John Tory has staked his mayoralty on a promise to usher in a new era of transit planning for Toronto. It’s a promise that will be put to a serious test in coming weeks.
Since his election in 2014, Tory has relentlessly criticized his predecessors for bungling the transit file and insisted that under his watch the city won’t repeat the mistakes of the past. No more transit lines based on drawings “on the back of a piece of paper,” no more approving projects without a plan to pay for them, he has said.
After a speech Wednesday to the Toronto Region Board of Trade on his transit vision, he derided politicians who came before him as “champion hand-wringers, champion ideologues, champion polarizers” who talked a lot about building new transit but never got any of it done.
Later the same day he promised to match his own ambitious transit plans with funding to build them. “To try to fool people into thinking there’s going to be free transit ... would be something that I won’t do,” he said at an announcement of new GO stations being labelled as part of his SmartTrack line.
“It’s not honest.”
Yet at a meeting of his executive committee on June 28, Tory will ask councillors to do precisely what he has criticized previous city leaders for doing — move ahead with billions of dollars’ worth of transit lines, with no clear plan to fund them.
When senior staff prepared a brief public accounting earlier this week on a network of proposed subways, light rail lines and new stations to be built over 15 years, they needed only to copy-paste: “Unfunded. Unfunded. Unfunded. Unfunded.” The shortfall currently totals at least $11 billion.
While Tory insists he won’t accept any excuses for failing to make progress, the mayor, in lock-step with the city’s chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, has pitched the latest network expansion plan at a time when Toronto’s finances have hit a wall.
Earlier this month, city manager Peter Wallace warned that across-the-board service cuts may be needed to bridge the gap between city revenues and expenses.
“Altogether this is much more money than the city has or will have,” said Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park) following the release of the updated transit report.
“We’ve just been told we don’t have enough operating money to even run the TTC that we’ve got now.”
And while Tory slams the “ideologues” who he says have let their own aspirations get in the way of delivering the better service residents desperately need, his colleagues have questioned whether his own transit priorities are politically compromised.
The mayor will be challenged to justify those priorities at a council meeting next month that could see an attempted revolt over the $3.2-billion, one-stop subway extension to Scarborough that a growing number of councillors have started to doubt.
Tory has always backed a subway for Scarborough — regardless of whether it was three stops or one and regardless of how much information was available. Fighting Rob and Doug Ford in the 2014 campaign, he promised a three-stop subway to residents as he fought for votes in the suburbs where “Ford Nation” was at its strongest.
Within months of being elected, Tory frequently batted away questions about a lack of data to support building a high-capacity subway to the low-density suburb. When Councillor Josh Matlow, who has vocally opposed the subway, asked city staff to provide council with more information about ridership and costs, Tory was among those council members who voted to shelve his request.
“I’m committed to the present plan for Scarborough subway,” Tory said in February 2015. “I believe it is the right thing to do.”
But at a news conference Wednesday, Tory stepped up a recent change in his messaging, knocking the earlier lack of justification for a subway he had defended for months.
“The only reason we’re talking about an increased cost for the Scarborough subway is because the original number was basically drawn out of a hat — a little better than that, but not much,” he told reporters.
Tory said the subway became a “political football” years ago when the previous council backed it without any prior planning.
Some say that hasn’t changed.
“Definitely it’s a political football,” said fiscally conservative Councillor John Campbell (Ward 4, Etobicoke Centre), one of several new councillors this term whose undecided vote could become critical. “Politically, I think he wants to get it through to trumpet the success in Scarborough.”
And when Tory has been questioned on his continued defence of a subway, he has pointed to politics, telling Toronto Life in February he was being “realistic” because “Scarborough MPP Brad Duguid, minister of economic development, said that if anyone tries to cancel the subway, they’ll do it over his dead body.”
Some argue there is a better way to serve Scarborough residents — a previously approved, seven-stop light rail line that would have connected the Scarborough Town Centre and served twice as many people. Fully funded by the province at $1.48 billion, the LRT would also free up the money needed to fully fund a second LRT line with as many as 17 stops along Eglinton Ave. East to the University of Toronto Scarborough campus.
There are also questions about Tory’s signature SmartTrack plan, which he pitched during the election as a 22-stop “surface subway” that would have 15 new stops. Recent announcements revealed that the most Tory will get is a 15-stop service with up to six new stations, as part of Metrolinx’s already planned regional express rail (RER).
The mayor argues that because one section of his original SmartTrack vision has since been deemed unfeasible and replaced with a westward extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT that could have up to 15 stops, he’s actually building more transit than he promised while contesting the mayoralty.
With or without Tory, the province would have gone ahead with some form of the RER plan that will see all-day, two-way service on GO lines within Toronto. But now the city is being asked to pay for the SmartTrack portion of the project, which could run into the billions of dollars.
Matlow, who agrees with the long-held position of city staff that a subway relief line is Toronto’s most pressing transit priority, believes the current approach is still clouded by campaign rhetoric.
“I think city hall has been relentlessly trying to put square pegs into round holes in order to support political interests before serving people,” he said.
“Council needs to get real and face the facts that if it doesn’t begin to prioritize and make evidence-based decisions, and put people before their own interests, they’re going to end up building very little while spending billions of other people’s dollars.”
While Tory convinced council to institute a “city-building” property tax increase last year to raise millions for transportation and housing — which kicks in next year at 0.5 per cent — and has expressed support for new revenue tools to pay for expanding the network, so far he has not endorsed any specific new sources of revenue.
At times, Tory sounds remarkably like his predecessor, the late Rob Ford, who insisted that transit lines could be paid for by finding “efficiencies” in city government and enlisting the help of the private sector.
Unwilling to raise property taxes above the rate of inflation, Tory has pitched private-sector partnerships as a way out of the financial jam.
On Wednesday, Tory stressed that any search for new revenue sources must be accompanied by “very careful” examination of city spending, and asserted that there are “billions of dollars that we’re presently spending or that are tied up in various things that might be put to good use building transit.”
After it was revealed that the cost of the Scarborough subway and Eglinton LRT had blown more than $1 billion over budget, Tory said the city would hire a private-sector expert to review the project in an attempt to cut costs — despite the TTC already working with a third party to come up with the most recent cost estimates.
There are no easy solutions to the city’s transit woes.
If Tory is daunted by the size of the challenge ahead of him, he doesn’t show it. At the Board of Trade on Wednesday, he dismissed critics who questioned why his administration is pursuing so many transit projects at once.
“My answer to that is very simple — because we need them,” he said, describing transit building as a “vital social and economic challenge” for a city that has seen rampant development in recent years without a transportation network to match.
He’s said it’s too early for him to back any new tools as a source of funding for transit. But he promised that in time he would do so.
“I will tell you right now I am going to show leadership on this,” he vowed. “I’m going to come forward with some suggestions for the city council’s consideration as to how I think we’re going to address this problem.”
Lines on the map
Toronto’s need for more transit is great, and so is the bill. The cost of planned rail projects is at least $15 billion, with more than $11 billion of it currently unfunded. Daunting as that number is, the cost could rise further. All of the projects are still in the early stages of design, which means projected costs could be off by as much as 35 per cent.
Capital cost: Up to $1.1 billion for six new stations on existing GO rail lines. The province is also spending $3.7 billion on upgrades to GO corridors that will support SmartTrack.
Status: City portion unfunded, but federal government has pledged $2.6 billion.
Projected completion: Within 10 years
Scarborough transit network
Capital cost: Up to $3.2 billion for the one-stop subway and extending the life of, then decommissioning, the Scarborough RT. Additional $1.7 billion for an extension of the 17-stop Eglinton Crosstown LRT to U of T Scarborough.
Status: $3.56 billion pledged by the federal, provincial and city governments, leaving a shortfall of up to $1.3 billion.
Projected completion: Late 2025 for the subway, if council approves an alignment next month; 2023 for the LRT
Capital cost: $6.8 billion for the first eight-stop phase, which would run south from Pape Station to Eastern Ave. and then west to Osgoode Station.
Projected completion date: 2031
Eglinton West LRT
Capital cost: Up to $2.1 billion for an extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT from Mount Dennis to Pearson Airport, with up to 15 stops.
Projected completion: 2023
East Bayfront LRT
Capital cost: Up to $520 million for a 1.6-km streetcar line in a dedicated right-of-way on Queens Quay, from Bay St. to Parliament St.
Projected completion: Unknown