a plan change before you admit the decision you made may no longer apply to the current facts?

The mayor doesn’t want to get into it. But voters should be asking those questions, whether he wants to answer them or not.