These Politicians' Random Maps Are Not Transit Plans

09/04/2014 04:55 EDT | Updated 11/04/2014 05:59 EST

Not to be outdone by others, Mayor Rob Ford released his transit wish list for Toronto that promised to build 32 km of subways for $9 billion. Regrettably, Mr. Ford's proposal is ill-conceived and, if built, is likely to derail public transit in Toronto.

Mr. Ford is the last of the three frontrunners in the mayoral race to release his public transit proposal. Earlier, John Tory proposed "surface subways" that will run express rail service on existing GO track and will cost $9 billion to build. He proposes tax increment financing (TIF) to pay for one-third of the cost and hopes the province and the federal government will pay for the rest. Olivia Chow has proposed more frequent bus service as the centerpiece of her transit plan. Mayor Ford, as expected, is all about subways.

In the name of political expediency, the leading mayoral hopefuls are promising the world to the electorate. At the same time, the electorate is willing to believe in false promises, or in proposals that may take decades to deliver. Toronto needs immediate solutions to traffic congestion. Promises of surface or underground subways will take years, if not decades, before commuters see any relief from traffic congestion.

Mr. Ford wants to lure suburban voters with promises of subways, which are unlikely to generate sufficient ridership to justify the billions in spending. Even when the proposed suburban subway lines are successful in bringing more commuters to the Yonge-University subway line, they will add to the transit woes of millions of commuters who already face severe transit congestion on the north-south transit corridor.

Equally alarming is how Mr. Ford's transit proposal lowballs the cost to build suburban subways. He proposes to build 32-km of new subways with $9 billion. This is naïve, if not deceptive. Consider that the Next Wave projects by Metrolinx estimated the cost of the 13-km downtown relief line to be $7.4 billion. Given the costs associated with similar subway constructions in the recent past, it is next to impossible to build 32-km of subways for merely $9 billion. Mr. Ford should substantiate his claims with research and engineering cost estimates.

For a sophisticated city like Toronto, it is embarrassing to see the leading candidates passing random lines drawn on a map for transit plans. These so-called plans lack research, engineering cost and ridership estimates, and transit revenue forecasts. At best, one could call these plans the transit dreams of mayoral hopefuls. However, given the underestimated costs and overestimated benefits of these proposals, it is likely that the politicians' dream would become taxpayers' nightmare.

It is important to recognize that traffic congestion is the foremost and immediate concern for Toronto and its suburbs. This requires one to explore solutions that may deliver relief sooner than later. Promises of deliverance decades later leave the commuters struggling with traffic congestion for years. Given the nature of involved engineering construction, including tunneling, it would take several years before Mr. Ford's subway plan is completely built. Mr. Tory's surface subway is also likely to take much longer to complete given that it involves multiple jurisdictions and stakeholders. Ms. Chow's proposal to increase bus service has the potential to deliver relief in the short run.

John F. Kain, a professor of transport economics at Harvard University and the author of the quintessential transport planning text, The Urban Transportation Problem, promoted the virtues of buses, which immediately expand passenger-carrying capacity in the congested corridors. Generations of transport planners have learnt the craft by reading the seminal writings of John Kain that have stood the test of time. Ms. Chow's transit proposal meets the Kain test: Buses are relatively inexpensive and operationally flexible to offer relief in the short-run.

The voters and the media should ask the mayoral hopefuls to expand on their transit proposals. They should engage public sector planners and academics to vet their proposals. Random lines on a map do not make a plan for which taxpayers should fork out billions.


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