In Scarberia, it’s LRT all the way

1. The $650 million assumption

The Ford administration hasn’t been able to make a business case for a Sheppard subway extension from Don Mills to the Scarborough Town Centre. To start, there’s the $1 billion the mayor’s transit point man, Gordon Chong, couldn’t find from private donors. But the Ford plan is based on a very shaky financial hypothesis – that some $650 million in “assumed savings” from construction of the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown LRT, which can’t be assumed at all given construction delays, can be directed to Ford’s extension. Not so fast. The premier wasn’t predisposed to handing over the cash when Robo came calling for it before the provincial election.

2. Wrench in the operations

Ford’s subway calculations don’t include future operational and maintenance costs – a huge oversight considering it’s the cost of subway upkeep that’s historically wreaked havoc with the TTC’s operating budget.

3. TIFs and thats

A scheme known as Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, has been floated as a way to raise some of the estimated $2.7 billion Ford’s Sheppard subway extension would need. TIFs, popular in the U.S. as a means of raising money to redevelop blighted areas, are based on an all-too-familiar formula in the world of capital financing – borrowing against future revenues. In other words, they’re high-risk and very speculative. Not good for a city whose ability to incur further debt in case the scheme went poof is “highly constrained.”

4. Skeptical investors

Ford’s plan calls for leveraging future tax increases in “TIF zones” within 800 metres of subway development, issuing bonds to investors based on those future revenues to raise capital. How interested are pension funds and the like, the usual purchasers of TIF-based bonds? Not overwhelmingly. KPMG’s report on funding options for the Sheppard extension offers $203 million as an estimate of the amount private equity investors might be willing to pony up. The other problem: the city lacks the authority to issue bonds. That would require the province’s permission, and it isn’t enamoured of this financing scheme. It’s allowed TIF schemes on a pilot-project basis on only two occasions.

5. Who’s the real “tool”?

In fact, the city has no authority to implement any of the more than half-dozen revenue “tools” offered as possible sources of capital for Ford’s subway. Even the parking fees the mayor has talked about may be prohibited under the City Of Toronto Act, depending on how they’re structured.

6. Arrested development

Hiking development charges is another funding option proposed by Ford & Co. Developers have already said they won’t accept higher fees. But even if – and it’s a big “if” – builders were prepared to pay higher charges, the ripple effects would be costly. How much air that would suck out of the building boom is hard to know, but it wouldn’t help. Toronto has the lowest development charges in the GTA to thank for all those cranes in the sky. More to the point, the increases being contemplated would be city-wide, which may mean less money for Section 37 funds for neighbourhood improvements like new daycare facilities and streetscape enhancement.

7. Dense on density

Subway advocates don’t want to hear it, but there’s no escaping the biggest hole in Ford’s subway tunnel vision: the fact that there’s not enough development capacity along Sheppard to justify a subway till 2050 at the earliest. The larger spots that are available for development are few and far between and are already being built on. Oddly, the proposed route of Ford’s extension skirts Brimley, where density might be high enough to start thinking in terms of a subway.

8. The biggest land-use obstacle

It’s the single-family residential neighbourhoods backing onto Sheppard for long stretches. Unless the plan is to tear the shit out of the entire length of Sheppard to make room for massive towers….

9. “Build it and they will come”

The argument’s often put forward that subways may be more expensive but in the long term are a better investment. So why not build subways now? Sounds forward-looking, but this goes against every transportation planning principle in the book. Last time we ignored it, we ended up with a billion-dollar white elephant – the existing Sheppard line, which still falls short of paying for itself to the tune of $10 million a year.

10. Subway lesson

If a subway extension were all that was needed to spur economic development – not just residential condo development but also corporate head offices – more workplaces would have gone up around the Scarborough Town Centre, designed as the original node for Scarberia.

11. A streetcar named disaster

The Fordists make apocalyptic comparisons to the St. Clair right-of-way project. But let’s be clear: LRT vehicles are not streetcars. They travel in their own lane, not mixed in traffic. They have priority at intersections (underground sensors will change lights), and use a proof-of-payment system to allow quicker boarding and exiting of vehicles, processes that currently account for up 20 per cent of travel time on streetcars. LRT stops are three times further apart than streetcar stops in the core.

12. All crossed up on traffic

Nota bene: there will be no lane reductions along Sheppard to make room for LRT – save for a short section between Consumers and Victoria Park, where there are now three lanes in each direction. Right now, buses are the biggest hindrance to auto travel on Sheppard East. They’ll be gone when LRTs are built. Cars will be restricted from making some left turns, but U-turns at intersections will keep them happy.

13. Connectivity, comfort and convenience

If planners had their druthers and money grew on trees, subways would be the preferred transit option, or so goes the conventional wisdom. Yet experience in other transit cities has led planners to recognize that subways aren’t always the best option. Their approach has been to extend their subway systems into outlying areas with light rail. You generally have to take a bus to get to a subway station. Light rail comes closer to your front door.

14. Mandate? What mandate?

The mayor says his election gave him the mandate to build subways, but he insisted then that his plan would be privately funded, and that’s not happening. Further, we haven’t begun to talk about the Sheppard West subway he also promised to build with private money, which he’s conveniently forgotten. Ford’s lost credibility on this issue, as council’s decision to go with LRT last month makes crystal clear.

Line by line

A look at the numbers – and they all point to LRT

Ford’s subway plan

6 subway stops connecting Don Mills subway station to Scarborough Town Centre

No Finch West LRT and bury the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown from Laird to Kennedy at a extra cost of $2 billion

37 kilometres of track (only 25 kms of it provincially funded)

339,000 Torontonians served

$335 million cost per kilometre

$12.4 billion total cost


LRT plan approved by council February 8

26 stops connecting Don Mills subway station to Malvern Town Centre

Finch West LRT from Finch West subway station (part of Spadina subway extension) to Humber College

52 kilometres of track

460,000 Torontonians served

$167 million cost per km

$8.7 billion total cost

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