Open letter to CivicAction

Dear Ms. Hunter and Mr. Tory,

I understand that your “What Would You Do With 32 minutes” campaign tries to raise awareness for new transit funding in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), so we can, potentially, alleviate traffic congestion. However, it is actually quite misleading, and goes in the opposite direction. Your campaign is solely based on Metrolinx’s The Big Move plan – a proposal that doesn’t consider any improvements to roads, driven by more than 2/3 of GTHA commuters -, and is also based on a blind trust on their congestion reduction calculations, and on their ability to calculate the costs of their different transit proposals. The projected costs for each one of these proposals are completely overblown; typically, as much as 3 times the amount required to build similar projects. Therefore, if these budgets are so grossly exaggerated, then how do we know the real amount of funds needed to build this plan? And if so, do you really need to make this public transit funding awareness campaign, at all?

Why do I say that these budgets are grossly exaggerated? Well, let’s start with the two subway proposals for Toronto included in The Big Move plan: the Downtown Relief Line, and the Yonge Subway Extension. As a comparison, we will use the most recent subway expansion: the Sheppard subway line, which opened 10 years ago, cost about $900 million to build and is 5.5 km long, ($163 million per km, or about $200 million per km in today’s dollars). Today, Metrolinx is saying that the proposed 13 km long Downtown Relief Line would cost $7.4 billion, or a staggering $570 million per km! On the other hand, the proposed 6 km long Yonge Subway Extension has been budgeted at $3.4 billion, or the same staggering $570 million per km. These two proposed subway lines are almost 3 times more expensive than the Sheppard subway; and they are almost twice the cost of the already overpriced Spadina subway extension to Vaughan – now under construction, and with subway stations that cost 3 times what they should be -.

Subway Construction Costs in TO

We can also compare their light rail transit – or LRT – proposals and see how grossly they have been overpriced. As a comparison, we will use the most recent LRT project in Toronto, the St. Clair streetcar right-of-way, which is 7 km long, and cost $110 million to complete (including a $60 million over-budget cost), or $16 million per km. Metrolinx is now proposing to build a 13 km long LRT line on Sheppard East at a projected cost of $1 billion, or $77 million per km; and the 11 km long LRT on Finch West at also $1 billion, or $91 million per km. These numbers are about 5 times more than the already badly managed LRT project construction on St. Clair, and remember that they are all on surface level.

LRT Construction Costs in TO

Since the previous winter, I have made numerous warnings and criticisms about these cost exaggerations to municipal, and provincial politicians, and agencies; but, so far, they have been ignored. Quite on the contrary, they have persisted in keeping these same transit budget proposals, or even increasing them.

On the other hand, how do we expect that these construction projects will be done within a rational schedule, when our entire city is plagued by road and transit construction that takes many times longer than what they are supposed to be? – See Toronto’s artificial gridlock. – While this lax work schedule behaviour ends up being a big waste of taxpayers dollars, it is also one of the main factors of  road congestion throughout the GTHA. If only the public sector would manage to keep these projects built within a rational and coordinated schedule, they can significantly reduce congestion throughout our entire region.

In any case, will Metrolinx’s plan actually alleviate traffic congestion? Well, that is quite improbable, indeed. The Big Move plan includes a series of LRT proposals that will reduce current road capacity, either by lane reductions, left-turn restrictions, and/or traffic signal preferences for LRT trains. At the same time, Metrolinx admits that, even if they deliver their entire plan, at least 50% of the commuting trips in Toronto will continue to be through driving in personal vehicles; and on top of that they expect an additional 1 million cars in our roads in the next 20 years. Therefore, with these numbers we can only expect an increase of the current traffic congestion; and – to make matters worse – with even less road capacity than what we have today, according to their plan.

Additionally, there are still some politicians at Toronto City Hall who want to reduce road capacity even more – with their plans to bring down the Gardiner Expressway, or to remove the Allen Road’s expressway capacity – but those are absurdities at a different level. There has been a pro-transit and anti-personal car planning agenda in Toronto for almost half a century. However, despite Toronto’s massive increase in population density, the proportion of car usage for daily commuting has remained steady, ever since. This is basically due to the fact that commuting by car is, typically, much faster than by transit. Subways running at an average speed of 30 to 40 km/h can possibly compete with average car speeds, if the transit commute doesn’t involve too many route transfers. However, surface LRTs running at 15 to 20 km/h are, definitively, out of competition. Therefore, in the future we should easily expect a similar proportion of at least 2/3 of commuters being car drivers.

The main subject of this letter is about how much TRUST do the public have with their governments. A few months ago, I attended a Town Hall meeting hosted by Councillor Josh Matlow, where a number of panelists from Metrolinx, TTC, the Toronto’s Board of Trade, among other transit advocates, tried to explain to the attendees about the need to find more taxes and fees for new transit development. Towards the end of the meeting, I asked them how do they expect the people of the GTHA to trust them with their taxes and fees, if the governments and its agencies are not careful with their budgets, and construction schedules? What happened to half a century of gasoline tax that was supposed to be directed for roads, and other transportation infrastructure? Well, none of the panelists offered any answer.

So, will you continue pandering this Metrolinx plan after finding out about their grossly exaggerated budgets; and that also offers no relief to the existing and increasing traffic congestion? A plan that doesn’t reflect rational costs of transit proposals, and that doesn’t include major improvements to road capacity, will not have the public support that CivicAction wishes. In contrast, a plan that includes subways at $200 million per km, or less – read “Five reasons why Toronto can build proper subways for $200 million per km” – a plan that doesn’t include LRTs in the middle of busy roads, a plan that includes new highways on existing hydro or transportation corridors (even if they are new toll roads) – see Toronto Waterfront Viaduct proposal and Get Toronto Moving plan -, a plan that includes new traffic improvement technologies on existing streets and highways – see ITS-ETO -, a plan that physically separates bicycle lanes, a plan that makes residential streets safer by removing intrusive traffic from within, a plan that makes commuting better for all modes of urban transportation, and a plan that involves private sector’s funding, is a plan that can have public support. Otherwise, we will just remain in a status-quo of increased cost-of-living, lax oversight on public funds, and a continuing increase of traffic congestion.


– Metrolinx’s The Big Move

15 thoughts on “Open letter to CivicAction

  1. Comment received via email:

    “This problem can also be delt with the other way around and in a way which is financially more sustainable and will lead to our long term goals. First, we must acknowledge that this is a long term problem, and thus long term solutions are required. Second, we must develop an order of magnitude total transportaion/ infrastructure budget for a 20 year period. Third, we must then put in place an annual exependiture budget to handle it. Only then do we put construction schedules in place and priorities for phasing.
    The present proposals for Transit City will not solve our long term need nor satisfy the present and future needs of another million residents within Toronto, let alone even more in the surrounding regions.
    So set a number that we’re willing to spend and keep plodding along until the tasks are complete.”

    John Barnes.

    • Nice thought, but that is essentially what’s been done for the last 30 years, and what have we built? Long term plans are made, costs estimated, EA’s approved, budgets set and approved, then a new set of politicians comes along, cancels what was done before, and we start again. (Eglinton West subway anyone?) You will never have a long-term implementation plan as long as the politicians, who think in 2-4-year increments, have control of the money and the approvals. Your advice to “set a number that we’re willing to spend” is exactly the problem. There is a substantial segment of the population that is not willing to spend anything, believing instead in private sector money fairies and they are the ones the politicians appear to be listening to. At this point, we are so far behind in building our transit infrastructure, that even if Transit City were converted to subways (pipe-dream territory) it wouldn’t solve our long-term or even present needs either.

      • These are no private sector fairies. Vancouver’s Canada Line was built with private financing, and kept construction costs under control. They tunneled 10 kms, and elevated the other 10 kms of transit line for only $2 billion. Why can’t we do the same here?

  2. Your characterization of the St. Clair streetcar right-of-way as being $60 million over budget is incorrect. The ROW project came in at $65 million, which was just over its budget of $62 million for a unit cost of approximately $10 million/km. The additional $60 million was spent on future-budgeted work that was unrelated to the transit project, but made sense to do at the same time as the road was dug up. In addition, the single largest source of construction delay on St. Clair was caused by the legal action undertaken by the SOS group to try and stop the project. They lost, but chose to blame the resulting substantial construction delays on the TTC since it suited their purpose. Not that the construction process was perfect by any stretch, but it was not the disaster that it has been painted. These convenient lies continue to be propagated by the pro-subway crowd as part of their “war on the streetcar.”

    My advice to you, when you are quoting construction cost figures, is to ensure that you are comparing apples to apples. Construction projects are often difficult to compare because cost estimates do not always include the same elements. Sometimes a higher cost is warranted if you want more work done. For example, one reason that costs of the Transit City lines are estimated to be higher than St. Clair, is because they include vehicle fleet costs, a portion of a new vehicle maintenance yard, and they require some property acquisition and road widening, none of which applied to St. Clair. If you are going to make conclusions based on cost comparisons, then you need to be clear that your comparisons are valid to start with.

    • If you want to compare apples to apples then why Vancouver’s Canada Line is at least 50% more cost effective than Toronto’s Eglinton Crosstown line?

      I’ve been asking for a detailed breakdown of the Crosstown to Metrolinx, and so far, I’ve got nothing from them.

      • Canada Line was built very much on the cheap (anybody who has used it can attest to this). The trains use a single tunnel leading to very small platforms and trains.

        Secondly, they were able to dig up entire stretches of road for the construction of underground Canada Line. This is simply not an option for an artery like Eglinton, so they will be using the more expensive tunneling methods.

        Thirdly, the Canada Line is being financed by SNC-Lavalin. The terms of the contract mean that Translink will be paying them for this over the next 30 years, in what will amount to billions of dollars. This might be a worthwhile plan, but it doesn’t make it cheaper, it just defers the payments into the future.

      • On the cheap? Are the structures falling apart? Is the system plagued by interruptions? The platforms and trains are comparable to Eglinton Crosstwon line.

        Tunnel boring is not necessarily more expensive than cut-and-cover. Cut-and-cover can require a lot more labour and machinery, and it is slower.

        TransLink will be paying SNC-Lavalin during the operation of the line, so it is not considered as capital cost.

      • The Canada Line has its own problems, as kettal has noted. The size of the stations was reduced to save money, with the result that the line is already operating at its capacity with little option available to accommodate future growth. The cut-and-cover method used along Cambie was quite a bit cheaper than the tunnelling option, which had been promised to the businesses along Cambie as a condition of approval. When costs began to get out of hand, the P3 went to City Council and got them to agree to the more disruptive cut-and-cover method, which tied up Cambie and impacted businesses there for years, much as the St. Clair critics blame the TTC for doing to them. While there is much to admire about the Canada Line, let’s not be blind to its faults.

        I am not claiming that Metrolinx’s costs for the LRT should not be questioned. And I will point out to you that the LRT lines, including Eglinton, will be contracted out to a P3, the only difference being that TTC will be the operator (but not the maintainer). So we will see how much cheaper the private partner can do it in Toronto.

        One issue with public-sector contracts is that decisions to add to costs can be made as the design work proceeds for changes that accommodate public sector objectives, but may not add to the “bottom line” of the project. For example, the public agency may decide an escalator at a station’s secondary entrance is worth the cost because of the convenience and accessibility it provides. A private partner would look at it from the perspective of how much more revenue will that escalator bring in and may decide to leave it out. It’s a two-sided coin –the public approach can produce some good qualitative results which don’t lend themselves to a strict profit/loss assessment, but scope creep becomes a real problem without the rigour of the “bottom line” to rein things in.

      • Indeed, and it turns out that the three dozen Latin American labourers imported to build some of the Canada Line were paid $3.57 an hour. Perhaps we as a respect-for-taxpayer=at-all-cost society are happy to condone this, but I for one am not.

  3. A few points I’d like to make regarding your price comparison of subway costs per km.

    The first is you fail to account for inflation and land appropriation costs. Land is much more expensive now than when Sheppard was built, especially downtown.

    Secondly, both the Downtown Relief Line and Yonge extension would feature more stations in closer proximity to each other than found on the Sheppard line. So more stations per km would result in a higher cost per km when you average out the total cost of the line.

    I agree that Metrolinx/TTC should explore all financing options to ensure cost overruns are borne by the contractor and not the public agent, however, rational cost comparisons are necessary to ensure the credibility of your argument. Simply saying x costs y but w is projected to cost z, and then offering a prayer that the private sector will solve all our problems is disingenuous.

    • Andre,
      Both the text and the graph on my commentary mention that the Sheppard subway cost is at today’s (2013) dollars, which is about 20% more since it opened.

      With respect to the land appropriation costs, it is true that Downtown land is more expensive than Sheppard land. However, Sheppard land is also more expensive than the land for the Yonge extension. On the other hand, Vancouver’s Canada Line runs through some of the most expensive land in Canada.

      Also, the Yonge extension is about the same length as Sheppard subway, and the same number of new stations (remember that they had to build a station under the previous Sheppard station).

      I’m not offering prayers. My point is that without private sector financing, we will not get affordable transit, since solely publicly-financed projects get costs, too much, out of control.

  4. The reason why Sheppard & Finch projects are so much more expensive than St Clair:

    The main expense in these projects is the WIDENING of the road, not the tracks themselves. Land along the sides of Finch will have to be purchased (at today’s high land prices) to make the road wider. This also means that there will be hardly any of the lane reductions you have insinuated.

    The costs also include the cost of new vehicles which was not a factor in the St Clair design.

    • There is not too much land purchasing to be made on Sheppard, since any road widening will be done, pretty much, over public land.

      There will be lane reductions, since they will remove the 5th middle lane where it is present today. Besides, my comment above also mentions: “left-turn restrictions, and/or traffic signal preferences for LRT trains”, which will also have negative effects on the traffic.

      Sure, the St. Clair costs don’t include a new fleet, nor a storage/maintenance yard, but that still makes Metrolinx budgets overpriced.

      • Signal priority for the LRT will have limited impact on traffic. Don’t forget, buses will no longer be stopping in curb lanes and blocking traffic. Left-turn restrictions will have some impact on unsignalized cross streets and driveways which are not high volume, but again, the impact is negated by the fact that those left turns won’t be blocking traffic on the main road anymore. The overall impact will be negligible, assuming that they don’t implement that silly “michigan left” scheme.

        You also are rather dismissive of the costs associated with vehicles and maintenance yards. These are not small costs and they add substantially to the totals for the lines. Vehicles are in the millions each, property is needed to build the maintenance yards, and design and construction of them are major projects by themselves.

      • Current left turns on Sheppard are almost exclusively done on dedicated left-turn lanes at intersections, or on the 5th middle-lane, where available. The new LRT track will remove the current left-turn availability of the 5th middle-lane, which will affect the businesses along Sheppard.

        I am not dismissive of the costs of the fleet and the storage yards, however, I believe that they can be achieved for less than $250 million. If you add the 1 km of tunnel ($200 million), and the other 11 or 12 kms of street tracks and stops, you can do the entire Sheppard LRT for $600 million, or less.

        Metrolinx admittedly uses TTCs construction estimates, which, historically, have always been, at least, 30% over-budget. Therefore, it is easy to understand why Metrolinx ends up producing these overpriced estimates.

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