Transit advocates lodge complaint over controversial Scarborough subway debate
Misleading briefing note provided by staff misaligned Scarborough’s transit future, TTCriders says.
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Amid concerns the Scarborough subway project is delayed, a group of transit advocates and local residents have complained to the head of the TTC over misleading information provided to council in the midst of a debate last summer.
On Wednesday, Scarborough Transit Action, an offshoot of the advocacy group TTCriders, filed a complaint addressed to CEO Andy Byford after a Star story outlined how a briefing note produced by the TTC during an earlier debate wrongly cast doubt on the light-rail alternative.
“As it stands now, Toronto council has committed billions toward a one-stop subway extension in Scarborough without the benefit of an objective and complete comparison of costs, delivery dates and funding commitments from higher levels of government for the seven-stop LRT option,” the complaint reads.
“At a time when there is increasingly limited funding allocated to basic services in Toronto, public confidence that council was presented with all the facts before deciding where to place a significant amount of our shared resources, needs to be restored.”
The complaint follows confirmation Tuesday that an anticipated report on a proposed alignment for the subway, a document critical to moving the project forward, would not be ready next week as planned. The report was originally set to be released in December.
That news renewed concern the pitch by Mayor John Tory and allies — and supported by staff — for a one-stop subway that could be in service in 2025 and cost no more than $3.2 billion was too optimistic.
At a board meeting in October, Byford said he stands by what was said in the two-page briefing note and the “integrity of staff.”
TTC spokesperson Brad Ross said Wednesday they will consider the complaint and “respond appropriately in due course.”
In July, council again voted to back a subway extension to Scarborough, nearly three years after the previous term of council under former mayor Rob Ford ditched a fully-funded LRT in favour of a three-stop subway.
As council advocates for an LRT, led by Councillor Josh Matlow, made efforts to revive that option at city hall ahead of the July vote, a briefing note authored by the TTC was secretly circulated to the mayor’s office and others before being more widely distributed.
As the Star earlier reported, sources and documents obtained through a freedom of information request outlined how the briefing note was used by Tory’s office and his allies to squash the revolt at city hall.
The briefing note, which has never been made part of the public council record, cast doubt on the feasibility of returning to the LRT option, citing construction conflicts, uncertainty of funding from other levels of government, and an increase in costs.
Though it listed several unknowns, these were not, in fact, unknown.
The note cited possible conflicts with provincial plans in the rail corridor shared by GO train service, which transit agency Metrolinx had confirmed was never an issue.
It questioned if funding commitments from the provincial and federal governments would still apply to an LRT even though the province is still bound by a signed agreement to fund light rail and the federal government had assured the money is available to fund any technology.
And, while the note cited increased costs of an LRT line for the first time, under questioning from Matlow about the problems with the briefing note on the floor of council in July, Byford said he was “asked to provide” a comparison of the LRT “for the same finish date as a subway,” meaning the price was increased to match the same estimated completion in 2025.
Byford has said he “cannot recall” who asked for that comparison and that he couldn’t just “pick a name and throw someone under the bus because that would just be unfair.”
The complaint demanded an investigation of that process, including who asked for that cost comparison, and that a peer review of the LRT option be completed.
Scarborough Transit Action’s Brenda Thompson said the group plans to escalate their complaint to the city’s ombudsman if their concerns are not addressed. The watchdog calls itself an “office of last resort” and requires complainants to first file their grievances with the relevant city division or agency.
“I think the major concern is that there has never really been an objective comparison of the LRT option with the subway option,” she said.
Thompson said neither she, nor anyone else, can force council to vote for the option they believe is best. “I think the public needs to feel confident that the information that was available to them to base their decision on was objective and neutral,” she added.
Toronto resident Rosemary Frei, who initiated the complaint, noted a majority of council recently rejected a bid by Matlow to base funding for infrastructure projects, including transit, on projected ridership and most urgent need, among other criteria.
That, she said, highlights a larger concern.
“They’re really straying far from serving the public well,” Frei said.
“We have to say ‘enough is enough’.”
Although Tory and others pushed for the subway option saying there should be no further delays, the missing report on the subway has now raised the question of increased costs.
The report before council in July contained a footnote that said the $3.2-billion cost estimate was based on council approving an alignment at that meeting.
But staff did not recommend an alignment and council did not approve one.
Byford said then that every month delay would cost the city $13 million.
In October, Byford warned the project was already “tracking behind schedule” and said “the window of opportunity is closing.”
“We have to pin down the exact alignment and stick to it,” he said.
The report noted geotechnical, survey, and some design work had been halted pending approval of a final route.
But on Wednesday, both Ross and city spokesperson Wynna Brown said the delay in approved alignment would not affect the cost or project schedule and that “advance work on design and soil testing” was underway.
Tory, answering questions at an unrelated press conference Wednesday, said the TTC had assured him the absence of a decision on the alignment would not be the reason for cost increases, but he did not rule out that costs would go up.
“We’re awaiting what the number is, based on the advice of experts who have been asked to take a look at that, and I would just say to you that I am confident that this short delay in the availability of this report will not, in and of itself, cause a cost increase,” he said.
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