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Reece Martin: How to get Canada’s endlessly troubled transit back on track

Commentary

The Eglinton Crosstown is, without a doubt, the biggest story in Canadian transit. The Toronto project—which has been under construction in one shape or another since the early 2010s—remains unopened after more than a dozen years and without an opening date in sight. It took less time to build the Roman Colosseum, the Hoover Dam, or the Panama Canal.

But is this inevitable? It seems these days that every transit project in Canada is late and over budget. Add on top of that a large and growing deficit of housing units and it’s easy for a layperson to wonder: “Can Canada build anything anymore?” and “Why does it all cost so darn much?”

It wasn’t always this way. There are examples to emulate. If you were walking down Cambie Street in Vancouver in 2007, you’d have been greeted with a few things: punishing traffic, signs of Vancouver’s coming 2010 Olympic Games, and a giant trench taking up half the street surrounded by throngs of equipment. But the disruption was worth it. Vancouver’s “Canada Line” was being built—the third rapid transit line the region had constructed since just the 1980s. 

The Canada Line started construction in late 2005 and was ready months in advance of the 2010 Winter Olympics five years later—early and under budget. In many ways, Vancouver’s Canada Line is comparable to Toronto’s Crosstown: both projects are roughly 19-kilometre rail lines with roughly half of their routes tunnelled and half above ground. And while the Crosstown does have to pass under Toronto’s subway twice, the Canada Line has two major water crossings both over the Fraser River and under False Creek, as well as a crossing with the existing downtown Vancouver SkyTrain tunnel. 

Looking at Toronto’s 12-plus-year struggle with the Eglinton Crosstown, it’s nothing short of remarkable that only a little more than a decade ago another large Canadian city with almost no experience building subways managed to actually build one in less than four years. 

What’s even more surprising is that the Canada Line came in at a cost of less than $3 billion in today’s money—much less than the Crosstown which has already cost around a whopping $10 billion and could be nearing $15 billion. So the Crosstown could cost five times more than its B.C. counterpart, even though the Canada Line, unlike the Crosstown, is a true subway, with elevated and underground segments. 

How is this possible? Where did things go off the rails?

Building transit right

The Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario (RCCAO) report on the cost of subway building in Toronto is a good place to start. The report goes into great depth, comparing every major subway project ever built in the city, future projects, and their cost per kilometre.

A scan of the first chart in the report tells you most of what you need to know. Toronto subways, from the construction of the Yonge Line in the 1950s all the way to the extension of Line 1 to Downsview in the 90s, all cost around $115 million per kilometre, when inflation-adjusted to 2023 dollars. However, from the Sheppard to York University subways opened in 2002 and 2017 respectively, and then to the present-day Ontario Line, subway projects have roughly doubled in cost during each build. 

In many ways, this ratcheting up of prices can be seen as the direct result of decisions made about how and when we build transit in Toronto. The Sheppard and York University subways both suffered from being built after seven and 10-year pauses, respectively, in building, meaning public and private sector expertise had often moved to greener, more transit-heavy pastures and the subway building “machine” was forced to ground to a halt. 

The Eglinton Crosstown initially appeared to be a reduction or at least stabilisation of pricing. But it’s actually probably better seen as yet another increase. Crosstown trains are only half the size of a traditional subway and will run a significant portion of its route down the middle of a suburban thoroughfare, where trains are unlikely to travel at anything close to subway speeds. The Crosstown has a lower price only because it provides less. Featuring a per kilometre price 85 percent as high as previous full subway extensions—which provide much more speed and capacity—the value is dubious.

The high cost of more recent projects like Eglinton can be attributed to a major shift in the procurement model likely made because of problems with previous projects. After the great success of the Canada Line, there was enthusiasm to learn from the project. Unfortunately, we learned the wrong things. 

For policymakers, the most noteworthy thing about the project was its public-private partnership (P3). This is where private companies operate and maintain the line for a fixed period after its opening (typically 30 years)—a model imported from the U.K., a country nobody associates with cost-effective or timely megaprojects. In reality, the cost to operate the Canada Line remains substantially higher than the cost of operating Vancouver’s existing older publicly-run rail lines, which makes sense as the private sector needs to make money. 

