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Expropriation for Scarborough subway extension an unnecessary evil

A common test of whether a proposed expropriation is legitimate is whether it is “fair, sound, and reasonably necessary.” Expropriations for the Scarborough extension fail all three tests.

By Elizabeth Brubaker for Environment Probe

In May, the Toronto Transit Commission sent letters to 34 homeowners and businesses, informing them that it might expropriate their properties in order to extend the Bloor-Danforth subway line to Scarborough Centre.

Councillor Josh Colle, chair of the TTC, shrugged off concerns about expropriation with a lame defence: Building transit is “messy.” Mayor John Tory adopted a similar tone, calling expropriation “an unfortunate reality.” In other words, expropriation is a necessary evil.

But the mayor and the councillor were wrong: In this case, expropriation is an unnecessary evil. A common test of whether a proposed expropriation is legitimate is whether it is “fair, sound, and reasonably necessary.” Expropriations for the Scarborough extension fail all three tests.

Unnecessary

The extension is unnecessary. The TTC’s latest ridership figures suggest that the trains on the new track would be less than one-quarter full. The Bloor-Danforth subway currently handles about 26,000 passengers per hour travelling in one direction during rush hour. With improved signalling, that figure could rise to 33,000 passengers per hour. But the TTC is expecting just 7,300 passengers per hour travelling in one direction on the Scarborough extension during the morning rush hour. (This figure is down from earlier projections of 11,100 passengers per hour.) In other words, more than three-quarters of the new subway’s capacity would be wasted at peak travel times. At other times, even more of the capacity would be unused.

The City and the TTC have tried to justify the extension on the grounds that it “is a critical part of relieving regional congestion.” But there is a better way to relieve congestion – one that is both less expensive and less disruptive. As Consumer Policy Institute has demonstrated, reforming pricing – by increasing fares during the busiest travel times or decreasing fares at other times – would encourage people to travel when the system is less busy.

Unsound

An extension that carried so few passengers would be economically unsound – especially since its costs are ballooning. The project increasingly looks like an economic black hole. Projected costs have jumped by about a billion dollars in recent months, in part because the TTC is learning that the extension will require deeper tunnels and more concrete than initially expected. Last week, the Toronto Star pointed out that the $3.2 billion cost estimate was likely to rise, since it was based on a work schedule that was no longer achievable. And indeed, just this morning, cost estimates rose by another $200 million.

Whatever the final cost, the underused subway couldn’t be supported by fares alone. If the project goes ahead, transit riders can look forward to fare hikes, taxpayers to tax increases, the city to more debt … and all can look forward to having less money available for infrastructure improvements that are actually needed.

The proposed extension is, to quote the Globe and Mail, “indefensible.” As the paper explained, “A city with crushing transit problems cannot afford to waste so much money for so little gain.”

Unfair

Of course, cost estimates don’t even pretend to include the human costs of expropriation – the heartbreak of losing a family home and the memories and dreams it holds, or a business that has taken years to build up. Such costs might be justifiable under some circumstances. But it is patently unfair to expropriate for a subway that is both unnecessary and unsound.

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