It’s hard to catch in real time, but sometimes when a professional in the public service uses a particular phrase over and over again, it’s worth paying close attention. By parsing it, you can see that they’re trying to say something very specific in a way that allows them to tell the truth without running afoul of the messaging of their political bosses.
A vivid example becomes clear in the recent reporting of my colleague Jennifer Pagliaro looking back at the 2016 swap of the three-stop Scarborough subway extension plan for the one-stop option with the Eglinton East LRT added in.
Mayor John Tory and Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat, who developed and were unveiling the plan, were telling everyone who would listen it was essentially a two-for-one deal, cost-wise. That both projects in the revised plan would be paid for out of the “same funding envelope” of $3.56 billion already committed.
And what was city manager Peter Wallace saying? He was not contradicting that message. But his phrase was that the budget would remain in the same “order of magnitude.” Keesmaat used the same words speaking to city council.
Many people hearing it at the time, especially alongside the “buy one get one free” talk the proposal was announced with, interpreted it to confirm the political message that the already committed funds would get the job done, more or less. Many or most probably didn’t take the time to consider the particular phrase. As many of us know when we think about it, and as Peter Wallace emphasized in an internal email from the time that Pagliaro has obtained, the “same order of magnitude” doesn’t mean “roughly the same.” It means, “accurate give or take 1,000 per cent.”
The price of a Lexus LS — $103,000 — and of a house in Toronto — around $1 million — are in the same order of magnitude.
Wallace’s statement still holds up — at least for the foreseeable future, even as the cost of the one-stop subway alone has climbed to $3.9 billion. We’re several news cycles and city reports from the cost escalation on that project passing the $35-billion mark that would prove those words false.
But I think we can all agree that in retrospect, order-of-magnitude cost estimates are shown here to be essentially useless. At least from a public planning and budgeting perspective — I mean, if I’m thinking about renovating my house, it might be useful to know if I’m talking about thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars. But as a guide for decision making on infrastructure, consider that by at least one estimate, you could add a manned mission to Mars to the swollen budget of the subway extension and the LRT and still be in the same order of magnitude. It’s simply not helpful information.
Another email Pagliaro obtained, written by then-Deputy City Manager John Livey, suggests that cost estimates didn’t need to be particularly accurate to be helpful. “The sole purpose of the report is to get the idea in the public forum.”
It did that. I remain grateful for it. The Eglinton East LRT, which I think is a potentially great project, was off the table at the time. In danger of being forgotten. It is now on the city’s list of planned (if not entirely funded) projects.
The only problem is whether any money will ever appear to pay for it. And that problem, shared with other projects, is exacerbated all the time by the apparently endless swelling of the cost of the Scarborough subway extension. It is an ever-larger budget-gobbling monster that threatens to swallow every dollar in every budget in the city, and I doubt any politician in a position of authority will ever stop feeding it.
It remains a credible possibility to me that the original message about the one-stop switch may have been close enough to essentially correct, in that the one-stop extension and the new LRT line could both be built for roughly the same price as the extended three-stop line to Sheppard. It’s just that the “funding envelope” for the three-stop extension was always going to need to be more of a “funding jumbo-sized packing crate” anyway, and to contain way, way, way more than $3.56 billion. Each report shows the price of this thing going up, higher and higher, a tower of money reaching into the clouds. And we are fixated on digging a hole big enough to contain all of it.
I have recently — not for the first time in this protracted process — tried to make peace in my mind with the idea that this battle over the Scarborough subway extension is lost. Accept as a political reality that it is not going to change and it is not productive to continue debating it. I’m as tired of it as anyone else. But then every time the price goes up, and especially as the premier promises to make it longer and still more expensive, I can’t let it stop bothering me.
Because it is going over those latest developments that I recall again that this super-deep, superlong tunnel is being dug for no good reason at all. The subway line it is extending runs above-ground in dedicated corridors for most of the trip from Victoria Park to Kennedy already. The LRT line proposal this extension replaces would run entirely above ground in a dedicated corridor that already exists and does not go onto the road, and would serve more stops closer to where more people live and work. It wouldn’t just be vastly cheaper and faster and easier to build. It would be better transit for the people it would serve. It is better in every way except for a 30-second transfer between vehicles (like the one many riders make every day at Yonge and Bloor). And except that for some reason people want it underground. There’s this political fetishization of tunnels.
How much are we willing to pay for that tunnel? My revised estimate is that our leaders will be willing to pay anything. Or everything. Within an order of magnitude.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire