Only a bit late for Groundhog Day, the biggest transit battles of Toronto’s last council term are about to pop up again.
A light rail project in the city’s northwest and subways for Scarborough will both be on the table at next week’s council meeting, according to the agenda published Thursday.
Councillor Josh Matlow put forward a series of “administrative inquiries” that demand answers from the city manager about the viability and logic of an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway line farther into Scarborough. Among them, he wants to know how much the city has budgeted for the sunk cost in return for assuming the project, a secret figure that insiders peg at close to $85-million.
The city assumed responsibility for these costs when it voted to turn the provincially funded LRT into a subway. The city has balked at the bill presented by the regional transit agency Metrolinx, insisting it should be smaller.
On Thursday afternoon, Councillor James Pasternak, a member of the city’s budget committee, opined on Twitter that Toronto could decide unilaterally how much to pay. “We don’t feel we owe that much money,” he tweeted. “Taxpayers should be protected from unreasonable claims.”
It’s a risky strategy when the provincial government, through Metrolinx, is paying for roughly half the cost of the subway and the city paying only one-third. And the issue of costs is preventing the signing of a new master agreement. The current agreement still calls for an LRT in Scarborough and it’s unclear how far the city will proceed without inking a new one.
Mr. Matlow also wants to know the operating and maintenance costs for the subway and, lobbing a political hand grenade, how much of a property tax increase would be required to cover that bill.
At the same time, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti is seeking to derail an LRT in his ward, on Finch Avenue West. His motion also asks council to “reconfirm its decision to support” building a subway “on Sheppard Avenue,” ignoring the fact that the only higher-order transit project in the works for that road is a provincially funded proposal for light rail.
These issues will seem familiar to people who watched the transit debates last term. Mr. Mammoliti has long been an opponent of that light-rail project and promised to try to kill the provincially funded proposal. And Mr. Matlow has long struggled to get answers to basic questions about the subway project in Scarborough, an area he argues would be better served by light rail.
“Will more detailed ridership forecasts be presented to Council before the City of Toronto moves any further with the subway extension project?” Mr. Matlow asked in one of his questions to staff. “Will ridership projections be factoring in the implementation of [Mayor John Tory’s signature transit proposal] SmartTrack?”
The agenda appeared as the country’s big-city mayors gathered for discussions that were to include transit. It was a reminder that, in Canada’s weak-mayor system, the campaign promises of the person running for the top job carry only so much weight once the election is over. And in Toronto it’s a reminder that – regardless of what advocates for any particular project might say – transit issues are rarely settled.
Even for Toronto, the transit file in Scarborough has been a hectic ride. Metrolinx was going to build and fund the operating costs for light rail in Scarborough. The province would pay the entire $1.6-billion capital cost. But taking advantage of a provincial by-election, Scarborough boosters and subway fans pushed the argument that light rail was a dead end.
Toronto council eventually voted 24-20 for a proposal to build a three-station subway there instead. The cost of the project rose to $3-billion, with the city boosting property taxes to pay for one-third of the costs and the federal government chipping in as well.
Mr. Tory ran successfully for mayor of Toronto on a platform that included the subway extension in Scarborough. He argued the decision was done and it was time to move forward. But many details remain to be worked out.
Studies on where exactly the line should run have barely begun and, as Mr. Matlow noted, there has been no assessment of how ridership would be affected if SmartTrack ran nearby. Where the stations will go remains to be seen. And even their number is in question, with Councillor Glenn de Baeremaeker, one of the project’s key backers, musing recently about the value of adding one or two more stations to the proposed line.
But to subway boosters such as Mr. Mammoliti, the decision to replace the light-rail project in Scarborough was enough to buttress his position by “proving there is a desire” for subways. During the campaign the councillor made clear that he would prefer nothing be built on Finch than an LRT.
“Finch Avenue West is an important corridor in Toronto’s industrial pocket and the currently proposed LRT line for that corridor is not wanted by a majority of the residents and businesses in that area, ” his motion states. “This item is urgent as the debate on transit is ongoing amongst the residents of the City of Toronto and a resolution must be provided as soon as possible. ”Report Typo/Error