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What happens after Toronto’s election? More senseless transit debates, sadly

As if this long election campaign wasn’t frustrating enough, two reports from Inside Toronto and NOW give a glimpse of what Toronto can probably expect following the vote on Monday.

The short version: more senseless, costly and soul-crushing transit debates.

A longer version stars several Scarborough politicians quietly lining up to oppose the LRT project planned for Sheppard East, saying they’d much prefer an extension of the Sheppard subway. The list of naysayers includes Liberal MPPs Soo Wong and Bas Balkissoon, Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly and Coun. Raymond Cho. Cho’s inclusion on the list is notable, because he voted in favour of the LRT as recently as March 2012.

All of this was, of course, inevitable given the precedent set by last year’s Scarborough subway decision. During that debate, all three levels of government expressed a willingness to ignore ridership projections, expert advice, sunk costs and the increased price tag, all in the name of giving Scarborough residents the subway they apparently “deserved.”

So now the transit Pandora’s Box is wide open.

Unless voters start electing people with a better understanding of transit issues, this city is bound to see more of this kind of slapdash planning. If central Scarborough got a subway despite there being no real credible case for one, why shouldn’t north Scarborough? And if north Scarborough gets a senseless subway, who’s to say Etobicoke shouldn’t get one? And let's not forget the residents of the Toronto Islands. Better put that Centreville Train underground.

Cost? Irrelevant! Ridership? Nobody cares! Plans for actual density along the route? Quiet, you urban planning nerd!

It’s obvious that any move to build an extension of the Sheppard subway would be foolhardy. Council commissioned a report from an expert panel just two years ago that clearly lays out the reasons why.

The cost tops that list of reasons. A subway extension would cost way more than an LRT, driving the price tag from about $1 billion to somewhere between $2.7 billion and $3.-7 billion, not including cancellation costs.

If the city were to take on all the extra costs, the panel projects that Toronto would go over its debt limit, limiting council’s ability to fund any other capital budget priorities like affordable housing.

Beyond that, the LRT can be built sooner — it was scheduled to be open by now, but then Mayor Rob Ford cancelled it — and will have more than three times the number of stops. Most critically, projections in the panel's report indicate that by 2031 the subway will carry just 4,200 passengers per hour at peak, nowhere near the 10,000 passengers per hour the TTC says is needed to warrant consideration of a subway.

The panel also graded the LRT as the better option in terms of fiscal sustainability, timeframe, ridership, network connectivity, level of service, equity and accessibility, environmental sustainability and community impact. But I guess none of that matters if you’re a politician who’s mostly just interested in pandering to a constituency that's been told LRT is the devil.

The worst part? It’s hard to imagine how the city gets away from this endless cycle of transit debates. There’s a domino effect with these kinds of decisions, where one bad move justifies the next. An additional problem with accepting nothing less than subways in all corridors is that the high cost and complexity of tunnelling inevitably means a much slower pace, giving future governments lots of time to cancel and change plans.

In other words, unless the newly-elected mayor and council manages to avoid this kind of silliness on Sheppard, expect a lot more talking and a lot less building. That is, after all, what Toronto seems to be best at.

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