Lack of Scarborough subway scrutiny makes way for a subway sequel on Sheppard

May 17, 2018

By Matt Elliott

Mayor John Tory’s executive committee on Monday made quick work of Councillor Josh Matlow’s latest attempt to investigate the controversial planning and political process that led to the Scarborough subway. By unanimously voting to defer his request for a judicial inquiry without debate and without hearing from the members of the public who had signed up to give deputations, they did the procedural equivalent of shooting it into the sun.

But while they were doing that, the provincial party currently leading in the polls according to CBC’s poll tracking aggregator to become Ontario’s next government was busy talking up the need for a Scarborough subway sequel.

That’s right. Like a bad penny, the multibillion-dollar Sheppard subway extension is back.

Both PC leader Doug Ford and Ajax candidate Rod Phillips, who represented the PCs at a transportation debate held Monday at the University of Toronto, have enthusiastically backed the idea of “closing the Sheppard subway loop” (Ford in a backgrounder shown on Twitter by the CBC’s Mike Crawley, Phillips on a TVO panel)— extending the 5.4-kilometre Sheppard subway to Scarborough Town Centre from Don Mills, where it would meet up with the Scarborough subway.

It’s a bad transit project. There are piles of studies supporting its badness. In a city with so many expensive transit priorities, it does not rate.

The Sheppard subway today carries fewer riders than some of the city’s surface routes. 47,780 trips per day pass through the subway’s five stations compared to 44,000 customers per weekday on the Dufferin bus. And while the subway has successfully driven some development along the corridor like Concord Park Place, a 5,000-unit condo development, ridership is still low enough that fares do not even come close to covering the sky high costs of operating and maintaining subway infrastructure.

In an article by Tess Kalinowski in the Toronto Star published in May 2015, TTC chair Josh Colle estimated each rider costs the city about $10 in subsidy — it might be cheaper, he suggested, to move those riders by taxi.

If those ridership and subsidy numbers look bad, the numbers floated for an extension eastward are downright apocalyptic. The cost of subway construction has only grown since Sheppard opened in 2002. Extending Sheppard from its current terminus at Don Mills to Scarborough Town Centre was estimated to cost anywhere between $2.7 billion and $3.7 billion by an expert panel in 2012.

And, according to the same analysis, ridership in the extension is estimated at about 4,200 riders per peak morning hour by 2031, a number that could easily be handled by much cheaper light rail transit (LRT), or even buses. With the line extended, it might not just be cheaper to ferry riders by taxi — it might be cheaper to have them ride in limousines with private chauffeurs.  

But on the other hand, “closing the Sheppard loop” sounds good, and looks pretty cool on a map, I guess?

And while the costs and ridership numbers alone should be enough to stop any talk of extending Sheppard in its tracks, that’s made harder by Tory and council’s continued support of the Scarborough subway and their reluctance to really examine the issues relating to planning and politics that led to council in 2012 throwing out a provincially-funded LRT alternative in favour of a subway.

There needs to be some sort of formal review of how transit plans are developed and approved to council — a task for the next City Manager/Chief Planner, maybe – so a precedent isn’t set.

Because here’s the thing: bad, politicized transit decisions spread like a virus. One low-ridership, overbuilt, multibillion-dollar transit  project becomes the basis for another, and then another.

The subway extension to Vaughan — pushed by the provincial government despite no strong business case — helped justify the subway extension to Scarborough Town Centre. I’ve heard more than a few councillors and subway boosters explain to me that if Vaughan gets a subway, it’s only fair that Scarborough Centre should get one too.

And similarly, if the notion of a Sheppard subway comes up in council again for debate, expect echoes of the Scarborough subway decision.

If LRT-sized ridership estimates and high costs for tunnelling and building are not enough to stall the subway to Scarborough, why should they stop an extension to Sheppard?

If a warning in the 2012 staff report about the Scarborough subway that “ detailed study and design [had] not yet occurred” wasn’t enough to stop councillors from ditching viable, ready-to-build alternatives in favour of flashy subway promises, why would anyone expect the next time around to be any different?

That’s the real concern residents should have about the Scarborough subway. It’s not just about this one project. It’s about precedent. It’s about the potential for subway sequels, each more expensive than the last — a cinematic universe of questionable transit projects, where the plot is always the same.  


Matt Elliott is a columnist, blogger and City Hall watcher in Toronto. After starting out as an independent blogger, he later became the city columnist for Metro News. He mostly writes about local issues, often with a nerdy focus on municipal budgets and urban policy. The winner of two Canadian Online Publishing Awards for his writing, the Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale has called Matt “one of the best political columnists anywhere.” You can follow Matt on Twitter at @GraphicMatt.