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Double the cost should buy us some explanations

April 13, 2009

What’s $2-billion between friends?

It seems no one at the TTC or Metrolinx - the province’s regional transportation planning body - will explain why the cost of Toronto’s proposed Eglinton light-rail line has more than doubled.

The 32.5-kilometre line, with a 10-kilometre tunnel from around Leslie Street in the east to Keele in the west, was originally estimated at $2.2-billion when the TTC unveiled it in 2007.

On April Fool’s Day, with a smiling Mayor David Miller clapping vigorously as Premier Dalton McGuinty pledged $9-billion for Toronto-area public transit, the centrepiece Eglinton line’s cost had jumped to $4.6-billion. Delirious with the job-creating, pollution-killing transit investment, no one seemed to notice.

Admittedly, cost estimates for transit projects are notoriously slippery. Inflation and the cost of a carhouse to store the new light-rail vehicles are partly to blame for the rising bill. (The overall estimate for the mayor’s 122-kilometre Transit City light-rail plan has risen from $6-billion to $10-billion.) But the steep rise for the Eglinton price tag - and the mysterious vagueness that questions about it have prompted - suggests the TTC remains locked in a dispute with Metrolinx over what the Eglinton line will look like.

Last summer, a behind-the-scenes battle erupted as Metrolinx, then drafting its $50-billion 25-year transportation plan, tried to scrap the TTC’s partially tunnelled light-rail proposal in favour of using the latest version of the Scarborough RT vehicles.

TTC officials said the faster, higher-capacity line, was unnecessary, and warned it would cost two to three times as much. At the time, Metrolinx chairman Rob MacIsaac ridiculed the TTC’s concept as too slow, saying anyone taking it to the airport “better pack a picnic lunch.”

One TTC source said at the time the province would never go along with the more expensive Metrolinx plans: “They’re not prepared for a collision. They’re not prepared to have a whole plan go down in flames over a fight.”

Since the Premier’s announcement, no one at the TTC has been willing to spell out why the price tag has gone up, saying the province was relying on a Metrolinx estimate. Mr. Miller told reporters last week the original TTC estimates did not include vehicles, which contradicts what the TTC said at the time.

Senior Metrolinx official John Howe said he could not explain the math behind the $4.6-billion number, but said TTC and Metrolinx officials were still analyzing various scenarios for the line.

He said everything, including what vehicles would be used, whether the line would be tunnelled, run in a trench or at grade was still under discussion. (Scarborough RT cars, like subway cars, have an electrified third-rail, and cannot safely be run in the middle of a road without barriers.) The spacing of the stations - farther apart means a faster ride, but closer together means a better transit line for local users - is also undecided.

Clearly, Metrolinx - set up with a suburban bias to solve the Toronto region’s transit woes - wants Eglinton to be a regional transit line that whisks you from Pearson Airport all the way to Scarborough and perhaps beyond. The TTC sees it instead as relief for Torontonians tired of waiting in traffic in packed buses along Eglinton.

A report from TTC and Metrolinx engineers due in a few months could tell us the winner - if the Premier, who is after all putting up the $4.6-billion, hasn’t decided already.