The Scarborough RT is beyond the end of its life expectancy. After years of arguing, local officials are ready to replace it. Robert Taylor/Flickr

The politics behind why a fully-funded light rail line is being rejected in favor of a limited and more expensive one.

After years of fractious, divisive, and sometimes farcical back-and-forth, Toronto is going to extend its subway system.

Toronto’s city council voted 28-15 last week to finally reject a fully-funded light rail line (LRT) in favor of a more costly, one-stop subway extension.

Both would have run from the present eastern terminus of the subway system to the centre of Scarborough, a formerly independent city that amalgamated with Toronto in 1998. But that's where the similarities between the two proposals end.

The seven-stop LRT—repeatedly decried by the late former mayor Rob Ford as a glorified streetcar in the face of clear evidence to the contrary—would have been funded entirely by higher levels of government and served more people in more neighborhoods for less money.

The 3.7-mile subway extension, on the other hand, eliminates the need for a transfer between trains at the end of the subway line, but it bypasses parts of the city in need of rapid transit. It also costs about $500 million CDN ($384 USD) more than the proposed LRT according to the latest estimates. As currently planned, the subway tunnel will be among the longest in the world without any stops.

(Mark Byrnes/CityLab)

The subway-versus-LRT discussion wasn’t exactly a sober evaluation of the merits of one transit technology over another. Both choices became politically loaded under Rob Ford, who passionately campaigned on delivering the subway extension at practically any cost, despite his otherwise staunch fiscally conservative views.

During his eventful time in office, Ford successfully steered the city council towards a subway, insisting it was what the people of Scarborough wanted and deserved as citizens of a big city.

"I've listened loud and clear to the people of Scarborough," Ford said in July, 2013. "They're not coming up and asking about three stops, seven stops, five stops—they're saying: 'Rob, we want a subway.'"

Last week's city council meeting was the last chance for pro-LRT councillors to steer things back their way. Ultimately, they lacked the votes, and the alignment of the subway was at last confirmed.

From 2013: Then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper (C), along with Finance Minister Jim Flaherty (L) and Rob Ford announce federal funding support of a new Toronto subway system. (REUTERS/Jon Blacker)

So, how did Toronto find itself spending billions of dollars on a single subway stop? First, a little background on transportation in Scarborough.

In 1953, the former township of Scarborough became a founding member of Metropolitan Toronto, a regional, senior level of government with jurisdiction over the City of Toronto and a number of other surrounding municipalities.

Under Metropolitan Toronto (“Metro” for short), Scarborough got its first rapid transit facilities in the 1960s as part of the Bloor-Danforth subway. Though the line eventually included three stops within Scarborough's borders, it didn't penetrate far into the vast, 72-square mile Scarborough interior.

Because of its origin as a collection of small, sometimes disparate farm towns, the city always lacked a definite center. In the late 1960s, it retrofitted itself with an urban core consisting of condominiums, office towers, and a large shopping mall on former farm land close to its geographical heart.

A new rapid transit line bridged the roughly 3-mile gap between the end of the Bloor-Danforth subway and the new Scarborough City Centre in 1985—and that’s roughly when the current fiasco began.

The Scarborough RT (short for “Rapid Transit”) was originally conceived as a streetcar line that would have operated along a mostly private right-of-way and intersected with major streets, similar to a modern LRT line.

The Scarborough RT debuted in 1985. (Adam E. Moreira/Wikimedia Commons)

That plan didn't last long because the Ontario government intervened, insisting the Toronto Transit Commission ditch streetcars in favor of a high-tech train technology developed by the provincially-owned Urban Transportation Development Corporation.

Ontario hoped to use the Scarborough RT to show off UTDC's flagship product in the hope of generating sales in other cities. It worked. Detroit purchased the ICTS Mark I for the People Mover; Vancouver bought it for the SkyTrain.

Because the ICTS system required special track, it was unsuitable for level crossings. With the change in technology, the RT had to be entirely separated from intersecting roads, making it closer in spirit to a surface subway than a light rail line when it opened in 1985.

The first sign of trouble came in 1997, when the Ontario government under premier Mike Harris made Toronto wholly responsible for running and expanding its transit system.

The Harris government also killed off the Metropolitan Toronto level of government and merged its constituent parts, including Scarborough, into what is now the City of Toronto in 1998. The hugely unpopular move meant the province was off the hook for replacing the Scarborough RT when it began to show its age.

As it currently exists, the RT runs from the eastern terminus of the Bloor-Danforth subway to Scarborough City Centre — a distance of about four miles. It has six stops, some of them in sparsely populated industrial areas with some of the lowest ridership figures in the city. It's also now beyond the end of its life expectancy.

The line is prone to technical faults, especially in winter, and the semi-autonomous cars urgently need replacing. In 2007, the city announced plans to convert the RT to LRT, extend it north, purchase new trains, and eliminate some of the underused stops.

In 2009, the province agreed to fund construction of the Scarborough LRT, but the proposal became a political football during the 2010 mayoral election, when the conservative candidate Rob Ford campaigned passionately against it.

Once in office, Ford cancelled the LRT and six other light rail lines packaged with it under the banner of Transit City. In its place, the controversial mayor pushed for a nebulous and unfunded subway extension. His rallying cry of "subways, subways, subways!" was repeated so often a local radio station made it into a ringtone.

Ford established enough opposition to LRT technology, especially among Scarborough city councillors, that the possibility of resurrecting the idea became increasingly unlikely as time went on. Eventually, council decided part of the cost of building the subway—about $910 million—would be covered by a 0.5 percent Toronto property tax increase, which was passed under Ford.

Tempted by the promise of a potentially powerful election talking point, the provincial and federal governments also agreed to chip in and cover the remainder of the cost.

Ford's successor, John Tory, likewise campaigned on maintaining the subway proposal, despite an eye-watering and rapidly escalating $3.2 billion price tag.

Trouble is, no one really knows precisely how much the subway will cost. Though Toronto has now committed to the project, the figure is only an estimate, and is likely to rise. The city also has to reimburse the province for money it spent on the LRT proposal before it was nixed.

Tory's passionate subway advocacy might be due, in part, to the fact LRT may have conflicted with his own separate regional express rail plan, dubbed SmartTrack.

Now, transit riders in Scarborough rely heavily on diesel bus routes that mostly connect with the old RT or existing subway infrastructure. It's not clear how the network will look once the subway reduces the number of available stations.

Low ridership is another concern. Projections suggest when it opens some time in the 2020s, about 7,300 people would ride the new section of subway per hour—a figure that barely justifies the use of heavy rail. By comparison, the seven-stop LRT now in the trash would have attracted about 8,000 riders per hour for much less money.

Meanwhile, the downtown sections of the Toronto subway are beyond capacity during rush hour, and riders desperately need an alternative route that will bypass the overcrowded interchanges at Bloor-Yonge and St. George stations. All new traffic on the Scarborough subway extension will feed into the most congested sections of subway.

The solution to this—the so-called Downtown Relief Line—is presently unfunded, although when council approved the Scarborough extension, it gave conditional approval to the route the relief line will likely take should the dollars become available.

In the meantime, the Scarborough RT must lumber on for at least another 10 years while the subway is under construction. So far, council hasn't revealed how that will happen, or with what money.

Municipal and provincial elections are also due before the start of construction, and Toronto has a history of new governments finding a way to scrap the transit plans of its predecessors.

So, yes. Toronto is going to build more subway. Whether or not it's the right move remains to be seen.

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