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Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) construction zone for the Sheppard East Light Rail Transit (LRT) project at the Agincourt GO Transit station in Toronto, Thursday, December 2, 2010. (Adrien Veczan for The Globe and Mail/Adrien Veczan for The Globe and Mail)
Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) construction zone for the Sheppard East Light Rail Transit (LRT) project at the Agincourt GO Transit station in Toronto, Thursday, December 2, 2010. (Adrien Veczan for The Globe and Mail/Adrien Veczan for The Globe and Mail)

Inside City Hall

The TEA and Pembina transit reports, debunked Add to ...

Editor's Note : A response from the Pembina Institute has been added to this story

With TTC and Metrolinx staff scurrying to produce a new transit plan for Toronto by the end of the month, a pair of environmental groups teamed up Wednesday morning to make the case for the old plan.

Transit City, the light-rail network championed by David Miller, would serve 630,000 people, 10 times the 61,000 served by Mayor Rob Ford’s plan to extend the Sheppard subway and replace the aging Scarbourgh RT with a subway, according to a splashy map produced by the Toronto Environmental Alliance.

TEA pegged the cost of subways at $344-million per kilometre and the cost of light-rail at $111-million per kilometre.

“This essentially tries to take some of the politics out of this discussion,” Jamie Kirkpatrick, a transit campaigner for TEA, said as he pointed to maps comparing Transit City to Mr. Ford’s skimpier subway proposal. “These are the plans on the table, call it whatever you want. I think there’s more winners with the proposed light-rail network.”

Would Transit City really serve that many more riders? Sure, if you base your map-doodling on a version of the plan that’s mostly unfunded and mostly dead, especially now that Mr. Miller has vamoosed.

The trouble with TEA’s map and with the Pembina Institute figures that underlie them, is that the numbers include whole lines, or parts of lines, that Queen’s Park hasn’t committed to funding yet. In a city where we once filled in a subway hole we'd already started digging, unfunded crayon lines on a map are meaningless.

TEA’s map is of the original Transit City plan, which Metrolinx, the regional transportation authority for the GTA, supports (in theory) as part of its long-term Big Move plan. It’s a map of eight lines and nearly 150 kilometres of light-rail, spread across 25 Toronto neighbourhoods. Mr. Ford's subway proposal, by contrast, would cover 18 kilometres and three neighbourhoods, according to TEA's map.

Of the eight lines on TEA's map, the province has only agreed to fund four: The Sheppard LRT, which has already broken ground; the Finch West LRT; the Eglinton Crosstown LRT; and the conversion of the Scarborough RT into a light-rail line. The rest of Transit City is a pipe dream.

The Pembina Institute, to its credit, was more circumspect in the study it released Wednesday, called Making Tracks to Torontonians.

Pembina grounded its figures in the four funded lines, concluding they could serve 290,000 riders (not 630,000), connect 45,000 low-income riders to rapid transit and take between 120,000 and 140,000 cars off the road.

But even Pembina’s figures are extrapolated from an old version of the plan.

Remember last spring, when Mr. Miller took to the subway system’s airwaves to demand Dalton McGuinty save Transit City? The former mayor was apoplectic that the Liberal government postponed some of the money for Transit City in last year's budget.

The consequence of that delay was slicing 22.5 kilometres of track and 25 stations off the four priority lines, at least until Metrolinx comes up with an investment strategy -- such as road tolls, parking taxes, increased sales taxes or some other alternative funding source -- to pay for completing the lines and the rest of the ambitious Big Move.

Pembina’s numbers are based on the original plan for the four lines, not the current, funded plan, meaning even Pembina inflates the number of people the four priority lines would serve. Twenty-five fewer stations means fewer people "served," which Pembina defines as the number of residences and workplaces with 500 metres of a rapid-transit stop.

Virtually nobody has argued that Mr. Ford's subway plan would serve more people at a lower cost than the truncated light-rail plan. TEA and Pembina could have made the same point relying on real, funded lines. The big numbers just wouldn’t have been as jarring or headline-grabbing.

Update: 11:35 a.m. ET, Jan. 6, 2010

For more on this issue, please read The Pembina Institute's response to this story below

A note of explanation on the Pembina Institute’s transit report, Making Tracks to Torontonians:

The Globe’s Kelly Grant is correct in noting that funding for the second phase of Metrolinx’s four priority light rail lines was postponed in the 2010 budget. That reality is reflected in the cost analysis section of our report which compares the cost of building phase one of light rail lines under the first phase of the project with the cost of the proposed subway extension. A detailed analysis is outlined in the table below.

While the cost analysis in the report focuses on phase one of the LRT plan, we considered the greater benefits that Torontonians would experience under full completion of the four priority LRT lines because those benefits would be lost if funding to phase one were cancelled.

More important than comparing various phases of the project with the subway plan, however, is considering which investment would deliver the most service for the money invested — and to understand that, we need to consider the cost per kilometre of building light rail to extending the subway, as identified in bold in the above table. A simple calculation shows that extending the subway would cost more than twice as much, per kilometre, than building new rapid LRT lines.

What’s more, a peak ridership of 15,000 commuters is required for subways to be efficient and cost-effective, according to Metrolinx. But projected peak riderships of 3,100 along Sheppard and 6,400 on the Scarborough line mean extending the subway along these routes would not make good use of taxpayers' money, not to mention that it would delay new transit service along the Sheppard route by six years, from 2014 to 2020. With that in mind, we support continuing the investment in Metrolinx’s LRT plan, simply because it delivers the most appropriate level of service and the best access to transit to the highest number of commuters for the money spent.

As a national non-profit research and consulting organization with more than 25 years’ experience working on sustainable energy issues, the Pembina Institute is careful to provide thorough and thoughtful analysis to inform the public debate and policy development. Our report, Making Tracks to Torontonians makes clear throughout which metrics are being analyzed according to phase one or according to the full completion of the four LRT priority lines.

It’s encouraging to see the level of attention transit issues are getting in Toronto. Pembina is committed to following this issue and offering in-depth analysis to ensure that city council and residents have the best available information for making decisions about Toronto’s transit future.

Cherise Burda Director, Ontario Policy The Pembina Institute

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