Sewell on City Hall: Tory loses way on one-stop subway

Actual cost of rail project could run 45 per cent over budget


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Image: Wikimedia Commons

How is John Tory doing as mayor of Toronto? He certainly seems like a nice man, personable and well-spoken, but I am more interested in his job performance. 

His recent support for the extension of the subway to Scarborough Town Centre mall is certainly a defining moment. It made very clear how he approaches leadership, both in terms of the issue and the support achieved.

The final position taken by Mr. Tory and endorsed by city council last month was to support a one-stop extension of the subway from the Kennedy station to  Scarborough Town Centre at a cost of some $3.4 billion. That was a considerable step down from his original position of a three-stop extension and then his compromise position of a one-stop extension plus a 17-stop light rail transit (LRT) system along Eglinton to eastern Scarborough.

But it is hardly a solution to transit issues in Scarborough. Many more transit riders in Scarborough would be better served at much less cost by building LRT routes. 

Studies show that a subway will be operating at about one-third of its capacity, it will not be operative for about 10 years, and it will not provide as good service as an LRT, which would cost a lot less and could be up and running in less than half that time.

And the $3.4 billion cost is bound to rise. A recent study on infrastructure projects in Canada by Matti Siemiatycki at the University of Toronto found that on average the actual cost of rail projects runs about 45 per cent over budget. That would put the cost of the one-stop extension at $5 billion.

Why would Mayor Tory decide this was something he should lead on? It probably comes down to the fact that in the last election he promised a subway for Scarborough. Maybe he thought it would bring him votes in the next election. 

His position is clearly not in the public interest. Anyone interested in getting a transit system that serves more people more quickly for the best cost would never support the one-stop subway extension. It seems like a perfect case of a political leader putting a personal interests above the public interest. 

What is surprising is that a majority of city council went along with him in this folly. The decision does provide better transit service for their constituents. But they generally are the same councillors who followed Mr. Tory’s leadership on spending half a billion dollars to keep the eastern portion of the Gardiner expressway standing and making cuts to several social services in the recent budget. This is not progressive, future-thinking leadership.

The leadership the mayor provided on this issue is not what the city needs. It hobbles better transit rather than delivering it. 

There’s another aspect of Mayor Tory’s behavior that is of concern. He seems to be everywhere, all the time, sending out tweets on this or that, having his picture taken at all sorts of minor public events. He’s always in the media. 

Tony, the weight-lifter at the gym I frequent, put it best: “Tory’s like a tow truck driver. He’s everywhere.” 

Being seen everywhere provides the illusion of providing leadership while he is merely passing by. This kind of public exposure is a safe alternative to providing a clear and progressive vision on a select number of files important to the long-term success of the city. 

There is no shortage of such issues: high housing prices, increasing the number of affordable housing units, city planning or improved transit service. 

Mr. Tory clearly is better for the city than the last mayor, the late Rob Ford. But Toronto needs more. 

Looking at what Mr. Tory stands for, it makes one ask the question: how did we get into this mess, and how can we get a mayor who ensures there is leadership on the big public issues?

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Post City Magazines’ columnist John Sewell is a former mayor of Toronto and the author of a number of urban planning books, including The Shape of the Suburbs.

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