At a time of mounting pressure on local leaders to deal with congestion, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s transit strategy is stuck in neutral, if not reverse. A year ago, he took office pledging to build a privately financed subway along Sheppard Avenue, a suburban arterial. But after months of evaluation, his advisers are warning that the plan isn’t realistic and must be significantly scaled back.
Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals had told Mr. Ford that if there’s cash left over from another large transit project, an east-west LRT along the midtown thoroughfare of Eglinton Avenue, he could use it for his subway plan. But Mr. McGuinty earlier this month made it abundantly clear that Queen’s Park won’t transfer those funds to the city until the Eglinton project is complete, circa 2020.
Meanwhile, critics are questioning whether the Eglinton line, known as The Crosstown, can even be built for the amount budgeted by Queen’s Park.
The reason? Under former mayor David Miller, the $4.6-billion Crosstown was to operate in a dedicated surface right-of-way for almost half the route while running in a tunnel through the city core. But Mr. Ford, who campaigned to end the so-called “war on the car,” insisted the entire 19-kilometre line be buried, at an additional cost of $2.2-billion, an almost 50-per-cent mark-up. While transit officials say that burying the LRT may attract a few more riders, $2.2-billion is a steep premium to pay for what is an essentially aesthetic decision, especially for a fiscal conservative.
There’s an elegant solution readily available to the mayor. He should ask Mr. McGuinty to revert to the original Eglinton plan, but on the proviso that the $2.2-billion be used as seed money for a public-private partnership deal for the Sheppard subway. The model is Vancouver’s Canada Line, built with $720-million in capital from a private consortium that operates the service through a 35-year franchise.
With a down payment of $2.2-billion, Mr. Ford could attract serious investor interest in his Sheppard subway vision while salvaging an election promise.
Even more important to his legacy, he would demonstrate that there are other ways to finance transit expansion in Toronto. But to get there, he has to concede that burying over $2-billion in scarce public money, with little hope of return in terms of operational efficiency, is a recipe for gridlock of the political sort.