Sarah Thomson’s Transit Plans

As I have found some time in my busy (ha!) schedule, I will now turn some of my attention to discussing Sarah Thomson’s transit plans in her mayoral platform. Much like I have done with Rocco Rossi’s and Rob Ford’s, I will look at the plans and state what I think of them.

Unfortunately, Sarah Thomson’s transit plans do not come with a video I can watch and comment on. On the flip side, her transit plans are the most succinct, which will make commenting on them fairly straightforward.

The first thing I have to say about Thomson’s plans is that they include a Downtown Relief Line. This is something I support, as the core needs improved subway coverage long before the outer 416 does. However, Thomson does lose me when she also promotes extending the ill-conceived Sheppard S(t)ubway from DON MILLS to SCARBOROUGH CENTRE. The S(t)ubway was a mistake when it was built and we mustn’t compound it by throwing good money after bad. Transit City’s Sheppard East LRT will provide the necessary capacity for this corridor at a substantially reduced price tag when compared to a subway.

Another positive I see on Thomson’s subway map is stopping any extensions on the Y-U-S at Steeles Ave. This I completely support, as it’s the Toronto Transit Commission, not the Greater Toronto Transit Commission. Sadly Thomson’s desire to see the subway not enter the 905 is not possible; but that’s another story.

Now, on to my strong criticism. Again, another mayoral candidate is opposed to Transit City and will attempt to cancel it. Again, another mayoral candidate refers to the Transit City lines as streetcars. Again, it bears repeating, streetcars are not LRT. The differences are many. If you don’t know the difference, learn the difference. On the plus side, at least Thomson does refer to the lines themselves as ‘light rail lines,’ so it seems she is only ignorant of the vehicle types.

Actually, before I continue with my criticism, I must say I am impressed that Thomson does not explicitly state that streetcars (or LRT) create congestion. She does imply it when she says, “. . . called ‘Transit City’ involves adding streetcars and building light rail lines on our already congested streets,” but she is not blaming streetcars/LRT for congestion.

With larger capacity and faster transit times, a subway system can bring in much higher revenues.” But this increased revenue must be balanced against increased capital costs (to build the tunnels and stations and buy the trains) and increased operating costs (to staff the stations and run the trains) and increased maintenance costs (e.g. currently the Y-U-S is shut down at midnight to allow for tunnel maintenance to be performed). The benefits of a subway system are outweighed by these drawbacks. Plus, there is the issue of what you can build for the money you wish to reallocate from Transit City. You get much better cross-town transit coverage for the cost of Transit City than you would get from taking that money and using it to pay for subways.

The above having been said, Thomson does propose road tolls to help pay for new subways. She also proposes working with the private sector to build density around subway stations. This is also in addition to a subway bond. Now that’s a novel, yet underused, idea. A subway bond. We’ve had war bonds and we have Canada Savings Bonds; why can’t we do a subway bond? I, for one, would be willing to buy bonds (provided the interest rate is high enough) to pay for better transit investments.

As for the road tolls, I am not necessarily opposed to them. But I challenge the numbers Thomson says the tolls could provide. Plus there are other attendant issues with road tolls, such as those people who don’t want to pay will naturally drive through residential areas, making them unsafe for pedestrians and children. And working with the private sector? It could work, but again I challenge how much money that could raise. The goal of the private sector is to turn a profit. The private sector will try to get as many concessions as it can to reduce its costs before it shells out any money to help the public sector.

Funds from these tolls will go directly to the expansion of our subway system and a sunset clause put in place so that the funds have to be directly solely to subway expansion and can not be used for anything else. The tolls will come off once our subway expansion is complete.” It is integral the funds be limited to what they were enacted to pay for. As for them coming off once expansion is complete, I say that would be stupid. Two reasons: (a) it’s unlikely a revenue stream will ever be cut off once it’s been opened; and (b) why not keep the tolls to fund subway maintenance once expansion is complete? I mean, you have to pay for the operation of the subways, so why not use a revenue source you already have set up for subway-related uses.

Getting back to discussing with the Province about reallocating the funds for Transit City to build subways. I don’t have any confidence that would be possible. I have a strong suspicion (which I stated in my Rob Ford critique) that the contracts have been signed for the LRVs to be used on the Transit City routes. Breaking those contracts would not come cheap. And then there’s the issue of all the money already spent on designing the routes. And land acquisition to build the routes and house the LRVs.

Overall, I feel Sarah Thomson’s transit plan is the best of the three I have critiqued thus far. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much. Yes, her subway expansion includes a DRL. But at the same time she is planning to eliminate Transit City. And her funding sources, I feel, are not sufficient. As for her budgeted values as to the cost of her plans, the DRL by itself will likely cost more than 4 $ billion. And that’s if construction began today. In my opinion, it’s best to adopt a hybrid approach, with a DRL and Transit City built concurrently.

Up next? Either George Smitherman or Joe Pantalone.