If John Tory is elected, will he really be able to build SmartTrack?

If John Tory is elected, will he really be able to build SmartTrack?


Since he unveiled it in late May, SmartTrack has been the centrepiece of John Tory’s One Toronto transit plan. Consisting of 22 stops (including five TTC interchanges) over 53 kilometres, the line would cut a loosely U-shaped curve through Toronto, starting near the airport in the west and dipping down through Union Station before heading northeast into Markham. Running largely on electrified GO Transit tracks, the new line would, Tory claims, serve 200,000 riders daily. He says the project will cost about $8-billion and will be operational by 2021, with the city’s one-third share of the funding coming from tax increment financing (also known as TIF)—which is basically a way of borrowing against future property-tax growth. Tory has also promised to start construction on the Scarborough subway immediately and provide express bus service along a few select routes.

election-idea-evaluator-middle-smallIF TORY IS ELECTED, WILL IT HAPPEN?

Because SmartTrack relies so heavily on existing GO Transit infrastructure, Tory will first have to get Metrolinx on his side. That might be harder than it sounds, according to transit advocate and writer Steve Munro. There are legitimate questions to be asked about whether SmartTrack’s extra trains could coexist with Metrolinx’s own plans for regional express rail. There’s also reason to be concerned about whether the extra stations are actually desired or even physically possible (smaller trains wouldn’t hit Tory’s ridership promises, but larger trains would require larger stations). “There’s going to be a reckoning fairly soon,” Munro says. “If Tory is elected, some bright spark at the December 11 Metrolinx board meeting is going to ask how SmartTrack fits with their [regional express rail]. At that point, we can no longer pretend that Tory’s plan is simply a doodle on a piece of paper that we don’t have to worry about.”

The parts of SmartTrack that don’t use existing track also present some serious issues, Munro says. For instance, it may be impossible—or significantly more expensive than Tory has let on—to run the line across Eglinton Avenue West, because some tunnelling might be required.

If Tory is able to win over Metrolinx and adjust SmartTrack’s design, or its budget, to address its technical issues, he’ll still need to pay for it. Critics contend that it’s unrealistic to expect tax increment financing to raise the city’s $2.7-billion (or whatever amount it may end up being) slice of the funding pie. The Star’s Daniel Dale, for one, points out that TIF has never been used on such a scale.

“There are very much open questions about whether [TIF] would cover the amount of money needed,” says transit expert and University of Toronto engineering professor Eric Miller, whom Tory has frequently cited as an advocate of his plan. “While I’ve spoken quite supportively of [SmartTrack] as a transportation concept, the big issue will be funding.” Miller suggests Toronto may end up paying increased property taxes down the line, or looking elsewhere in Tory’s plan to fill the financial holes TIF could create. “SmartTrack may lead us to revisit whether the Scarborough subway extension really does make sense or whether the LRT might be better to do. That frees up a billion dollars or more that might make up the shortfall.”

Whatever the issue—negotiating with Metrolinx, debating TIF, reviewing the Scarborough subway—both Munro and Miller insist that city council will determine SmartTrack’s fate. Whether council gets behind the idea, of course, depends on who gets elected. But, according to Munro, it also depends on Tory as an individual. “He’s run a campaign where he simply will not brook the concept that SmartTrack is not doable as proposed,” he says. “If John takes a hard-line approach, he’s going to be in trouble. But, on the other hand, if we see the John Tory we keep being told exists—which is the conciliatory, I-want-to-work-with-council Tory—there’s a fighting chance.”

How do other 2014 mayoral candidates’ ideas measure up? Click here to find out.