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Commuters emerge from the Yonge subway line at King St. West, on Dec. 6, 2017.

Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Ontario is scaling back its plan for an extension of Toronto’s subway system into Richmond Hill, reducing the number of stations and putting less of it underground in a bid to rein in soaring cost projections, according to a pair of transit planning reports obtained by The Globe and Mail.

The extension of the Yonge subway line beyond its current terminus at Finch station has been identified as a possible project as far back as 2007. It has been studied in various forms and was adopted by the provincial government when Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford took over the region’s subway expansion projects in 2019.

Over the years, the projected costs have risen. A 2013 report pegged the price at $3.1-billion. By the time the province took over, though, the Toronto Transit Commission put the cost at $9.3-billion. The province has provisionally budgeted $5.6-billion.

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According to a 152-page initial business case prepared by the provincial transit agency Metrolinx, the project can be done for the budget but only in a reduced form. The agency will now refine this new project further through a multistage planning process, creating a preliminary design business case and eventually a full business case to be approved by government.

The extension would not open before 2029 or 2030, according to the agency’s report. It pegged the project’s capital cost at $4.4-billion to $5.1-billion, in today’s dollars, for a three-station extension, plus approximately half a billion more to build a fourth, the location of which is still to be determined.

A senior provincial government source said that the goal was to adjust the project to maximize the number of stations possible within the budget. He said that more stations could be added if additional funding was secured, saying that this business case has been provided to the federal government, which Queen’s Park hopes will contribute. The Globe is not identifying this source, who is not authorized to speak publicly.

The report noted that its models did not take into account the possible impact of COVID-19 on transit use and land development. The report also acknowledged that the agency’s preferred option is projected to generate fewer daily riders, fewer new transit users and fewer people living within walking distance of the route than the other, more expensive versions of the project.

In no form the agency studied did the project produce a positive cost-benefit ratio.

The biggest change embedded in the new Metrolinx plan is that the route would not be tunnelled all of the way. A bit south of Highway 7, the route would veer to the east and come up to the surface to run along an existing freight rail corridor.

An initial plan to have trains run under and surface near a graveyard has been refined to site the tunnel differently. The authors of a 13-page supplement to the report acknowledge that “there could be sensitivities associated with construction and operations on or near cemetery lands.”

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The shift to a partly surface option mimics the approach taken by many cities. In places such as London and Tokyo, straphangers can spend a considerable portion of their ride at surface level. With tunnelling the most expensive part of subway construction, going above ground can save substantial amounts of money.

However, the new route for the Yonge extension may open the project to criticism that the government is putting it where it is cheapest instead of most effective.

Under Metrolinx’s preferred option there would also be fewer stations, four instead of the six originally envisioned.

The plan specifies that the three stations originally proposed as Cummer, Clark and Royal Orchard will not all be built. The Metrolinx report, noting that each such underground station would cost $400-million to $500-million, said only one could make the cut if the project was to remain within budget. The best option would be determined through further study.

There would also be an underground station at Steeles Avenue and surface-level ones at Highway 7 and about 400 metres north of the highway, near a street called High Tech Road.

The advantage of this approach, the report argues, is that a station at Highway 7, which it calls Bridge station, could serve both Richmond Hill Centre and Langstaff Gateway, both targeted for development. The station at High Tech, meanwhile, is designed to offer additional access to Richmond Hill Centre.

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Such an approach, though, clusters half of the extension’s planned stations near its northern end. The eight-kilometre tunnel would have substantial stretches without a station. In concept, this plan is somewhat similar to a past iteration of the Scarborough subway extension, the planning for which at one point removed its intervening stations to save costs.

Mr. Ford’s government has since added those stations back in, boosting the Scarborough project’s price substantially.

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