Doug Ford has been making his transit priorities clear: more subways in the inner suburbs of Toronto and light rail, maybe, in smaller communities where the local leaders want it.
It’s an expensive vision and one that threatens to up-end years of planning on billions of dollars of transit projects if Mr. Ford becomes Premier. And with key details still unknown, politicians and transit planners are warily trying to read the tea-leaves.
“At times [it] feels like it’s sort of like throwing a grenade into the proceedings,” said Toronto Transit Commission chair and city councillor Josh Colle. “That’s I think the last thing we need right now for transit building in Toronto.”
Comments from Mr. Ford have also emboldened LRT opponents in Hamilton and set politicians aflutter in Niagara, where a planned GO expansion could be under threat.
Much of Mr. Ford’s transit vision remains opaque, though. In remarks to the media Friday, the new leader of the Progressive Conservative Party was close-mouthed. He promised details on his plans “in the next couple of weeks” and pledged that all projects are being scrutinized.
“We’re going to review everything,” he said.
The biggest unknowns are how far a Premier Ford would go to kill transit already being built, whether Toronto will be allowed to choose its own priorities and where the extra money needed for his plans would come from.
The Globe and Mail was unable to secure an interview about transit with Mr. Ford. However, he has spoken on the subject during campaign stops and discussed transit in his response to the provincial budget.
The emerging picture suggest a more nuanced version of the Mr. Ford who ran for mayor of Toronto in 2014. He believes surface rail has a role, at least in smaller communities where he’s willing to listen to local politicians. In Toronto, though, the vision seems reminiscent of the “subways, subways, subways” philosophy of his days at city hall.
“In the Toronto area we’re going to commit to making sure we close the loop along the Sheppard line,” he pledged in late March. “We’re going to make sure that we have a three-stop, fully funded Scarborough subway.”
Extending the Sheppard subway eastward to Scarborough Town Centre would cost at least $1.75-billion more than the current plan for light rail. Returning to the original Scarborough subway plan – a concept that was replaced with a one-stop version by Toronto city council when analysis showed it would cost far more than initially thought − would add at least $1.25-billion.
“These have been looked at and, from a cost-effectiveness point of view, from a transit point of view, it’s been clear that there are better ways to spend money,” said Eric Miller, a professor of engineering at the University of Toronto who has done transit analysis for the city of Toronto.
Asked Friday about the $3-billion funding gap, Mr. Ford did not back down.
“When we left office down at city hall [the Scarborough subway] was fully funded by the provincial, federal and municipal government,” he said. “I don’t know how things changed so rapidly into billions of additional dollars, because a one-stop subway is unacceptable. It doesn’t make sense.”
Mr. Ford has also said his transit plan would be fully costed, making it unclear where the extra money would come from. There is fear in Toronto that it would be funded from a $4-billion allocation recently announced by the province for the city’s existing transit plans.
“Whether you like the priority projects we have or not, for the first time in this city we actually have priority projects and they’re being advanced, in a very logical orderly way,” said Mr. Colle, the TTC chair.
“If there’s extra money, great, I’d love that announcement,” he added. “But I suspect … it’s the same pot of [provincial] money. So then you start to cannibalize other projects.”
Which other projects becomes the key question.
The broad consensus in Toronto transit and government circles is that the Eglinton Crosstown LRT would continue. The provincially funded $5.3-billion project’s tunnels are already complete, work on the stations is underway and the line is due to open in 2021. Nearly $3.8-billion has been spent.
A project more likely up for debate is a light rail line being built along Finch west. This one is funded by the provincial government, with about one-fifth of the $1.2-billion cost already spent. The contract is expected to be signed within weeks and the line is due to open in 2022. Also uncertain is the future of an LRT along the Toronto waterfront, a project that is in the very preliminary planning stage and is tentatively priced at about $2-billion.
Another project that could get a closer look is the $6.8-billion downtown relief line. Planned for decades and slowly getting underway, this is often described as the city’s top transit priority.
“Start with [building] the downtown relief line,” urged Murtaza Haider, an associate professor at Ryerson University who studies transportation and called it a “very expensive mistake” to pursue the wrong projects. “You cannot build transit just because you draw lines on the map.”
Whatever his plans in Toronto, Mr. Ford appears willing to let locals decide projects outside the provincial capital.
In the case of a $166-million GO expansion to Niagara, he said the people had to be consulted more. In Hamilton, where there are plans for LRT estimated to cost $1-billion, he re-invigorated opponents by saying that the money would be spent in the community, no matter what infrastructure it chose.
Amid this uncertainty, Phil Verster, head of the regional transit agency Metrolinx, said that it is neither slowing down nor speeding up its transit-building efforts. He said it would be a terrible message to suppliers and contractors – and the public − to change course in response to pre-election manoeuvring.
“It’s very important that whatever decisions we make don’t send the wrong signals and jeopardize good transit deals,” he said. “It is really in the end a very simple equation … we do what the government of the day asks of us and we do not second-guess that.”