With Premier Doug Ford set to reveal his GTA rapid-transit plan, Toronto Mayor John Tory remains in the dark about key details including changes to projects already underway and how much of the expected $30-billion cost city taxpayers will be told to pay.
Sources say Ford’s government will publicly reveal the plan Wednesday, on the eve of the provincial budget. Despite pressure on Tory to attend, the sources say, he has declined. The announcement may now happen outside Toronto.
“City staff and provincial staff are in the midst of (subway upload) discussions on transit, as approved by (city) council,” a close source to Tory said Monday. “The mayor has no plans to attend any announcements while that process is underway.”
Tory’s chief of staff, Luke Robertson, is expected to be briefed by officials in Ford’s office Tuesday evening, less than a day before the closely held details will be made public, including new technology Ford wants on the relief subway line and changes to the Scarborough subway extension.
Officials at Queen’s Park and city hall, who requested anonymity because they are not authorized to reveal details publicly, are watching each other warily, knowing the future of Toronto and GTA transit is a huge hot-button issue that could trigger political war between them.
He “always wants to be constructive and work with others, but he is absolutely ready to fight for transit and against delay.”
An anti-upload advertising blitz on TTC vehicles and stations is one option among several, the sources said. City council was told in December it has few if any legal options to fight upload.
Some at city hall who welcome billions of provincial transit dollars are worried the Progressive Conservatives want to use upload to push Toronto’s subway system into the 905 belt in as many ways as possible, boosting support in their electoral heartland without the city having a say.
Concerns in Tory’s office include a rumoured provincial demand for a contribution of more than $5 billion to Ford’s plan, with no control over it and with Toronto potentially losing an asset — the subway system — paid for by city residents over more than 60 years.
Amanda Galbraith, Tory’s former communications director and now a principal at crisis communications firm Navigator, said “this (issue) is tremendously important for the mayor.”
“Transit touches the lives of people in this city and is very present in their minds, and you have the issues of possible delays with changes to the plan, the financial piece for Toronto, what it means for the mayor’s legacy. I think you can only compare it to the Gardiner (Expressway debate)” in importance, said Galbraith, who is not advising Toronto or provincial officials.
“I think the mayor will draw red lines on delay, reconfiguration, how much Toronto pays. I expect you’ll see a calm measured approach until he feels he has to step out or send a warning signal. This is a big litmus test for the mayor and for the premier.”
Tory sent a warning shot across Ford’s bow last week with a news conference at Yonge-Bloor station detailing planning and financing progress on plans including the relief subway line and the one-stop Scarborough subway extension where shovels, he said, could be in the ground next year.
Toronto council has voted to oppose the subway upload, which Ford promised during his winning election campaign last June. But council authorized staff on both sides, including city manager Chris Murray and Ford transit adviser Michael Lindsay, to set ground rules for how upload would work.
Tory’s office felt discussions were going well, sources said, until he was blindsided with a letter from the province around 9 a.m. March 25 — one hour before he was scheduled to meet with Ford at Queen’s Park — requesting major changes to four ongoing transit projects.
The mayor left with no more details about Ford’s plan but got a “renewed commitment from Ford to work closely with the city,” and then a second, less demanding letter. City requests for details on the new GTA transit plans, however, have been met with a brick wall.
The mystery includes what new technology Ford wants for the relief line, a top TTC priority aimed at relieving chronic overcrowding. Ford, himself, is personally excited about the new technology, raving to associates about its merits.
A senior government official stressed that the relief line would be built underground — even with the “new technology” that’s being proposed.
In some media interviews and during question period in the legislature Ford’s enthusiasm has tipped the government’s hand about an almost $30-billion announcement that is a cornerstone of Thursday’s budget.
“It’s about technology,” the premier said two weeks ago. “We are going to build the greatest downtown relief line. As a matter of fact, when they showed me the plan my jaw dropped,” said Ford, who described the new plan as “thinking outside the box” and “less expensive, faster and better” transit technology.
The specifics of the plan are a closely guarded secret, with the Ford government even withholding details from senior city and TTC leadership.
A clue to what the province has in mind could lie with a report authored by Michael Schabas, a consultant now serving as a senior rail expert at Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency.
In 2013, Schabas wrote a report urging Metrolinx to adopt a technology he referred to as “light metro” or “automated light rapid transit” for Toronto lines. The trains would resemble TTC subways in some ways but would be lighter and have smaller wheels. Schabas described them as similar to those on Vancouver’s SkyTrain.
He wrote that the light metro vehicles could run on elevated tracks instead of in tunnels and would provide rapid reliable service that would be cheaper to build than traditional subways. If, like the SkyTrain, they could be operated without a driver, they would also be less expensive to run.
Schabas argued the technology could be deployed in Scarborough to serve as a cheaper alternative to plans to extend the Line 2 subway.
At city council last month, TTC CEO Rick Leary warned against employing train technology for the relief line that isn’t compatible with the existing subway system. The TTC’s existing system allows the agency to run its fleet on different lines interchangeably, either to get the vehicles to maintenance yards or adjust service.
“It’s very important to be able to move trains from one line to another like we do today from Line 1 to Line 2,” he said.
Leary noted that, according to the city’s existing plan, the TTC would store trains operating on the relief line at the agency’s Greenwood Yard, which is designed for the current fleet. Running different types of trains for the relief line would require building a new yard, which would be costly and likely pose significant logistical challenges.
Chief planner Gregg Lintern also raised red flags about the province’s plan at council. The city’s version of the relief line advanced through a key milestone of the provincially mandated planning process last fall when the Ontario government approved a key study of the project. The next steps would be for the city and TTC to advance planning to the point where council could send the project out to procurement and construction, a key step scheduled for early 2020. But the study was based on specific station locations and routing, and Lintern said the province’s plan would likely require going back to the drawing board on much of the work.
“The timelines to do that I would argue would be significant,” he said, suggesting the province changing course on the plan could delay completion of the line.
With files from Robert Benzie