The province should suspend the bidding process for the Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE).  Existing and future financial  cuts to the TTC, and new social distancing requirements due to COVID-19, call for an urgent rethink of all of Scarborough’s – and Toronto’s – transit plans. Now that we recognize the importance of our “essential workers” and that the majority need to get to places in Scarborough, we can no longer afford a $6-billion, overbuild to downtown, if we ever could.

Touted as a replacement for the Scarborough RT (Line 3), which has already exceeded its design lifetime, the three-stop SSE will travel from Kennedy station to Sheppard East and McCowan.

According to a recently released independent study by the Residential Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario, deep tunneling in subway construction is a major contributor to the ballooning costs of building transit in Toronto. Public delivery of the Toronto York Spadina Subway Extension was taken away from the TTC and handed to a private engineering firm because of $400 million in cost overruns. With several stations seven stories underground, the overall project cost reached $383.7 million per km.  Yet if built, stations on the SSE  will be even deeper, and the overall costs of this privately financed extension of the Bloor/Danforth line are estimated to be almost double, at $723.7 million per km.

Delivered by the province, but operated and maintained by the TTC,  requests for qualifications to  design, build and finance the tunnel portion of the project were posted on Merx on March 6, prior to Premier Ford announcing a state of emergency. The closing date for bids is May 29, 2020.

COVID-19 has reminded us we urgently need to prioritize our essential front line workers, many of whom are low income and racialized, with no other option but the TTC. Most of these riders travel  along Finch, Sheppard, Lawrence, Ellesmere and Eglinton East. The SSE won’t improve their commute and it’s ballooning price tag has eliminated funding for a much needed LRT network.

Like its predecessors, the Metrolinx business case failed to conduct a level-field comparison with other, less-expensive options.  Instead, Metrolinx apparently chose to go along with Premier Ford’s promise to build a subway as a monument to his late brother Rob, as its basis for recommending approval. We cannot afford to continue with this chronic politicization of transit infrastructure, which inevitably leads to repeated delays, arbitrary changes and cancellations, and escalating costs.

Reliant on fares for 67% of its operating revenue, the TTC stands to lose up to $439 million in 2020 alone, due to an 80% drop in transit use during COVID-19. Cuts to bus service including an elimination of all but two express routes, have already begun. So far there has been no promise of emergency municipal transit operations funding from either the provincial or federal government.  Without an adequately funded feeder bus system, more people will resort to driving and the SSE will see even fewer riders.

But if the Ford government suspends the process now, it would allow for a complete reset and reconsideration of Toronto’s transit plans, to effectively address the real challenges and priorities that have been starkly illustrated by COVID-19.

If surface rapid transit such as LRT or BRT were to be honestly considered for providing a much-needed and more cost-effective comprehensive transit network, as part of an overall redesign of our streets, then we would be able to offer many more Scarborough residents multiple options to get them to where they need to go.

“Surface transit would prioritize pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders with wider sidewalks, bike lanes and signal priority . But suburban subways will keep our arterial roads as high-speed death traps for pedestrians and cyclists, while leaving buses crowded and bogged down in traffic,” says Scarborough Transit Action’s Richard Hennick, who was for many years a regular bike/TTC commuter between southwest Scarborough and his job in Markham.

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