Why Doug Ford's subway 'upload' could be Toronto's most contentious city hall story of 2019

There was a time when Toronto city council might have seen the Ontario provincial government’s desire to get more involved in the city’s transit system as a gift. But Premier Doug Ford's plan to upload the TTC subway isn't a present, Matt Elliott writes.

Transit improvements could be on hold as province and city figure out what 'uploading' means

Ontario Premier Doug Ford's plan to 'upload' the TTC has been met with criticism at Toronto city hall, largely driven by a lack of certainty, Matt Elliott writes. (CBC)

There was a time when Mayor John Tory and Toronto city council might have seen the Ontario provincial government's desire to get more involved in the funding of the city's transit system as a gift.

After years of requesting more support and funding for the city's jam-packed and too-often-delayed Toronto Transit Commission: hark, a saviour! A Christmas miracle, even. 

But there's been little holiday cheer at city hall this year over Premier Doug Ford's desire to bring the TTC's subway system under provincial ownership.

At their final meeting before the Christmas break, Tory and councillors voted 23-2 to reaffirm their desire to keep the entire TTC — subways and all — while also requesting that the province "demonstrate clearly and with evidence" why exactly they're so intent on taking the subways.

The city clearly doesn't see Ford's move as a gift. Instead, the subway upload has been received more like the opening salvo in a political fight, and the coming negotiations over the fate of the subway system look to be one of the most contentious and complex Toronto city hall stories of 2019.

Why? Well, to start with, both sides have yet to agree on the definition of words.

First step toward uploading is defining the word 'uploading'

At their meeting on Dec. 13, as councillors started peppering him with questions about the specifics of what it would look like if the province uploaded the subway system, TTC CEO Rick Leary took a moment to explain he doesn't know anything.

"The TTC has not had direct negotiations or discussion regarding 'what is uploading?' And that's really the question we have at this time — what it is and what it is not," he said.

There are some potential benefits to Queen's Park taking over the subway system. For example, the province has more ways to raise money to build than the city does. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Just as it's important to define words like "space" before engaging in space travel, "uploading" does indeed seem to be an important word to define when making preparations to upload a subway system.

But the specifics so far are very lacking and that makes it challenging to evaluate the provincial government's plans and the road ahead over the first few months of 2019.

The upside to an upload

The most obvious benefit to the province taking ownership of the TTC subways is probably the nerdy accounting stuff. With no obligation to avoid annual deficits and far more taxation powers, the provincial government has far more flexibility to raise money.

And if Queen's Park were to own the transit infrastructure they're funding, the value of that infrastructure would appear on the government's books to offset some of their transit-related debt.

That could make transit dollars easier to find. It could unlock funds to accelerate the implementation of things like platform edge doors, automatic train control, enhancements to make stations fully accessible and other reliability improvements. No longer would the TTC be struggling to extract money primarily from city property taxes and fares.

Vague plan makes for vague risks

The downsides are harder to identify with so much left undefined.

The biggest potential red flag? The province has not made much mention of improving the reliability of the subway system as a reason for their desire to take control. Instead, the premier and Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek have talked almost exclusively about how this will be great for enabling expansion.

Ford has floated a number of ideas, including:

  • A subway extension to Pickering, Ont., and Markham, Ont.
  • Extending the Sheppard subway.
  • Adding two more stops to the controversial Scarborough subway extension, which is currently set to add just one new stop.
  • And during his 2014 Toronto mayoral bid, Ford pitched a subway line along Finch Avenue.

Basically: imagine a mostly-suburban area somewhere in the GTA. Odds are the premier would like a subway there.

Giving the province exclusive and unfettered powers to plan and build these kinds of suburban extensions could shift transit dollars away from maintenance or much-needed investments in projects like the relief line subway or more buses and streetcars. And depending on the deal hammered out between the province and the city, City Hall and the TTC may end up on the hook for operational costs related to subway extensions they neither approved nor endorsed.

For riders, ownership is irrelevant — investment matters

As the Scarborough RT continues to age, there's increasing pressure to replace the line. The city is currently working on a one-stop subway extension to Scarborough Town Centre, although Ford has said that line should have three stops. (John Rieti/CBC)

Most transit riders are never going to care which level of government owns the subway trains they ride, so long as those trains get them where they need to go. Transit riders have never stood shoulder-to-shoulder on a crowded subway platform and thought, "gee, I wish we had a different governance model for transit."

Transit riders tend to just want improved service.

But with lingering tension between Premier Doug Ford and Toronto council and so many details — and words — left undefined, it's not clear yet how this process might translate to better service, or if it will truly be a precursor to sustained government investment in transit. If you're dreaming of better subway service in the new year, expect delays. The fight over uploading will come first.

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