We're facing an anticipated provincial budget announcement of $1.5 billion for an extension to the Spadina subway line, so a question leaps to mind: why would a province suddenly looking to fund transit in Toronto spend 90 times this year's TTC operating budget shortfall on 6 kilometres of subway?
I can't help asking it, and it turns out I'm not the only one.
Seeking the counsel of transit expert Steve Munro, I discover it's increasingly hard to build a subway that does anything but lose money. That's precisely what the Sheppard line is doing due to factors that threaten to haunt the Spadina project as well.
In the Sheppard case, most riders originate at Don Mills station, the end of the line, Munro tells me, which is largely fed by buses often from other transit systems and the parking lot. Most of those riders head straight to the Yonge line, rarely using the intervening stations, which connect with few surface routes and sit in sparsely populated areas.
"Most people [in the suburbs] who are travelling in the off-peak are going places the subway doesn't serve," says Munro.
The Spadina line is in a similar, albeit less lonely, situation. The existing stretch was part of a pitch to sweeten the proposed Spadina expressway, nixed in the end by community activists. As a result, it mostly shunts ghost trains through a region without much of a surface network to feed it.
Like Sheppard's ridership, most Spadina line passengers arrive at Downsview by car or regional bus and head downtown. The TTC's own plans for the expansion put daily ridership at 100,000 by 2021. This means that projections for 15 years from now put total hourly ridership at less than that seen by a Bloor streetcar going in one direction in the 1950s.
Twenty-five thousand of the projected riders will board during the morning peak, most of them at the end of the line just north of Steeles, heading downtown. During rush hour, the number of northbound trips from downtown is predicted to be 5,500.
Munro does not believe these numbers justify a subway extension. "You'll need to run the subway all day long at a capacity vastly in excess of what is necessary to carry the demand."
He also suggests that even if the extension ends up covering costs, there could literally be repercussions down the line. "For a subway to make sense, you want lots of utilization," he says. "But you can't have really high utilization all the way out, because then you'd be overloading the existing part of the subway further into the city."
He points out that when the Sheppard line was expected to go much further east, the TTC was also preparing for costly renovations to the Bloor station to deal with the added commuter traffic.
There is an alternative: expand GO Transit to better serve those riders who are simply commuting from the 905 to downtown, while funding a light rail network for local transit, though Munro says finding a route would certainly be a challenge.
"If McGuinty had any brains," he muses, "he would say, "I can make the people in Greg Sorbara's riding happy or I can make the people in Toronto, Pickering, Markham, Richmond Hill, Newmarket, King, Vaughan and Brampton happy.' That's a pretty basic calculation to me."
City politicians would seem to agree that the huge expenditure leaves a lot to critique. "There are some pieces of the subway that need to be finished," says transit commissioner Joe Mihevc. "But [that money] would buy an awful lot of dedicated right-of-way. It could put a light rail system from one end of Etobicoke all the way to the other, or buy a heck of a lot of buses."
While Mihevc believes there's an argument for the extension, he doesn't believe subways are the city's priority. But, then, the anticipated funding isn't the city's money.
"They're doing this to break into the 905," notes the councillor. "We're saying, "Okay, we can play ball with that, but there are a whole lot of things we need first.' This includes a state of good repair for the current system, the purchase of new buses and streetcars, and the construction of 10 to 12 transit right-of-ways throughout the city.
"We need to return to the years before Harris," he says, "when we paid 17 per cent of the TTC's operating subsidy and [the province] paid 17 per cent. If it paid for that as the York line is developed, we'd be happy."
Mihevc says subway extensions should be looked at only after surface networks of LRTs are there to connect them, like at Eglinton, the waterfront or Don Mills. But he also believes the Spadina subway could have some added benefits that might not be immediately apparent. "During peak rush hours, you can't fit everyone on the Yonge line," he tells me. "The vast majority of the bus network from York feeds into Finch via the bus. We'd shift some of that to the Spadina line."
Ultimately, the TTC feels the announcement could be used as leverage not only to get the province back in the business of funding transit, but to encourage a more holistic approach to the region. "We're saying make sure you intensify around the subway stations," says Mihevc. "Zone it now, build it now, so you build a subway station at the same time that you build high-density [homes] around it."
Still, Munro fears the costs and time commitments associated with subways would be hard to carry between provincial regimes. "Governments change," he says. "I would rather have a funding arrangement that could serve large numbers of people and realistically survive another Mike Harris government."