Smart alternatives to SmartTrack avoid expropriation

Elizabeth Brubaker

Toronto Mayor John Tory’s proposed SmartTrack Line comes with a high price tag – not just for the taxpayers who will foot the $8-billion bill but also for those who may lose their homes and businesses to make way for new track or stations. There are smarter, less expensive ways to relieve congestion on Toronto’s roads and subways. City council should re-direct some of the $2.4 million it has approved to study SmartTrack to a thorough examination of these alternatives.

Even now, long before any decisions about SmartTrack have been made, those who live and work along its proposed 53-km route are undoubtedly wondering how it would affect their property. Mr. Tory has stated that the line would not require expropriation. But Metrolinx – the regional transportation agency that would deliver SmartTrack – differs, saying that some property acquisition may be necessary.

In fact, expropriation for transit projects is the norm in Toronto. In recent years, the city has expropriated for the Toronto York Spadina subway extension, the Agincourt GO grade separation project, and the Coxwell and Woodbine subway stations. Metrolinx has identified 258 properties it requires part or all of for the Eglinton LRT and has initiated the expropriation process.

Being targeted for expropriation can be the kiss of death for an owner. Almost no one wants to invest in a home or a business that might be destroyed in a year or two. Just ask the owners of the site of a former Knob Hill Farms store in Oshawa. Once Metrolinx let it be known that it might want the site for a GO station, the owners could do nothing with the stigmatized property. As they wrote in 2012, they had “lost multiple and more lucrative opportunities to sell/lease the site because the publication of Metrolinx’ interest in it and the potential for its expropriation have frightened off genuine prospects.”

This summer, Metrolinx took possession of the site. A spokesman would say only that the site could be a “possible future” station, adding, “It’s just too early to say more…. [I]f we do move forward we will definitely let the public know.” Such premature expropriation creates the same problems as the threat of expropriation. Neither the new public owner nor its tenant, if the land remains occupied, has any incentive to maintain a property that may soon meet a wrecking ball.

Expropriation is legitimate only for sound projects that are certain to go ahead. Does SmartTrack qualify? Certainly not yet. SmartTrack’s price tag may be unrealistic, especially if the project requires unforeseen tunnelling. The project will require still hypothetical provincial and federal support. Mr. Tory expects the city to pay one-third of the cost out of the increased taxes that will result from higher property values along the proposed line, but skeptics point out that tax increment financing has never yet been used for such large-scale projects and that the growth required to generate the tax revenues may not occur as planned.

Earlier this month, city council approved spending an additional $1.65 million – on top of the $750,000 already allocated – to study SmartTrack. Instead of committing to a costly and uncertain plan, the city should explore innovative policies that would obviate the need for new transit, such as time-of-use pricing on subways to reduce ridership during peak periods, congestion pricing on roads to reduce car traffic, and ride sharing to increase the number of passengers in the cars that remain on the roads. Such alternatives would enable Mr. Tory to honour his commitment to forgo expropriation while getting Toronto moving again.

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