The history of the subway in Scarborough can be viewed as somewhat of a cautionary tale. The conflict at the centre of what became the Scarborough RT was a classic case of ambition versus practicality. Ambition intuitively sounds more appealing, right? Well, hear me out. What seemed like an ambitious and futuristic option for rapid transit in Scarborough was selected over a more practical option. The question remains, is the ambitious Scarborough RT system the best way to serve the community?
The Scarborough RT Line
The prevailing thought back in the 70s was that work life had become too centred on downtown Toronto, leading to long commutes and heavy traffic. Live where you work was the new mantra. The City of Scarborough hoped that the Scarborough Town Centre would form a new downtown for the city, creating new jobs for residents looking for something closer to home.
The problem: the Bloor-Danforth subway didn’t connect to the new city centre. Planners warned that there just wasn’t enough ridership to properly service a subway extension. The TTC suggested a simple streetcar with a right of way to bridge the gap, but the Province of Ontario wanted something high tech to market Scarborough to the world. At the same time, Hamilton was toying with the idea of a magnetic train system. When the plan fell through, the Province all but said it wouldn’t help fund anything that wasn’t similar to the Hamilton proposal. The result was the Scarborough RT (Rapid Transit).
While the electromagnetic system unveiled in 1984 was considered one of the most advanced in the world, by 1986 the line was already considered too expensive to operate, and as it turned out, poorly designed. Maintenance costs were high and talk of expansion was shut down.
The First Attempt at Expansion
In 1994, the New Democratic government proposed a series of transit expansions for downtown Toronto. They included taking the Scarborough RT line east to Centennial College and north to Sheppard Avenue. Unfortunately for those keen on the project, fears over the path being too close to homes ultimately killed the proposal. In the end, the City and the Province only agreed on building the Sheppard and Eglinton subways.
The Sheppard subway was cut short by Mike Harris’ Progressive Conservative government and remains one of the least used sections of the subway. The Eglinton line was canceled in its entirety with Harris going so far as to seal up the already completed portions with concrete.
The Need for Modern Upgrades
The dawning of a new millennium presented a whole new set of problems. The Scarborough rapid transit line was already considered outdated, its vehicles nearing the end of their life expectancy. It was said that the cars could not last beyond 2015 without costly and intense upgrades. What was to be done?
The City went back to a proposal resembling it’s original streetcar plan. Basically, light rail transit lines (LRT) using vehicles not unlike our streetcars would run alongside Eglinton, Shepherd and the path of the RT. Then, the whole plan was thrown into chaos when Rob Ford was elected mayor in 2010. At first, City Council overruled the Mayor, who was adamantly opposed to the light rails. In the end, it was decided that the RT ought to be replaced by a subway anyway.
It was argued that a subway would only cost $500 million more than the cost of converting and extending the RT into an LRT line, so why not spend the extra money? The feeling among many Scarborough city councillors was that anything less than a subway was second rate. Well, it turns out the data supporting the subway was inaccurate. The cost for the current proposal for a Scarborough subway is now around $5,500,000,000 total.
The history of rapid transit in Scarborough suggests that the mistake we’ve been making for decades had been trying to turn a public need in to some kind of prestige project. The City originally recognized that a simple streetcar with a right of way would have served Scarborough’s transit needs perfectly. In hindsight, I think you’ll agree that maintaining a streetcar is much easier (and cheaper) than maintaining the RT. We can’t even do that anymore. Last February, the City voted to replace the line with express buses until the subway extension is built. The record suggests we may be in for a bit of a wait.
Feature Image: Greg's Southern Ontario, Flickr