A transit deal between the city and the province means at least three years of limbo for Scarborough commuters who have long been promised a subway.
The province’s plan for a three-stop subway, publicly endorsed by city staff and Mayor John Tory on Wednesday, will delay new transit to the suburb by a minimum of three years compared to the one-stop version earlier approved by council.
And with the aging Scarborough RT (SRT) already pushed beyond its natural life, the TTC has acknowledged that thousands of riders who use the transit line may be left on buses in those intervening years.
After a city staff report provided updates on negotiations with the province Wednesday, those on council who have long opposed a subway of any length over the LRT alternative blamed Tory for the delay.
“Two of the main arguments that the three-stop subway proponents made were ridership projections and that there would be a seamless transition between the (SRT) and the subway without years of delay stuck on the bus,” said Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 12 Toronto—St. Paul’s), who has been the most critical voice on council.
“Both of those arguments have proven to be untrue and this leaves Scarborough residents with uncertainty but without rapid transit.”
The indefinite costs of bus service along the current six-stop SRT route to bridge the gap may also fall to the city to pay for — something city officials admitted Wednesday has yet to be worked out with their provincial counterparts.
“Whose responsibility it is to mitigate the SRT problem” is subject to ongoing talks with the province, city manager Chris Murray told reporters in a briefing at city hall. Murray said it is “not off the table” that the province would have to pay the costs as a result of the new construction schedule.
The TTC says between 55 and 65 additional buses would be needed to carry riders in peak periods, but spokesperson Stuart Green said they could not yet estimate the annual cost.
The city staff report released Wednesday concludes that both Premier Doug Ford’s priority of building an “Ontario Line” through the downtown core and the three-stop subway have merit and can be supported by council. Tory said Wednesday the two projects are part of a good deal for Torontonians with the province agreeing to cover billions of dollars in construction costs.
“Mayor Tory is absolutely committed to working with the province to deliver the transit that has been promised to Scarborough residents by multiple governments in multiple elections and to working with the TTC to mitigate the impacts of this massive transit construction project,” his office said in a statement.
The TTC plans to bring a separate report to its board next spring detailing the impact of the province’s plan on the SRT, TTC CEO Rick Leary told reporters Wednesday.
It’s unclear if the SRT’s life can be extended beyond the current goal of 2026.
That is the earliest city officials anticipated a one-stop, council-approved version of the subway could be built, based on 50 to 60 per cent design work completed. The council-approved plan for a one-stop line, running from Kennedy station to Scarborough Town Centre, was ready to go to tender when the province announced its own priorities for Toronto transit.
The province estimates its three-stop version, running from Kennedy station to a terminus station on Sheppard Avenue East, could be open three years later — by 2029-2030 — based on an unknown amount of study.
TTC staff previously worked with transportation company Bombardier, which owns the SRT technology, to develop a plan to extend the life of the SRT to 2026, three years before the province’s subway could be built.
There is no guarantee the SRT can remain in service even that long, with the line that opened in 1985 surpassing its 25-year life expectancy nearly a decade ago.
About 35,000 trips are made on the SRT on a typical weekday, according to 2018 TTC figures, meaning a shutdown would impact thousands of daily riders.
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While the clock on the SRT is running out, a transit future that includes a subway is less assured.
Key details of the province’s plan, including a proper cost estimate, and a preliminary business case are not yet available. A business case, the city staff report says, is expected to be presented to the board of Metrolinx, the province’s transit arm, later this year or in “early 2020.” Staff say they are unaware of the scope or findings of that business case.
It has been six years since council agreed in October 2013 to build the original three-stop subway plan at the urging of then mayor Rob Ford, Scarborough councillors and with a behind-the-scenes push from premier Kathleen Wynne’s provincial government. In doing so, council scrapped plans for a fully-funded, seven-stop LRT that would have run separated from traffic in the same corridor as the SRT.
That LRT, first introduced as part of former mayor David Miller’s Transit City plan, would have been completed this year.
Part of the push for a subway in 2013 was the belief that the LRT could not handle the future, projected ridership in the area, with pro-subway councillors claiming the smaller trains’ capacity would soon be overloaded. They cited a city staff projection of 14,000 rush-hour riders, a figure that appeared in a city analysis one senior official later said was “problematic” and “rushed.”
But the new city staff report released Wednesday revealed ridership projections on the province’s three-stop subway are much lower.
Ridership is now projected to attract 9,500 people at rush hour, travelling in the busiest direction — toward the downtown — by 2041. That is well below the capacity of a subway, which maxes out at 36,000 riders. An LRT’s max capacity is 15,000 people.
Councillor Gord Perks blamed Tory for sticking to Rob Ford’s promise of a subway from the time he was elected to the mayor’s chair in 2014.
“I promise you, people in Scarborough are going to be spending years riding buses because John Tory failed them,” said Perks (Ward 4 Parkdale—High Park).
Matlow called the possibility of long-term bus-only service “shameful.”
“Mayor Tory himself has used rhetoric about moving forward with the plans we have. No more reconsideration. No more delays. And now it seems like another plan and another delay is on the table.”
Tory’s office, in a statement to the Star, blamed Matlow for voting against moving forward with negotiations with the province, saying it was his position that would have caused delay.