Toronto

What we know — and don't know — about Doug Ford's plans to upload, expand Toronto's subways

Without a comprehensive public plan, timeline, and cost breakdown, there are more questions than answers, though many elements of the province's priorities and funding plans are becoming clear.

4 major transit projects changing, but questions remain about costs, timelines

Without a comprehensive public plan, timeline, and cost breakdown, there are more questions than answers, though many elements of the province's priorities and funding plans are becoming clear. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

As Premier Doug Ford's provincial government inches closer toward taking over — or "uploading" — Toronto's subway system, figuring out what's happening behind the scenes feels a bit like following a trail of breadcrumbs.

There have been media interviews, council debates, Twitter videos from Ford himself, and this week, two letters from the province offering a window into the sweeping changes envisioned for multiple in-motion transit projects.

Still, without a comprehensive public plan, timeline, and cost breakdown, there are more questions than answers.

So here's what we know — and don't know — about the province's transit shakeup, and what it all means for the city and for transit riders.

What transit projects could change?

On Thursday at Queen's Park, Ford said his government will be putting "tens of billions of dollars" into transit.

And the province's top priorities became clearer with the earlier release of a two-page letter to city manager Chris Murray and TTC CEO Rick Leary from the team working on the so-called "upload."

In that document, Michael Lindsay, the special adviser to cabinet on the project, and Shelley Tapp, deputy minister of transportation, outlined sweeping changes to four projects. 

Scarborough Subway Extension

Green-lit by council as a one-stop subway to replace the aging Scarborough RT, the extension is now expected to cost close to $4 billion, with the official breakdown being released in a report on Tuesday. 

The province, in contrast, wants a three-stop subway instead with stations at roughly Lawrence and Kennedy, Scarborough Town Centre, and McCowan and Sheppard.

Eglinton West Extension

A joint project between the city and provincial transit agency Metrolinx that's still in need of approved funding, the Eglinton West extension would be an above-ground light-rail line, with 10 stops getting the stamp of approval from council in 2017.

But the province wants to shift gears and put a "significant portion" of the line underground.

Relief Line South

The nine-stop subway line stretching from Pape station south to link to Osgoode and Queen stations could open as early as 2029. It's been in the planning stage since 2014, and a new report with the latest cost and schedule details is heading to council in the first quarter of 2020, according to the TTC.

Now, the province is planning to propose "alternate delivery methods," making the south relief line a "free-standing project" and a "unique transit artery."

Yonge Subway Extension 

A new report on cost and schedule details for this pre-construction subway extension — which would stretch seven kilometres from Finch station into Richmond Hill — is also coming down the pipe in 2020.

The province wants to fast-track the project, with "planning and design work" progressing in parallel with that of the relief line.

What's all this mean for the relief line?

In February, Metrolinx officials warned that, in order to avoid more subway crowding, the south portion of the relief line "needs to be in operation" before extending the Yonge line.

"Both the Downtown Relief Line and the Yonge North Extension can be built at the same time," Andrew Buttigieg, a spokesperson for the office of Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek, told CBC Toronto in a statement.

"Our government will work to ensure that this is done in a way that addresses congestion, with the Downtown Relief Line opening first, to move people off of the Yonge Line, freeing up space before the extension opens."

Premier Doug Ford said his government will be putting 'tens of billions of dollars' into transit, and letters from the team behind the subway upload have outlined sweeping changes to four projects. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))

But here's where things shift gears: The province wants to use a different type of transit technology for the relief line than the current subway system. 

"When they showed me the [relief line] plan, my jaw dropped," Ford said at Queen's Park on Thursday. "I thought, wow, this is thinking outside the box."

He didn't elaborate further. But Ford government officials later told CBC Toronto the province wants to be open to the possibility of using "automated train operation" — in other words, driverless trains — on the relief line.

Will transit projects get built cheaper or faster?

"It's going to be on time, on budget, faster, cheaper, and it's going to be better," Ford proclaimed on Thursday. "The best transit system you've ever seen."

He didn't provide specifics on costs or timelines, and already city officials are raising red flags about potential delays and cost overruns.

Speaking in council chambers on Wednesday, TTC Chair Jaye Robinson noted the one-stop Scarborough extension project is 60 per cent complete on the design work with a target opening date of 2026. If the province adds more stops, things could take longer, she warned.

There would also be an increase in cost for three stations over one, according to a Ford government official, who spoke to CBC Toronto on the condition of anonymity to discuss the province's policy in greater detail. That source added, "I don't know it would be significant."

City staff have also noted that shifting portions of the Eglinton West extension underground could cause delays as well, but the official stressed the line would only go below ground on stretches where "there is the most density." It's not clear what that would cost, but Yurek said the answer is forthcoming in the province's plans.

As for relief line costs, the government source who spoke to CBC Toronto didn't reveal a dollar figure either, only saying: "The province's plan would make it happen more affordably and faster." 

While the province focuses on its big four priorities, another question is bubbling, too: what happens to other city transit projects, like the Waterfront LRT, the Eglinton East LRT, and chunks of SmartTrack? 

Will the public get a say?

This week, Yurek told CBC Toronto more details on the plans will be revealed "really soon." So will the public get any chance to weigh in?

Technically, yes. The terms of reference agreed upon between the city and the province stress the need for "meaningful public consultation."

And the latest city report on the talks — which council signed off on Wednesday — outlines options like public meetings, online surveys, and third-party research. Council also backed calls for an information campaign throughout the TTC.

But with the province aiming to introduce legislation as early as spring 2019, the clock is definitely ticking.

What does 'upload' mean, anyway?

At the heart of the province's plan is an "upload" of Toronto's subway network.

In a previous interview with CBC Radio's Metro Morning, Yurek hinted at the framework, saying what the province wants to take over is the planning, building and maintaining of the subways. The TTC would then continue to reap revenue from fares and run the day-to-day operations.

But what that looks like, practically speaking, is hazy, given the complexities of the TTC. For one thing, it's an interconnected system of not just subways, but also streetcars, buses, and Wheel-Trans, with links to other transit systems.

Mayor John Tory maintains the city needs to remain at the table with the Ford government, despite calls from some councillors for the city to abandon those talks amid concerns the proposed subway upload is a bad deal for Toronto. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

It's also facing a funding crunch, needing around $24 billion just to keep functioning as-is without further expansion. 

The Ford government official who spoke to CBC Toronto said the province knows it has to fund the system. "Otherwise we have an asset that has no value," the official said.

And as for cost-sharing, the city wouldn't be entirely off the hook. The official said, while the province would own the lines, the city would still be expected to pay a share.

Can the city do anything to stop it?

Last summer, when the Ford government moved to slash Toronto's council nearly in half, the province argued in court that, well, they had a right to do it.

"Municipalities are creatures of the Legislature," read the province's factum for the Superior Court hearing on the council cuts.

It's the same scene this time around. "The province can legally do what they want," said Coun. Josh Matlow. "But it's not as easy as just announcing a subway takeover."

He's among those arguing the city shouldn't be readily providing information to the province, like details on surface feeder lines and confidential details on land values.

But, as per Tory's stance and council's last vote, the city will continue talks with the Ford government for the foreseeable future.

About the Author

Lauren Pelley is a CBC News reporter based in Toronto. Currently covering how the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting Canadians, in Toronto and beyond. Contact her at: lauren.pelley@cbc.ca

With files from Mike Crawley, CBC News

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