The TTC is recommending shutting down the Scarborough RT in 2023, a decision that would leave residents in Toronto’s east end taking slower, less reliable buses for nearly a decade.
In a detailed report that follows a decade of bitter political disputes about Scarborough transit, the TTC board outlines options for maintaining or replacing the aging SRT until the province completes its promised three-stop subway extension. Transit staff determined the only palatable options will require running bus replacement service starting in 2023. That’s seven years before the scheduled completion date of the subway in 2030 — if the yet-to-be fully-funded line is finished on time.
While staff considered overhauling the 35-year-old SRT to further extend its life, the report recommends against it, concluding that even at an estimated cost of $522.4 million, another repair program wouldn’t guarantee the line would stay reliable until the end of the decade.
The report recommends the TTC explore two other, less expensive options, both involving closing the SRT in 2023 and deploying bus service that would result in longer travel times than riders have now. If the board approves the recommendations at its Feb. 10 meeting, staff will come back in the third quarter of this year with their final recommendation.
The report undermines a key argument of council members and others who have spent years pushing for the subway. They argued that building an underground line would allow the SRT to continue operating until the subway opened, while the alternative of building a Scarborough LRT would require the RT to be decommissioned first. Under previous proposals, that LRT would have been completed by now.
Coun. Paul Ainslie (Ward 24, Scarborough Guildwood) said the new TTC report proves Scarborough transit users were “sold a bill of goods” by politicians who assured them “the SRT will shut down and you’ll get on a subway line the next day.”
“Now they’re looking at at least seven years of riding buses,” he said.
Ainslie, who has supported the LRT option, warned that if the province falls behind schedule building the $5.5-billion subway, riders will be stuck on buses for even longer.
“I think that’s the key word, ‘hopefully,’” he said. “At the end of the seven years, hopefully we get a subway line.”
The TTC opened the six-stop SRT in 1985. The service uses trains smaller than TTC subways operating on tracks running elevated or at-grade between Kennedy station on Line 2 and McCowan Road, east of the Scarborough Town Centre. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the line carried about 35,000 people per day. Its vehicles were originally designed to last until 2010.
If the line is shut down in 2023, both options the TTC is recommending for replacement service would require 60 additional buses by 2030.
Under one proposal, the TTC would buy more buses and start deploying them by 2023 at a total cost of $374.8 million.
An alternative option would be slightly cheaper at $357.4 million, and involve the TTC initially using its existing fleet to provide the replacement service. That would require eating into the available spare buses the agency maintains until 2027, when the TTC would purchase new buses to deploy until the subway opens in 2030.
Dipping into the pool of spare buses in the early years of the plan would mean there would be fewer vehicles available in the event of breakdowns or service disruptions, raising the risk of less reliable service throughout the TTC network.
Considering funds already available, the city would need to find either $127.3 million or $109.8 million to finance bus options.
Under either option, the SRT would be replaced by extending eight major bus routes that currently terminate at Scarborough Centre to have them operate as express lines to Kennedy station.
As a result, Scarborough transit users’ travel times would increase. The current trip for SRT riders between Scarborough Centre Station and Kennedy is 10 minutes, the report notes. On the bus it will take an estimated 15 to 18 minutes, increasing commute times by 50 to 80 per cent. Because buses operate in mixed traffic, they would also be less reliable than the SRT, and there would be greater variability in travel times.
The TTC predicts that as a result of the inferior bus service, transit use on the SRT corridor would decrease in 2023.
The SRT has already been overhauled twice with ongoing maintenance needed to keep the trains running — although service delays have been frequent, the report notes, and will continue.
In 2016, when councillors approved a one-stop subway plan pushed by Mayor John Tory, they were told the TTC had plans to maintain the SRT until 2026, when the initial subway plan was scheduled to be completed.
Detailed reports assessing the line’s lifespan were not made available. The Star requested those records through a freedom of information request, with much of the records kept secret. An appeal on that decision made by the Star in 2018 has yet to be decided.
In 2019, the province took over new transit projects in Toronto and switched back to a three-stop subway option, which pushed completion back four years to 2030.
A spokesperson for Ontario Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney didn’t directly address questions Thursday about whether forcing Scarborough residents onto buses for seven years was an acceptable outcome of the province’s transit plans.
“Getting the Scarborough Subway Extension built as quickly as possible for the people of Scarborough is a top priority,” said Natasha Tremblay in a written statement.
She said the province has passed legislation intended to speed up the construction of transit projects, and the provincial transit agency Metrolinx “continues to have discussions with the City of Toronto and TTC to ensure Scarborough riders continue to have reliable access to public transit.”
Although the TTC report said the city agency is working with the province to secure the funding required to operate bus replacement service, Tremblay made no commitment that Queen’s Park would cover the cost.
It’s unclear exactly how long the TTC has known the SRT could not continue as-is beyond 2023. The Thursday report had been expected at November’s board meeting. There was no public explanation for the delay.
TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said the agency launched an engineering review of the SRT in late 2019, after the province announced the 2030 completion date for the three-stop subway extension. By the end of 2019 or early 2020 “we determined replacement was likely to be needed,” he said, but it took longer to complete the more thorough analysis reflected in the report.
In December, Coun. Josh Matlow (Ward 12, Toronto-St. Paul’s) moved a motion asking that council request the province return to the LRT plan to avoid future bus commutes. It lost in an 8 to 15 vote.
On Thursday, Matlow said the city and province’s pursuit of the Scarborough subway extension has created a “complete fiasco.”
“Scarborough residents have been lied to by their leaders, over and over again,” said Matlow, who has long been a vocal critic of the subway proposal.
“What’s happened is that Scarborough residents have been left with a transit plan that provides less service, is far more expensive than the original LRT plan, and will leave people on a longer commute on the bus for several years.”
He said he intended to move another motion, seconded by Ainslie, at city council on Friday to revive the LRT project.
Tory earlier told reporters he knew the SRT would not be able to run until the province’s subway was completed.
He said Thursday those comments were not based on knowledge of a specific shutdown date, but on “common sense” the lifespan of the line could not stretch to the new 2030 date.
“I’m not sure I knew the date until I read the report that’s been published today as to exactly when the TTC was going to finally take it out of service,” he said.
Tory told the Star he believed the bus replacement service will be “at a very high standard” and when asked about the increased travel times vowed “help is on the way” with a subway that has not yet started construction.
He said if transit plans hadn’t changed things might have been different. Based on the TTC report, under Tory’s previous one-stop subway plan riders would be facing at least a three-year bus commute.
The seven-stop LRT alternative favoured by Matlow, Ainslie and others was originally scheduled to be completed in 2020 before council scrapped that plan in 2013 under former mayor Rob Ford for a costlier three-stop subway that would serve fewer people. Council agreed to increase the property taxes of all Toronto homeowners to raise nearly $1 billion to help pay for the difference.
According to a TTC briefing note published in 2016, it would take 3.5 to five years to build an LRT, which would run in the same corridor as the SRT, instead. That would mean getting Scarborough commuters back on rapid transit at least two years earlier if construction could begin imminently.
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