Internal Metrolinx report found Scarborough subway ‘not a worthwhile use of money’
Council to consider push for auditor general to conduct value-for-money comparison of the costs and benefits of transit options in Scarborough.
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Is the Scarborough subway a waste of money?
That essential question will again be raised at council this week after audit committee denied a motion from Councillor Josh Matlow last month to have a city watchdog provide the answer.
In 2013, council scrapped a fully-funded, seven-stop light rail transit (LRT) line to replace the aging Scarborough RT and voted instead to build a three-stop subway that at the time would cost at least $2 billion more, there has never been a comprehensive comparison of the costs and benefits between the two options.
But a secret report obtained by the Star through a freedom of information request provides a glimpse of what that kind of analysis might find: That a subway is “not a worthwhile use of money.”
Ahead of this week’s council meeting, Mayor John Tory remains firm that the subway project should move forward without a cost-comparison study — something that has never been requested or provided by staff.
“This is the most voted upon project, I think, that’s probably ever gone through the city council,” Tory told the Star on Friday. He said if councillors believed requesting that kind of analysis was in the public interest they’d vote for it.
“In the meantime my objective has been what it’s always been: Get on with this project.”
After the plan for a subway was revised last year to just a single-stop extension at $3.35 billion, Matlow continued to challenge his colleagues to request such a study.
“If you would prefer the one-stop subway and if the information comes back to support that argument, in fact, if you always believed it would, then what do you have to be afraid of?” he asked last month.
The switch from an LRT to a subway took place over three separate council meetings, culminating in an October 2013 vote.
Behind-the-scenes at that time, emails show senior Metrolinx officials were trying to make sense of the political machinations since the city had already signed a master agreement with the province to build an LRT with provincial money, then estimated at $1.8 billion.
In the midst of that confusion, Metrolinx analysts drafted an internal report assessing whether the subway or the LRT provided the best value for money. The report obtained by the Star, dated September 2013, is clearly marked “draft.” It was never published.
The Star received the report in 2015 as part of a broad request to Metrolinx for records dating back to 2013. Years after the 2013 debate and before a new subway proposal was pitched under Tory’s administration, the significance of the Metrolinx analysis was overlooked.
Today, it remains relevant.
While removing a transfer required with the LRT at Kennedy Station does create “significant benefit,” the analysis found, decreased travel times are cancelled out by the loss of access because of fewer of stations compared to the LRT.
And expected ridership — then estimated at a maximum 11,000 people travelling in the busiest direction at the busiest hour and currently estimated at 7,400 by 2031 — the analysis found, would fall far short of a subway’s maximum capacity of 25,000 and well below that of an LRT’s 15,000-person capacity.
The analysis found the subway could unlock “large scale” development potential, but in order to offset the extra cost (the subway was estimated to cost at least $1 billion more than LRT at the time) $5 billion worth of development would be required. That amount of development, the analysis said, would consist of 20,000 units or 56, 30-storey condo towers.
The analysts didn’t assess whether that scale of development would be feasible.
Experts and development data suggest it’s not.
University of Toronto Scarborough urban geography professor Andre Sorensen said fitting that scale of development within walking distance of the single subway stop planned at Scarborough Town Centre would “simply be impossible.”
“In my view the main problem with the current subway extension option is precisely that it allows much less development potential than the LRT option, while actually reducing the number of people and jobs within walking distance of stations,” said Sorensen, who co-authored a study titled “Choices for Scarborough” that outlined how the LRT was the best transit option for the area.
Other researchers have noted that despite the SRT being rapid transit that runs in its own corridor, very little development has been spurred over the last decade.
Between 2012 and 2017, there have been 853 residential units built in Scarborough Centre, which includes the area immediately around the Scarborough Town Centre. Another 6,200 are in the pipeline or under review.
The analysis concluded: “This initial assessment suggests the volume of benefit likely required to justify the switch to subway construction will not be generated and the switch would not represent good value for money.”
An earlier briefing note dated May 2013 containing the working analysis from the September draft report was forwarded to two senior provincial officials — the former deputy minister of transportation and the former transportation minister’s chief of staff — Spacing magazine reported in 2014.
It’s unclear what anyone at the provincial level did with the analysis.
Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins told the Star on Monday it is the agency’s role to provide expert advice to governments. But the internal analysis was never put before council.
“Council made a decision to move forward with a subway instead, which was subsequently supported by both the provincial and federal governments,” she said in an email.
University of Toronto professor Matti Siemiatycki, an expert in transportation policy and planning, said ideally a comprehensive analysis of a wide range of costs and benefits would be conducted at the outset of the planning process. The continued absence of one has left lingering questions.
“At every stage as the costs have escalated on this it does return you to the question of whether the benefits outweigh those costs,” Siemiatycki said. “At this point we don’t have the evidence to be able to make that weighting.”
Councillor Matlow has previously moved a motion at council in March to get a comparative analysis from staff. That request failed in an 18 to 26 vote with Tory and all but three of his executive members voting against it.
The subway project itself is expected to return for a vote late next year, when council will be presented with an updated cost. Any further increases could create a dilemma for council, which has approved maximum funding of $3.56 billion for Scarborough transit improvements.
Today, it’s unclear what it would cost to return to the LRT plan due to escalation and redesign work that would be required at Kennedy Station.
Auditor General Beverly Romeo-Beehler, who has the power to conduct her own investigations, told the Star ahead of council’s consideration that she would not do a cost-benefit comparison of the options, saying it’s not her role to re-open council decisions.
Cherise Burda, executive director of Ryerson University’s City Building Institute, said the subway has become too much of a “political battleground.”
“I would like to see our leaders stand up and be truthful: This is not in the best interest of taxpayers and it’s actually not the best transit for Scarborough,” she said.
“Was there every actually a business case study conducted that shows Scarborough subway is a good investment? I’d like to see that.”
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