Olivia Chow’s transit plan: 5 Questions Answered

Save for mayoral candidate Olivia Chow's pledge.

Save for mayoral candidate Olivia Chow’s pledge to study a downtown relief line, her transit plans are light on ambition. No fancy new crosstown routes. No flashy, original heavy-rail propositions. Will it work? We check the achievability index.

1) Chow is pledging to spend $15 million to improve rush hour bus service immediately. But the TTC doesn’t have enough buses to ease crowding. Is it even possible to procure, store and maintain enough buses to deliver better rush hour service?

Expert opinion is split. Transit observer Steve Munro has a more or less convincing argument that her plan could be accomplished within a year or two.

Sixty per cent of transit trips involve buses – even more in the suburbs, where riders are far from any existing or planned rapid transit lines. those riders arguably need the most “relief” after years of cutbacks have left them waiting longer for overcrowded buses.

The TTC is currently using all available buses during the morning peak. And any expansion of morning service would have to wait about a year for new buses to be ordered and delivered. A garage would also have to be built to accommodate the vehicles.

While the TTC says a new garage can’t be built until 2019, Chow says solving storage would be easy: she’d simply lease space in suburban lots in the meantime.

2) What about the state-of-good-repair and accessibility backlog at the TTC, which the organization estimates at over $3 billion?

Chow deserves some credit for being the only candidate to tackle this issue. Among the necessary projects not currently funded: a new signal system new trains for the Bloor-Danforth line additional streetcars for downtown a new bus garage and buses to handle system expansion and accessibility upgrades, required by law, at 18 subway stations.

Chow says the city exacerbated the repair backlog by pursuing the Scarborough subway. She argues that the $1 billion financing plan crowds out other borrowing the city should’ve undertaken for basic maintenance but now can’t if it wants to stay under its self-imposed debt ceiling.

Chow’s now proposing replacing the Scarborough subway tax (1.6 per cent over 30 years) with a dedicated transit levy on residents’ property tax bill to cover state-of-good-repair costs, among other things.

3) Would Chow’s downtown relief line plan, the one big-ticket item in her transit platform, actually provide the necessary relief for a Yonge line already overcrowded in rush hour?

For years the TTC has insisted that its top priority is a downtown relief line to relieve crowding on the Yonge line south of Bloor – which will only worsen as ridership continues to grow with the introduction of new LRT lines feeding Yonge.

Though Chow’s plan syncs with current plans under study, such a line would bring little comfort to morning riders coming from York Mills to Rosedale stations who regularly have to watch four or five overcrowded trains pass before they can board.

Chow argues those riders would see relief from a new signalling system (set to launch in 2019) that will allow an increase of up to 30 per cent capacity on the Yonge line.

Chow also supports the province’s planned GO electrification and GO/TTC fare integration, which would help get suburban riders off the subway system and onto GO trains, providing speedier trips and regional relief.

But Metrolinx says the Yonge subway may be approaching capacity south of Sheppard by 2031 even with these improvements.

4) Where would the money come from?

This part is tricky. Chow wants to pay for the unfunded elements of her transit plan with a mix of savings from cancelling the Scarborough subway and reverting to the original LRT plan, a land transfer tax surcharge and more money from the feds and the province.

Cancelling the Scarborough subway would free the city from having to reimburse Metrolinx approximately $85 million spent on the original LRT plan, as well as untold millions in cancellation fees owed to Bombardier for light-rail vehicles. The city would also be able to redirect the $660 million federal grant from the subway project. (Chow may be assuming too much there.)

Chow says her dedicated transit tax would also raise funds to pay for the city’s $1 billion share of the downtown relief line (a projected $3.2 billion project). Chow’s land transfer tax surcharge on houses valued at $2 million or more would generate about $20 million annually, $18 million of which she would dedicate to paying for environmental and engineering studies for the DRL. But those are expected to cost $200 million.

5) Would Chow simply accept whatever Metrolinx proposes for Toronto from its $15 billion GTA transit fund?

The Liberals recently announced a transit fund for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area valued at $15 billion over 10 years. Both Chow and Tory are only asking for crumbs for either of their schemes. And what of the other bits of the once-funded Transit City? Why isn’t Chow pushing Metrolinx to build the portions of the Finch to Yonge, Sheppard to UTSC, Eglinton to Pearson, and Scarborough to Malvern LRTs that Metrolinx cancelled in 2010?

Chow says she still supports the full Transit City plan, but that she’d rather leave the timing up to the experts because “why should a candidate say what’s already in the books isn’t enough?”

See our 2014 Election Guide here.

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