While the financial foofaraw around the TTC subway contract with Bombardier stole headlines last week, little noticed was another weighty decision - one that could scuttle light rail transit in the burbs forever.
As Scarborough's Rapid Transit cars approach the end of their lifespan, the TTC took the opportunity to look at replacement options and opportunities for expansion.
With the dream of some politicos to extend the subway further east shattered because of exorbitant costs to the already overtaxed system, planners had two options: find new technology for the SRT or convert it to light rail.
The final report, tabled August 30, concluded that replacing the old SRT cars with longer cars similar to those used by Vancouver's SkyTrain would be less costly than other options but would leave the TTC "with a unique technology that... has less potential for network expansion."
Converting the line to LRT (more of a streetcar concept), meanwhile, would offer "greater potential for overall system expansion," partially because it would allow other surface rail to share the RT's right-of-way, in spite of higher initial costs ($130 million more).
To a well-funded body, making the $130 investment would seem like a no-brainer. But as commissioner Joe Mihevc stated gravely, "We are over a billion dollars behind just to tread water."
In fact, that may be optimistic.
Which is why the TTC's recommendation was to approve the SRT upgrade with the new Vancouver-style cars.
While the TTC is facing a pressing need to expand its fleet, yawning before it is a $1.2 billion capital gap over the next four years.
The city's long-term plan currently allows $717 million in TTC funding next year, but staff estimate the service will require $759 million in operating costs alone - and that's factoring in a very modest ridership increase of 1 per cent.
How bad is it? Staff's recent budget presentation to the TTC means there will be no money for new streetcars or surface rights-of-way.
The growing fiscal fissure has simply spooked staff off light rail expansion, a project already evoking anxiety about council-wide commitment. Scarborough councillors seem willing to let their subway dream die as long as the SRT is upgraded and expanded to the centre of Malvern.
But no one makes the cars now in use, and the only ones that could be adapted are built by one company: Bombardier.
While the TTC and Bombardier obviously have a good relationship, Bombardier must know that it can charge a premium for the technology. And it may have to, since only Vancouver and Dallas are currently using it, so there's a smaller network of suppliers for parts.
It's not clear if this was considered in the report's costing, but capital costs for the SRT ($500 million) will amount to more than two-thirds of what it will cost the TTC for maintenance and expansion of the streetcar network to 2015 ($692 million).
With a continued focus on the SRT, fears of a zero commitment to light rail transit could be felt citywide.
In the end, TTC commission member Brian Ashton moved that staff study possibilities for LRT expansion in the future - but is there much reason to expect a rosier report on the second round?
"I've heard from many residents that they're seeing a lot of new development around the Queensway, and a lot of new congestion," said commissioner Bill Saundercook during budget discussions. "I tell them that someday the Queensway will actually be the solution, and they'll be able to take LRT downtown along the waterfront. But I don't even see that on the not-included list. Maybe we need a second list."