Toronto councillor on Mayor Ford’s divisive attack on Transit City plan

There have been a number of Toronto news articles about the political conflict around Mayor Rob Ford and the proposed cancellation of Transit City, but little analysis of the benefits of different transit plans. This letter was sent constituents by Ward 20 Councillor Adam Vaughan in an attempt to refocus the debate on what is good transit for Toronto, rather than the excitement of political conflict.

For those who do not live in Toronto, Transit City is a proposal designed by former Mayor David Miller and city staff. This plan is to build Light Rapid Transit (LRT) rail lines along suburban streets to give rapid, efficient transit to low density suburbs. LRT trains are longer and carry more passengers than streetcars.

Rob Ford, who was elected mayor of Toronto on October 25, is opposed to LRT lines along city streets because he says they interfere with vehicle traffic. In his words: "Streets are for cars and trucks." He advocates the expansion of the city's subway system, but that will cost at least three times more than LRT construction, and the lines that he has proposed go through low density, suburban neighbourhoods. The cost of construction will never be paid for out of the fare box.

This is Councillor Adam Vaughan's letter to his constituents on this issue.

Dear Residents,

Over the past week, I have received thousands of emails in support of Transit City. I am in the process of replying to each of those letters, but in the meantime I wanted to be sure that you know where I stand on this important program.

I have always supported Transit City and continue to believe that it is the best opportunity to provide a mass transit network to the City of Toronto. It is not simply the best we can do under the circumstances; it's the right thing to do, period.

As a municipal project, much more than just transportation needs are addressed by Transit City. The program delivers train service to virtually every corner of the city while providing opportunities for economic, social and cultural renewal to some of Toronto's most distressed neighbourhoods.

Transit City provides cheap, efficient and environmentally sound transportation to the city's priority neighbourhoods. These are communities that are struggling under the weight of poor housing, social isolation and diminished economic opportunity. Transit City delivers connectivity and affluence to these areas. With the introduction of Transit City, land values go up and create platforms for revitalization of the housing stock which will bring jobs and economic opportunity to the commercial properties in the area. New tax revenue flows from this investment. City-owned lands increase in value and public investments in local social infrastructure like schools, libraries, community health centres and recreation centres suddenly become more sustainable.

The innovative Tower Renewal Project relies on land values being inflated by proximity to transit. Open fields and abandoned industrial land, like the properties around the Woodbine racetrack, are brought to market with an investment and service like Transit City. Other city projects like the revitalization of the Yonge-Eglinton bus bays also benefit by becoming major transit nodes. Without the additional lines that Transit City provides, these projects will fail to deliver the economic and social benefits first predicted. The city will be left poorer as a result.

Cancelling Transit City will also cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties and unneeded studies and Environmental Assessments. Additionally, despite the expenditures the city is left with the status quo. The status quo is a woefully deficient transportation system. According to the Board of Trade gridlock is currently costing Toronto's economy billions in lost productivity.

Replacing the transit part of the city's approach to fighting gridlock from Light Rapid Transit (LRT) to subways will cost billions more and actually deliver less service, or at best, the same amount of transit capacity. The only thing that changes is the length of a bus ride and the station you arrive at.

Financing

The incoming Mayor has said development charges can pay for the change in strategy. Intensification was already a controversial part of the Transit City costing estimates. Suburban neighbourhoods are on record as being opposed to doubling the as-of-right heights on streets with proposed LRTs. If jumping from three storeys to six storeys is currently unacceptable, what will these communities say when 40-storey towers are proposed along subway routes? To pay for the increased costs for subway lines through development charges, hundreds of buildings in this scale would need to be built. Putting aside whether the residents in these areas could stomach this kind of intensification, can the market absorb this kind of massive infusion of new units along suburban thoroughfares?

Setting priorities and planning

Then there is the issue of which line to build first. Do we extend Sheppard? Do we replace the Scarborough LRT? Is it the Finch Loop? After that decision is made, there is the cost and time involved in designing a new line, re-structuring a vehicle purchase to add subways and then the timelines for acquiring property, realigning underground infrastructure, switching the tunnelling contracts and building the one or two extra stations to meet the goals of subway first and subways only as a priority. None of this includes the legal fees attached to changing the plans.

Collateral costs

Surface transportation also offers other opportunities. Once you build a subway, adding additional stops is virtually impossible. History also shows that while surface rapid transit stretches out intensification and distributes economic benefits along routes, subways tend to generate nodal developments with little impact between stations. Additionally, the new LRTs ordered for Transit City are not a good fit for our existing downtown streetcar lines. We may well end up with massive inner city streetcars that propel service cuts to operate.

Subways also need to be fed. In the suburbs massive bus bays will need to be constructed to deliver passengers to the subway. Local density is not enough. This too will cost money or underperforming lines will drive up costs or force service cuts elsewhere.

In other words after billions of new dollars, years of delay and construction and hundreds of other impacts what we end up with is a slightly more convenient subway line for a very few people and the status quo if we are lucky for the rest.

Adam Vaughan is the city councillor for Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina, in Toronto.

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