Toronto Council Votes for LRT on Sheppard

On March 22, Toronto’s city council voted 24-19 to build light rail transit (LRT) on Sheppard Avenue East. The two options council was presented with were: use the available $1 billion to build two new subway stops at the existing Sheppard subway line, or build a 13 kilometre LRT from the end of the existing subway line.

Leading up to the vote had been considerable politicking by both Toronto mayor Rob Ford and his executive team. Principally, Ford’s argument for subways had three dominant themes. The first was that subways carry more people than LRT’s and do not impede the flow of traffic. The second reason he stated was that people do not like streetcars.

The mayor repeatedly compared subways to the current fleet of streetcars that are operated on Toronto’s roads.  He did not mention any of the substantial differences between light rail technology and streetcars, which include dedicated rights-of-way, higher speeds, greater passenger capacity, and fewer stops. The final argument that Ford made in promoting his subway line was initially that the private sector would pay for it through a public private partnership.

However, that argument had significant opposition from many councillors because he would not provide a detailed plan for raising the necessary revenue to fund the P3. Ford and his executive team had advocated building the subway stops and leveraging the construction to develop a public private partnership to build out the remainder of the subway line. He stated that if “you put a shovel in the ground, investors will come, funding will come, it’s all going to come.” Of course, a P3 does not mean that the private sector will hand out the funds necessary for construction; they require the government to demonstrate the ability to pay for the construction over the length of the contract, generally 30 years.

Several councillors, such as Josh Matlow and Karen Stintz, had initially been willing to work with the mayor to build his subway line. But, they turned their support to the LRT plan when the mayor refused to agree to any new taxes or fees to raise the necessary revenues. Because the LRT line was fully funded and planned, they began advocating for the LRT line.

Even Ford’s staunchest supporters became disappointed with the unwillingness of the mayor to compromise on finding a new tool to raise revenue. Councillor and city budget chief Mike Del Grande introduced a motion to introduce a parking levy that would be dedicated exclusively to funding transit; he suggested that the levy could raise $100 million per year.

However, Ford refused to support the motion and did not discuss it or display any willingness to introduce new revenue tools to fund his subway plan. While many councillors appear to have been willing to introduce a new tax or fee to pay for the Sheppard subway, without a mayor that was willing to compromise or work with council, the majority of councillors voted to build an LRT that already has full funding and the necessary regulatory approvals in place.

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