Jonathan English is a Toronto-based PhD candidate in urban planning at Columbia University. Alon Levy is a Berlin-based public transportation writer and researcher.
As transit planning in Toronto is wracked by a political tug-of-war, one of the most important issues has been almost completely ignored: New York has the highest construction costs in the world, but Toronto is a strong competitor for second place. The city is spending a vast sum on a very ambitious transit-expansion plan, but is getting far less track for the buck than most other places around the world. It’s a national problem, too: Other Canadian cities’ transit construction costs are not far behind.
In the past year, price estimates for Toronto’s Relief Line and Scarborough subway extensions have ballooned. The Relief Line’s projected costs rose to $7.22-billion, or about $1-billion per kilometre. The Scarborough subway one-stop extension is now projected to cost $3.48-billion for a 6.2-kilometre line. While the Scarborough extension may seem like a bargain by the Relief Line’s standards, subway stations are usually the costliest part (about 75 per cent of the itemized costs in New York), and thus a single-stop line which should be cheap, isn’t.
In contrast, the median urban subway around the world costs less than $300-million per kilometre. This includes complex projects such as Grand Paris Express, an automated network bored under dense inner suburbs including the office tower cluster at La Défense business district. And Paris is just the median: In cheaper cities such as Seoul, Stockholm and Madrid, urban subways under historic city centres or waterways cost $100-million to $150-million a kilometre. Even the new Ontario Line plan – a transit line in Toronto proposed by the provincial government and meant to cost less than the Relief Line proposal – is still expected to cost $735-million per kilometre, and much of it isn’t even underground.
Curiously, Canadian costs were not always especially high by world standards. Toronto’s Sheppard subway was completed in 2002 for about $166-million a kilometre. The same pattern is true in other cities. Montreal’s Laval Metro extension cost $143-million a kilometre in 2007, while the recent Blue Line extension plan is projected to cost $775-million. Vancouver’s mostly underground Canada Line, completed in 2009, cost only $106-million a kilometre, while the planned all-underground Broadway Skytrain will cost nearly $500-million a kilometre.
There are a number of reasons for these tremendously high costs. For a start, the infrastructure is massively overbuilt. The new Highway 407 station on Line 1 of the Toronto subway is a good example. Most of its vast bus terminal is unused, with few prospects that it ever will be. It’s part of an extension that cost almost $400-million a kilometre, in one of the easiest environments for subway construction – a suburban area with wide streets and plenty of room for building. A big chunk of the line was built under undeveloped, government-owned land.
The stations are also so palatial that, subtracting the tunnel boring, they averaged 225,000 cubic metres of excavation (which could fill 90 Olympic-sized swimming pools). For comparison, Grand Paris Express stations involve 120,000 cubic metres of excavation and New York’s Second Avenue Subway’s stations – the most expensive in the world – required 160,000. These giant stations also add walking distance for riders and make transfers more burdensome.
Toronto Transit Commission construction costs have contributed to a political atmosphere for provincial takeover. And yet, the Ontario Line plan is extraordinarily expensive by international standards as well. Another provincial project – GO Transit’s Regional Express Rail plan – is also costly: individual surface stations along an already built line cost well in excess of $100-million each , whereas Berlin’s plans for similar stations on its regional rail network cost €10-million to €20-million ($15-million to $30-million), and Boston has opened stations for US$16-million ($21-million).
There are innumerable other reasons for high costs, including the lengthy studies and frequent politically driven plan changes before shovels even hit the ground and the unwillingness to seriously consider cheaper construction methods. Fundamentally, there has simply been general acceptance that budgets for Canadian projects costing many times higher than peer-city projects is reasonable.
Ultimately, controlling construction costs needs to become a core part of the Canadian infrastructure discussion. We need a sustained effort to understand why our costs are so high and determine how to fix the problem. These projects are desperately needed, but their soaring price tags are making them unaffordable. Canada used to be able to build at normal international costs and it can do it again. Shifting jurisdictional responsibility will not solve the problem – it will take determined action. Canadians coping with outdated and overcrowded infrastructure deserve no less.
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