The province approved it, the mayor shelved it, councillors and citizens groups debated it for months this year and finally saw the Sheppard East light-rail transt (LRT) project brought back to life.
But then, in June, Ontario’s government quietly delayed construction of the 12-kilometre line from Don Mills station in North York to Scarborough’s Morningside Avenue by another three years.
That means residents and TTC riders who saw work on the line begin in 2009 – before Rob Ford won the mayorality and shut it down – won’t see the project resume until 2017 or finish until 2021.
Three other LRT lines Toronto Council greenlighted this spring - the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown, Finch West, and a replacement and extension of the Scarborough Rapid Transit line - are now scheduled for completion before Sheppard East, in 2020.
“It came out of the blue,” said Ernie McCullough, executive director of the Sheppard East Village BIA, whose members have known since the group’s 2007 formation between Midland Avenue and Markham Road they stand to lose sales during construction while gaining streetscape improvements.
The Business Improvement Area had worked with the TTC and Metrolinx, the province’s transit agency, to smooth the construction period.
McCullough, part of a panel that helped council choose the LRT over a Sheppard Subway extension to Scarborough Town Centre, said members in April accepted news the project could not be restarted until 2014.
“Don’t start until you’re truly ready to go,” McCullough remembered members saying, but added there has been no explanation of the latest delay from Metrolinx or local MPPs.
In response to questions this week, Metrolinx and David Salter, spokesperson for Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli, said the province, with many infrastructure projects underway, changed the schedule to “avoid inflationary pressures on project costs” and “to avoid overburdening local construction capacity – which would drive up costs.”
“We’re committed to moving this project forward. It’s responsible to look at all delivery options to achieve the best value for taxpayer money,” Salter added in a statement Thursday, Aug. 23.
Opponents of the Sheppard East LRT project greeted the news with delight, with Scarborough-Agincourt Councillor Norm Kelly this week saying it gives subway extension supporters a chance for “one last clash between the forces of good and evil.”
That battle will come during the 2014 municipal campaign, which Ford and supporters in Scarborough, including himself, look forward to fighting over the LRT issue, Kelly said.
Lai Chu, co-chairperson of Subways Are For Everyone (SAFE), a group still fighting for “our subway” and against “streetcars” on Sheppard East, said she doesn’t mind that the area will have to wait longer for a completed transit project.
“It’s better than having something that is a mistake,” she said.
Other Scarborough councillors whose wards are along the route say they’re disappointed by the latest delay.
Raymond Cho and Ron Moeser both said they would do what they could to convince the province to start construction faster.
Waiting because the province is under financial pressure doesn’t make sense, Moeser said, because the project’s costs will rise.
“The longer it’s in the process, the more costly it gets.”
Scarborough-Rouge River Councillor Chin Lee was even gloomier this week, saying the delay may mean northern Scarborough will never receive a rapid-transit line, given how fragile the province’s finances have become.
“In the end, there’s no money,” he said, and elections years from now may derail the project again.
“Every time the political masters change, the direction may change.”
But North York Councillor Shelley Carroll, whose Don Valley East ward includes the planned LRT line’s western terminus, said Ford, not the province, deserves blame for the delay.
“This is why you don’t cavalierly kill a project that’s already begun,” she said, charging Ford’s decision, one of his first as mayor, put the project “out of synch” with the province’s plans.
Some of those plans involve underground tunnelling. It’s required to take the Sheppard East line across the Don Valley, but also to build the Crosstown line and to make an underground connection between the Finch West LRT and a new subway station at Finch Avenue.
Metrolinx might as well complete the Finch West LRT before it does the tunnelling for Sheppard East, Carroll said.
An LRT supporter, Carroll said her constituents understood the LRT line was a good value for them and she doesn’t fear campaigning on the issue again, though Carroll said continuing the debate is wasteful.
“The real (transit) riders of Scarborough want to get on with it,” she said, while adding many east of Victoria Park have “been confused and manipulated” into believing the private sector will pay for a subway.
Moeser, Cho and McCullough all said they hoped the province’s need to order light-rail vehicles for LRT projects, and a lack of financial support for a subway, will eventually give opponents no choice but to give in.
“I’m certainly convinced the LRT is going to be built,” McCullough said, noting LRVs are on display at the CNE, so that for the first time people can see for themselves the vehicle “isn’t a stupid little streetcar.”
The BIA, meanwhile, is weeks away from receiving a marketing plan - prompted by the project’s 2010 cancellation - which McCullough said will be used to promote the Sheppard East Village area in hopes of building loyalty that will help see merchants through the construction one day.
McCullough said the latest delay allows the BIA to act in a more typical fashion, such as putting on special events. “We never did that because we were always tied up in the transit planning.”