The current blow-up over transit policy, triggered by TTC chair Karen Stintz's dissent on the mayor's subway plan and now complicated by this week's TTC board meeting, poses the possibility that we could end up with a pricey, useless subway add-on simply because the mayor refuses to compromise.
Or end up with a shortsighted decision to let a new buslane try to do the job of Transit City.
Compromise is under discussion along with a push for a special council meeting to debate Toronto's transit future. There are many alternative proposals, but all of them start with putting part of the Eglinton LRT on the surface again and using the $2 billion thus saved in various ways, including restarting the Sheppard LRT, possibly building a busway on Finch and maybe extending the Sheppard subway by a stop or two.
While I certainly welcome an alternative to the mayor's plan to bury the Eglinton LRT, cancel Transit City and build a Sheppard underground, it's important to take a deep breath and remember why LRT was chosen in the first place.
Yes, the new proposals do at least consider the idea of having a network of lines, but they still leave most Torontonians without hope of any transit expansion in the coming decade, and in an era of fiscal restraint actually provide little value for dollars spent.
More than that, Finch transit users are sold a bill of goods by the promise of an undefined busway that may be little more than what they have now. And most of all, the plan fails to make transit a viable alternative for all corners of the city. (Remember, Transit City's rationale came from the Official Plan and was based on the principle that no one should be disadvantaged in getting around Toronto by not owning a car.)
I would remind those trying to figure all this out that the Transit City team examined the use of buses in exclusive lanes, or Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), but ultimately rejected it. "BRT-Lite" (as it's called in the transit industry), like York Region's Viva, is often proposed as an alternative to light rail, but these buses don't operate in dedicated lanes and therefore aren't real rapid transit, since they get stuck in traffic like regular buses.
True, there are many successful examples of true BRT around the world that move large numbers of people at very low cost, but when you crunch the numbers, a bus system isn't really that much cheaper in a Toronto context.
For one thing, BRT requires expensive road widening. Cities that have been able to build low-cost BRT have very wide roads, usually six-to-10-lane roads (three to five in each direction) versus Toronto's typical suburban four to six lanes (two to three in each direction).
Of course, the LRT requires road widening as well. The difference is that while capital costs for BRT are about 70 per cent those of LRT, buses in the end have higher operating costs per passenger, since they carry fewer riders and require more personnel. Staffing makes up 85 to 90 per cent of the cost of transit operations. (In developing countries using BRT, wage costs make up less than 50 per cent of operating costs.)
Finally, BRT has proven not to be as good a promoter of urban regeneration. This is important because Toronto's planned LRT routes go through some of the areas most in need of renewal, like Jane/Finch and Malvern. Indeed, cities from Paris to Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Tokyo have used LRT to uplift areas outside the core with fantastic success.
Well-planned public investment often results in eight to 10 times as much private investment over subsequent decades. A new LRT might thus repay most of its capital costs through taxes generated by the private investment stimulated by their construction over the lifespan of the project. And on top of all this, LRT attracts more riders because it's a more pleasant, smoother ride.
The other aspect of the plans being floated is the proposed subway extension. This isn't itself a horrible idea, but the realities of construction make it impractical for a reasonable amount of money.
Had the addition been constructed when the ill-chosen Sheppard line was built, it would have made more sense. Tunnelling short stretches of subway is comparatively expensive. Estimates for this short extension of fewer than 2 kilometres hover around $1 billion, since construction start-up costs cannot be spread over a longer tunnel. That cost is more than the entire 12- or 13-kilometre Sheppard LRT that Ford cancelled at a cost likely to reach $200 million.
It would also have the dubious distinction of being one of the most expensive subway projects per kilometre in North America, and would end up costing 15 times more per kilometre than the Sheppard LRT would. And it would likely shorten most eastern Scarborough residents' trips by less than four or five minutes. They would still suffer bus rides of many kilometres to catch the tiny 7-kilometre-long stubway. Hardly a transformative project.
Transit planning, which shapes the city in profound ways, should not be done off the cuff. Transit City was the product of many studies that had gone into Toronto's Official Plan, and any changes should be well studied - and should not be made for political expediency.
Adam Giambrone is former chair of the TTC and currently an employee of the Agence Metropolitaine de Transport (AMT) of Montreal.