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The city council just defeated an effort to build subways out of the city. What's next?

It was an $8.4 billion question that had simmered all year, but finally boiled over this week at Toronto City Hall during a no-holds-barred debate that may well determine the future of city's transit expansion.*

For years, Toronto struggled to modernize and expand its transit system, which now carries about 500 million riders annually, making the Toronto Transit Commission one of North America’s most heavily used networks. In 2007, the city’s former mayor David Miller and the Ontario government did a multi-billion dollar deal that would see the construction of an extensive light-rail network serving the city’s post-war suburbs.

But the current mayor, Rob Ford, ran on a subway-building platform in 2010. He vowed to kill Miller’s LRT plan because, he told voters, it would take up valuable road space and exacerbate traffic congestion. Upon taking office, Ford declared that Miller’s LRT strategy was "dead."

Instead, he negotiated a non-binding agreement with the provincial government to build a buried LRT extending for 19 km beneath Eglinton Avenue, one of Toronto’s main thoroughfares, at a cost of $8.4 billion. He also pledged to construct a subway on another suburban arterial, Sheppard Avenue, to be funded mainly with private investment, development charges and tax increment financing.

The wrinkle in Ford’s plan was that it needed city council’s approval. But a growing number of his political critics, as well as many local transit experts, felt that neither project was viable. No other LRT, considered Canada’s largest infrastructure project, operates below grade over such a long distance. As for the subway, a KPMG study predicted budget shortfalls of up to $1 billion, even after accounting for revenues from development-related sources.

Intense controversy over major transit plans is hardly unique to Toronto. The Atlantic Cites contributor Yonah Freemark, who curates The Transport Politic, has a generous selection of recent examples on his blog, among them: the dispute over whether to extend the Washington Metro’s Silver line all the way to Dulles International; the ongoing fights over high-speed rail in California and the U.K.; and the running battle over a downtown light-rail line for Detroit. In Los Angeles a few years back, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in his drive to secure long-term funding for a massive rapid transit network, had to stare down an outspoken citizens coalition that argued the projects would suck resources out of the city’s bus fleet.

In Toronto, the debate pivoted around a question that now confounds many large cities: how to deliver higher-order, cost-effective transit in low density suburbs: with subways or LRTs? The Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank, analyzed the competing plans and concluded that a network of LRTs on the proposed thoroughfares would serve 120,000 more residents and cost about 30 percent less to build than digging tunnels for a subway line and a buried LRT.

But Ford and others on the pro-subway side argued that large swaths of suburban Toronto, especially in the former borough of Scarborough, have had to make do with decades of bus service but very little in the way of rapid transit.

Earlier this week, Councillor Karen Stintz, who serves as the TTC chair and generally supports the mayor’s agenda, forced a vote to decide between the two configurations. During an intense council debate that lasted from 9am to 7:30 pm, Stintz argued that it doesn’t make fiscal sense to bury LRT lines, at considerable expense, in areas where they can run on the surface in their own right-of-way. The savings, she stressed, could be used to deliver LRT service elsewhere in the city’s first ring suburbs.

In the end, council supported Stintz, handing Ford a huge defeat that seriously undermines his ability to deliver a key campaign pledge. (The final call ultimately rests with the provincial government that put up the funding.) But the decision reflects the experience of a growing number of international cities that have discovered it is ultimately more cost-effective to build LRT (or bus rapid transit) in lower-density areas on the urban periphery.

Photo credit: Mark Blinch/Reuters

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the timing of the Toronto Hall City meeting.

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