In pitching their one-stop Scarborough subway plan and later defending it, staff in Mayor John Tory’s office and former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat said the cost of the two-for-one deal being proposed had been verified by a third party.
But the firm they named, the U.S.-based HDR, says now it never verified the costs.
In 2016, Tory and Keesmaat made the two-for-one proposal, saying that if an estimated $3.56-billion three-stop subway planned from Kennedy station to Sheppard Ave. was reduced to just one stop at the Scarborough Town Centre, there would be enough money leftover to pay for a multi-stop LRT extension of the Crosstown line east along Eglinton Ave.
Last month the Star reported that internal emails showed the plan was sold to council and the public with no time for city officials to check those cost assumptions.
In providing response for that story, Keesmaat told the Star the cost assumptions had been checked by the outside company, HDR, a comment that was in line with what she and the mayor’s office said in 2016.
Days after the story was published, HDR’s market strategy manager emailed the Star to say that wasn’t the case.
“Just for reference HDR had no involvement in doing any third party cost estimate,” wrote Saloni Shah this month.
Shah confirmed that HDR only provided high-level advice on costing for the Eglinton East LRT and that no advice was provided on the subway.
In an email this week, Keesmaat said she provided the best advice she had available at the time they made their proposal, while Tory’s spokesperson said he was relying on the professional advice of staff.
The plan presented by Tory and Keesmaat in January 2016 was seen as a compromise among councillors, several of whom had challenged the justification for the pricier subway after it was approved in 2013 over a seven-stop light rail line fully paid for by the province.
But only months later, early cost estimates done by the TTC were quoted at $2.9 billion and quickly jumped to $3.2 billion as staff evaluated the design, pricing the Eglinton East LRT out of the equation.
Three Star journalists attended a briefing with the mayor’s office on Jan. 20, 2016 where the mayor’s then chief of staff Chris Eby told the Star: “HDR, who did the Eglinton West study, have peer-reviewed the financial piece of this and they’re comfortable saying that it’s within the order of magnitude, so it has been checked by an outside, independent authority.”
Later that day, as senior city staff questioned the costing information in a report to be published the next day, Keesmaat wrote to the city’s chief financial officer, deputy city manager and other staff, saying: “HDR conducted an order of magnitude analysis on our behalf to confirm that our proposal is within the range of the order of magnitude of the earlier proposal.”
Emails the Star has now been provided by the city show HDR did no such thing.
On Jan. 13, 2016 — before the report was released and the new plan publicized — the city’s director for transit and transportation planning James Perttula, who reported to Keesmaat, emailed HDR’s then transit engineering leader Sheldon Frankel.
“Further to our chat in the hallway yesterday, here are the questions we would like HDR to address regarding an eastern extension of the (Eglinton Crosstown LRT),” Perttula wrote.
He asked Frankel what the “key considerations” and “issues” were related to connecting that potential extension east from Kennedy station and what the “order of magnitude” costs would be for an at-grade LRT.
“I recognize this will need to be framed with a number of assumptions and caveats. To give you a sense of level of effort on this, we are looking for a quick response — by tomorrow if possible,” Perttula wrote.
After some back and forth, Frankel wrote back 28 hours later with answers to Perttula’s questions.
“This is the best I can do on short notice,” the engineer wrote.
Using “raw” costs provided by the province’s transit agency, Metrolinx — which would likely build and own the LRT extension — Frankel estimated the LRT would cost $890 million to $1 billion.
This estimate, requested on the fly, is not considered a verified cost estimate.
HDR didn’t provide any advice on the potential cost of a one-stop subway, their spokesperson confirmed.
And they did not verify that, as Keesmaat and the mayor promised, the subway and the LRT could be done within the “same funding envelope” as the three-stop subway.
“HDR’s advice was high level and related only to the (Eglinton East LRT). No advice was provided on the SSE,” Shah wrote in an email to the Star. “We don’t have any new information beyond this. As per our agreement with the City of Toronto, any further inquiries with respect to HDR’s involvement in these projects should be directed to the City of Toronto.”
HDR was on retainer with the city in 2016 to provide “technical engineering advice” on several projects, primarily six new GO stations championed by Tory and an Eglinton West LRT extension, city spokesperson Brad Ross explained in a recent email.
“HDR was asked to answer a number of technical questions related to the Eglinton East LRT in order for the city to develop a high level conceptual cost estimate,” he said.
In response to questions about why she claimed their cost assumptions had been verified by HDR when they had not, Keesmaat said in an email Tuesday that HDR “provided advice on a broad range of costing matters consistently on the projects in question.”
“As chief planner, the advice I gave with the information available was the best advice at the time.”
The mayor’s spokesperson, Don Peat, reiterated that Tory supported the plan “based on the advice of our professional staff.”
“We are getting on with building transit including the Bloor-Danforth subway extension to the Scarborough Town Centre — that’s what Mayor Tory was elected and re-elected to do by Toronto voters.”
Eby, in a text message response for this article, said he had little to add to the mayor’s statement, only: “Planning staff has indicated throughout that their costing has been peer reviewed and we took them at their word.”
Perttula told the Star staff felt it was important to get advice from HDR on “potential costs” for the Eglinton East line and that the TTC was responsible for costing of the subway.
Emails show TTC officials didn’t think a costing could be done on the plan in time and a TTC spokesperson earlier confirmed that they did not verify whether the two projects could be built within the original budget.
Asked if it was accurate to say a third party had verified the costs, Perttula wrote: “HDR only provided advice on how best to approach a cost estimate for the (Eglinton East LRT).”
“How others may have interpreted that advice isn’t something I can speak to.”
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags