On Wednesday (February 19), city council will approve phase two of the City Building Fund, John Tory’s designated 8 per cent property tax to fund new public transit and housing projects.
The increase will be phased in over six years, and fund $6.6 billion in borrowing for projects. About two-thirds of this has already been allocated to transit projects.
However, there are other transit funds, as yet untapped, sitting in the city’s accounts.
The Scarborough Subway levy, at 1.6 per cent, was intended to pay the city’s share of the subway extension from Kennedy to the Town Centre. Doug Ford rolled that into his plan to take over subway building from the city. So the city is no longer on the hook to pay for the subway.
The City Building levy, which rises to 2.5 per cent by 2021, was to pay for housing and SmartTrack infrastructure.
Why does Toronto pretend that SmartTrack is still alive? The justification for SmartTrack has evaporated. The city should not continue to reserve funds, including matching federal spending, for this project.
In 2014, SmartTrack was then-candidate John Tory’s solution for Toronto’s transit woes, a plan to use surplus capacity on GO Transit corridors for trains to service an area between Unionville and Pearson Airport via downtown.
SmartTrack would add stations to the GO lines, provide fast and frequent service to outlying bus-dependent areas, link downtown residents with suburban job centres, and relieve subway crowding. It would open in 2021. That’s not going to happen.
The hype of an election promise coupled with bad planning took their toll.
The western branch of the proposal from Mount Dennis to Pearson simply would not fit where the line was drawn on the map. This has been replaced by a western extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT plan which, like the Scarborough extension, will be a provincial project under Ford’s takeover plans, not the city’s.
SmartTrack’s projected demand relies on frequent service close to subway levels, but this would require more tracks and expensive changes to GO Transit corridors.
The project was sold as a “surface subway”, but service will be nowhere near the level planned for the Scarborough subway and the Ontario Line.
And the existing TTC and GO co-fare arrangement is scheduled to end at the end of March 2020.
Meanwhile, GO Transit’s own expansion plans to bring all-day 15-minute service to much of their network will consume the surplus capacity SmartTrack planners intended to use for Tory’s plan.
Metrolinx recently published service plans for the GO expansion program. Peak period local trains would run every 7.5 minutes in Scarborough, every 10 minutes on the Kitchener corridor, and every 15 minutes on Lakeshore East. That is not what riders think of as subway service, nor is it the level needed to divert riders from existing TTC lines that are currently overcrowded.
In fact, three of the six proposed SmartTrack stops – Lawrence East, Gerrard and Liberty Village – would compete directly with the Scarborough subway and the Ontario Line for riders. And service would be much less frequent and at a higher fare.
Between the Scarborough extension and SmartTrack levies, there is about $2.5 billion available in borrowing room for transit projects. This should be allocated to service the transit system needs rather than just sitting unspent while Toronto has a backlog of underfunded transit improvements. The Eglinton East and Waterfront LRT lines would be good starts, but just as important are more buses and streetcars for overcrowded routes.
According to city staff, “a funding and financing strategy for the reallocation of city funds will be reported to council in 2020 prior to the 2021 budget process.” Toronto should not wait that long to decide how to use taxes it started to collect for transit in 2014.
This column is part of a weekly review by Steve Munro of issues affecting Toronto’s transit system and its riders. It appears Mondays online and Thursdays in print.