Friday, December 18, 2009

The Eglington LRT Dillema: Expropriations, or Major Cost Overruns (Or Both)

The Ambitious Transit City Plan that Metrolinx has designed for the GTA is now getting beyond big picture planning, and into the actual nuts and bolts. To this point, there have been few real costs estimates for the project. Perhaps worse is that no one seemed to alert the public to the possibility of eminent domain use in order to expropriate inconveniently placed homes and businesses. At a recent community meeting, York South Weston Councillor Frances Nunziata revealed that 100 properties would be directly affected by the Eglington light rail line. In order to avoid expropriation, some residents are calling on the government to build the relevant sections of the line underground. Before rushing into a project of this magnitude, someone should have a look at the numbers. Here are some quick facts:

The proposed line is 33 kilometers long (just over 20 miles). The cheapest light rail line built in the last decade cost $31.1 million USD/mile ($33 million Canadian). This was a short rail line along an interstate in Charlotte, North Carolina. Obviously, construction costs will be much higher in Toronto, even if it is entirely above ground. A more likely comparison is the Pittsburgh North Shore extension, a portion of which is underground. That project came in at $243.7 million US ($260 Canadian) per mile. That would bring the cost of the Eglington line to $5.33 billion Canadian Dollars. I should stress that these numbers are taken directly from a pro-light rail organization's website, so it is unlikely that the numbers are exaggerated. The project is projected to cost $4.6 billion dollars. If they increase the proportion of the line that runs underground, my $5.3 billion dollar estimate could look conservative. This also fails to take into account the fact that the average North American light rail line has run 35.8% over budget.

To reiterate: the city plans to spend at least $4.6 billion dollars to replace the current bus routes on Eglington. That is enough to purchase 10,000 of the most expensive transit buses ever constructed (hybrid, of course). This will have little effect on congestion. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that in Portland, the poster child for light rail, the massive investments in light rail only took 1300 cars off of the road during rush hour. That amounts to $225 USD per car every day. At that cost, it would actually be more cost efficient for the provincial government to pay corporations to incentivize telecommuting. $5.3 billion dollars could convince a lot of people not to drive through rush hour traffic. I'm not suggesting the government actually spend this money, but at least it would actually reduce congestion.

One more thing I neglected to mention: the Eglington line only accounts for 33 of the 125 kilometers of rail the city plans to build. Don't be surprised if the total budget for the initiative approaches $20 billion.


  1. "That is by far the most expensive above ground light rail line ever constructed."

    Surely you are aware that half of the Eglinton line WILL be underground? You might want to reconsider that statement.

    "the massive investments in light rail only took 1300 cars off of the road during rush hour"

    Yonge subway carries 7 times more people every day than the Don Valley parkway, but consumes a fraction of the space. Bad investment?

  2. You're correct. They did already factor in a large portion of the line being constructed underground (which would explain why their cost estimates are close to mine). I will ammend that statement.

    I don't think the comparison between subways and LRTs is fair. In a dense urban core like Toronto, subways make sense. They have a much higher average speed, and capacity than LRT trains. They cost twice as much per mile underground than LRT's, but they tend to recover a greater proportion of their operating cost.

  3. I have been following the Eglinton LRT progress. In the latest report, it is shown that the LRT will have a speed which is faster than the Bloor subway.

    The section which is underground will have all the advantages of a subway. It will be a great addition to our city!

  4. The only way that it would be possible for a light rail train to have a higher average speed than a subway is if it has less stops. If that is the case, then the system will require more feeder vehicles (buses, cars, taxis) to operate as effectively as a subway. LRTs also have major difficulties with fare box recovery, as there are no turnstyles. The only way to effectively ensure payment is to have paid staff on each car. For all of the costs involved, it would be much wiser to focus on express buses.

  5. I have to disagree once again :)

    have you ever used the GO trains? They do not have turnstyles or fare collectors either. They just send an occasional fare checker around to make sure everybody has a valid ticket. It works great, and they have a very high cost recovery.

    Many LRT systems work on this fare model, and it works well (except for those fare evaders who have to pay nasty fines)

    The LRT is faster underground because a lighter vehicle has a faster acceleration and braking system. There is a large gap between Bayview and Mt Pleasant which is due to geographic problems, although it does lead to a faster travel time.

    The more I've learned about this project, the more excited I get. It will be a huge advantage to everybody who is lucky enough to love near it.

  6. LRTs have the same top speed as most subways, though they carry less passengers. When travelling underground they go roughly the same average speed, though above ground they compete with traffic.

    Go Trains do better than most rail vehicles (minus subways) on farebox recovery, yes. Also, the fares are closer to market rates than TTC vehicles. If they were to charge market rate for the Eglington line, I would support it. Unfortunately, I really don't see this breaking even. I spent the summer in Portland studying their light rail system, and they don't come anywhere near breaking even (despite having an extremely high ridership level). I don't think there is a light rail line anywhere that breaks even, though I could be wrong. The TTC subway allegedly comes close, though I'm not sure if the numbers I've seen factor in the capital costs. It seems unlikely, though.

    Incidentally, Portland uses the same fare collection method as GO Transit, and I paid for a total of two rides all summer (I spent 2 hours per day on the train). Both times I saw a fare collector, I got off at the next station and purchased a ticket.

  7. Perhaps the Eglinton line will not improve congestion on Eglinton, but that's not the point. It WILL move people much quicker across town. Yonge Street remains congested despite the subway beneath, but the subway gives the option of not travelling on the road, an option you wouldn't have if you have to take the bus. This Eglinton LRT line will speed up times greatly for transit users on a heavily-used route.