The head of the Ontario government’s regional transit agency says its move to put two Toronto-area subway projects under review is “business as usual,” rejecting concerns it could lead to construction delays.
In an interview Tuesday, Phil Verster, president and CEO of Metrolinx, said his agency appointing an expert panel to examine alternatives to current designs for the Scarborough and Yonge North subway extensions was standard practice for large transit projects.
Verster said the goal of the panel is to determine “the most innovative way to achieve schedule and budget” for the extensions, and his agency is determined to avoid any holdups in expanding the region’s transit network.
“This is not anything else but the prudent and urgent clarification of scope to make sure we can get on and deliver as quickly as possible,” he said.
Metrolinx is the provincial Crown corporation in charge of transportation planning in the GTHA. The two subway projects are key elements of the $28.5-billion transit plan the Ontario Progressive Conservative government unveiled in April.
As the Star revealed Tuesday, Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario have convened a 13-member panel made up primarily of private sector experts “to perform an independent review of TTC plans” for the two multibillion-dollar subway projects.
According to a confidential document outlining its mandate, the panel may “evaluate potential alternatives” to existing designs, including the possibility of adding or removing stations, building portions of the lines above ground, or changing their routes.
News of the review prompted concern from critics at Queen’s Park and city hall, who warned changing plans at this stage will only set back construction.
In a statement, Ontario NDP deputy leader Sara Singh called the panel “a recipe for delays.”
“It will mean commuters will be waiting longer on packed subway platforms, and at bus stops, for long-overdue transit improvements in Toronto and the GTA,” she said.
The prospect that the review panel could consider building a portion of the Scarborough extension above ground raised the possibility the provincial government could revert to a plan similar to the surface Scarborough LRT council voted down in 2013, which would have run along the corridor of the existing Scarborough RT.
Verster insisted that wasn’t the case.
He said the new Scarborough project “will be an extension of (the TTC’s Line 2 subway), and it would be integrated into the TTC operations.”
Aside from that, Verster suggested his agency isn’t married to any specific aspect of the Yonge North and Scarborough projects, which the TTC has been planning for years.
“Anything that gives us opportunity to deliver the schedule faster and get the benefits to customers quicker, and to achieve the budget more securely, will be considered and will be part of proposals that will go back to the Region of York and the City of Toronto,” he said.
Verster refused to say how much the review panel will cost, but confirmed its members, which include senior officials from an engineering consultancy and a commercial real estate firm, will be paid.
At a press conference with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at city hall Tuesday morning, Mayor John Tory said he could support the review if it means transit is built faster.
“If this committee is designed to report quickly, and to find a better, cheaper or faster way to build any transit, then I’m quite willing to see that exercise undertaken and won’t criticize it,” he said.
“But I would certainly want to know more about the time frame of the examination and then depending on what the recommendations are, whether that in turn would have any impact to delay these projects further.”
The Scarborough project has already been delayed.
According to TTC staff, planning for the one-stop version of the project that council approved in 2016 has advanced to a stage where it’s ready to be sent for procurement. It was set to be complete by the end of 2026.
But in June, the province passed legislation enabling the province to take over new transit projects from the city, and Premier Doug Ford’s government is pursuing a three-stop version of the subway instead.
The government’s initial estimate, based on little design work, is that the three-stop subway would open before 2030.
The province estimates the Scarborough project would cost $5.5 billion. The Yonge North extension to Richmond Hill in York Region would cost $5.6 billion and open after 2027.
Trudeau, whose government has earmarked up to $4.9 billion for Toronto transit projects, told reporters the province’s plans “need to be further refined” before Ottawa can make firm funding commitments.
“Unfortunately every time the province changes a project, they do have to redesign and redo the concrete business plan and the actual plan before we can commit federal dollars to that. I’m glad to hear that they are doing that work, and we look forward to moving forward in the investments that are going to make a big difference in the lives of Torontonians,” he said.
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr