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Open letter re: subway extension in Scarborough

July 13, 2013

Feel free to copy this open letter to your own city councillor if you agree. E-mail, tweet, post, whatever. I posted this originally in July, but not much has changed since then, except that the Federal government’s promised contribution to the subway project falls very short of the necessary funds, requiring the city to raise property taxes should they adopt the subway extension.

Dear Councillor,

As a resident of your ward, I use the TTC so I can get to work in other places around Toronto. Like many others, I can’t afford a car (and so transit is really the only remaining option, save biking) but, as I’m sure we can agree, the health of our mass transit system is important to everyone in the city, not just those in lower income brackets.

I am deeply concerned by the debate, which reaches the council floor on Tuesday, regarding our city’s commitment to Metrolinx’s Master Agreement plan for building new LRT lines vs. rerouting some of that funding towards a Bloor/Danforth subway line extension to Sheppard Avenue in Scarborough. The RT line currently serving that part of the city is nearing the end of its service life, requiring reductions in speed and capacity to maintain safety — but this is a reality that Toronto council has known about for years (at least since the 2006 TTC report [PDF] on this issue, which incidentally recommended NOT replacing the existing line with a subway). Unfortunately, the sad reality is that we have failed to meaningfully address the crisis until this past year, and even now the tired divisiveness in provincial and city politics has seemingly usurped the debate, taking attention away from the real options that present themselves.

Please take my responses to TTC Chair Karen Stintz’s points in favour of canceling the planned Scarborough LRT line (outlined at Councillor Stintz’s website) into consideration when you vote on this issue. If you compare her assertions to those in the 2006 report, you’ll see there are many unexplained contradictions and assumptions. If we are so sure the new Scarborough subway extension is going to promote more new developments, we have to very carefully consider the impact of a costly thirty-year loan. We are essentially saying that the extra money it will cost to scrap the above-grade LRT and extend the subway is worth this investment; that it will PAY ITSELF BACK in thirty years because people love subways so much. That is a huge gamble.

There’s no doubt that our existing subway lines are the most reliable form of mass transit we currently have, but as recent experiences with signal breakdowns due to power outages proved, the system is not impervious. The heart of our subway system is also dangerously close to overload at peak hours, with no room to spare for adding more riders. Other cities’ examples show that surface transit (particularly grade-separated LRT) is in many cases just as functional, and far cheaper. Building it makes good sense, where it serves the needs of riders — and that is exactly what the Metrolinx LRT lines are intended to do. This debate over which form of transit should be built is a serious matter, not least because of the message that canceling a fully funded LRT line, without a very good reason, sends: namely, that Toronto is alarmingly frivolous with its use of Provincial and Federal money for new transit projects.

What necessitates Scarborough’s so-called “need” for a seamless subway ride (as opposed to a much-improved subway-level transfer to LRT), given that it will cost so much more for all Toronto citizens, including many who will probably never use it? How is such an outlandish expenditure to meet this need “justifiable”, other than it sounding better to Scarborough commuters who will vote for politicians that make election promises about it?

We have a plan for LRT replacement. Let’s commit to that plan, and stick with it to completion. Let’s not venture on an unfunded subway gamble to satisfy some questionable political whims, especially when it will cost us all (at the very least) hundreds of millions, and possibly billions more dollars if adequate Federal or Provincial funding is not forthcoming.

The conversion to LRT may prove to be drawn-out and inconvenient for current SRT riders, but how can we guarantee that building a subway extension instead will be better in these respects? The SRT vehicles may break down even more in the time that it takes for a subway to be built, to say nothing of the potential disruption for Scarborough residents who are not using the SRT but whose lives and businesses would be impacted by subway construction. If we cancel the LRT and struggle to come up with subway funding, the SRT may reach the end of its life without ever being adequately replaced, and Scarborough cannot afford to face that grim possibility.

The received political wisdom that “everyone wants subways” more than any other form of transit is just incorrect. LRT is the right choice for replacing the SRT right now, and that is what you should vote for on Tuesday.

Sincerely,

(Return Address redacted)

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