In my view, the real lessons from the Canada Line are the project’s tried and true back-to-basics building approach. Unlike many modern subway building projects in Canada, the Canada Line used the old-fashioned cut-and-cover method of construction. This approach means a trench is built and then covered over to form tunnels. Stations on the Vancouver line were also built with a spartan and minimal approach: few frills, single entrances, and inexpensive finishings that included B.C. lumber. These methods, while controversial (several lawsuits were brought against Translink, the regional transit agency responsible for the SkyTrain system due to the disruption), led to a project that was built at eye-watering speed and at an affordable price. 

Commuters wait to take the subway at Ossington Station in Toronto on Friday, June 22, 2018. Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, they settled on using tunnel boring machines. While marketed as enabling less disruption, most shopkeepers on Eglinton Ave. would probably tell you that there has still been lots of disruption and they’d have much rather gotten it over with quickly. Toronto has also decided it likes to spend millions building individualised bespoke designs for station stops, rather than following Vancouver’s more uniform approach. 

Canada’s current obsession with following a trendy new governance model and turning a blind eye to doing things the old-fashioned way is perhaps unsurprising in our highly politicised and NIMBY-sensitive transit-building ecosystem. But, as a consequence, it has greatly increased the price of transit building. Instead of focusing on the basics of planning and engineering, we have become obsessed with governance and procurement models that promise to solve technical problems with oceans of contracts and complex agreements. 

While Canada Line’s construction disruption did bring about minor lawsuits, the costs of these measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and pale in comparison to the billions saved in construction; not to mention the enormous opportunity costs of a project that could have been delivered years late. 

Instead of employing cheaper government experts for things that our governments need to know how to do—like engineering and planning subways—in optics-obsessed Toronto and elsewhere we are now hiring private consultants from major engineering firms at astronomical hourly wages. And with these private consultants often charging twice as much as their government counterparts, the taxpayer ultimately pays the price. 

None of this is to say the private sector should not be involved in transit building—the private sector has always and will always play a role. But our modern obsession with P3s and risk transfer to the private sector has clearly not borne fruit in Canada or around the world. Sadly, both Edmonton and Calgary didn’t get the memo and are now using P3s for their upcoming projects. At the end of the day, the private sector should be experts at building and engineering, not at project financing and legalese.

Today, the countries that are most effective at building affordable subway projects, like South Korea, have relied on only a handful of P3s. They’ve also typically reverted back to building things the old-fashioned way.

The overall benefit of this lower-cost transit construction is immense. While Toronto is currently building a lot—over 40 kilometres of new subway in Toronto to be exact—if it was smart, it could be building far far more. 

To see what could be possible Canadians can look to Paris, where the cost of building subways is about 20 percent the cost of what it is in Toronto. The French capital is currently building more than 200 kilometres of subway!

Canada must reset its approach to transit building with a goal to ratchet subway costs back down so that we can build the transit we so desperately need. Doing so will mean bringing key technical expertise back into the government to allow it to get the price of building down. This will mean the public can have a world-class transit system, and the government can create a long-term pipeline of work for private sector constructors. Much like housing, we need to stop listening to NIMBYs and start building for the future.

Patrick Luciani: How the Irish saved womanhood

Commentary

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani takes a look at Judith Butler’s Who’s Afraid of Gender? (Knopf Canada 2024), and connects the book’s radical ideas on gender to two referendums recently held in Ireland concerning amendments to expand and replace current gender and family definitions in the constitution—both of which failed over social and cultural concerns about what changing the traditional language would mean.

In early March, Ireland held a referendum to amend two provisions of its constitution. The first was to change the definition of the traditional family and instead replace it to recognize “durable relationships.” The second would remove references to “women” and “mothers” and broaden the definition of care in the welfare of a family. Both amendments lost by a wide margin, which dealt the progressives and major political parties supporting the amendments a shocking blow, thwarting their attempts to bring the language of gender into the 21st century while giving victory to those concerned about encroachments on the traditional language. 

The Irish aren’t immune to reform. In 1995, they approved gay marriage and later allowed for divorce. In 2018, they approved legalized abortions. Ireland is only one of four nations that approve of medical sex-change operations based on self-determination. But the question of eliminating the ancient idea of family and especially the concept of motherhood in a once deeply Catholic country where the cult of the Virgin Mary still lingers was asking too much. This despite the insistence of Ireland’s elite, including the National Women’s Council of Ireland, who fought hard for the changes, even placing the referendum on March 8, International Women’s Day. 

In the same month, Judith Butler, the American philosopher and arguably the most acclaimed gender studies teacher worldwide, was promoting her new book Who’s Afraid of Gender? The Irish elite who pushed to reform Ireland’s constitution was no doubt influenced by Butler’s work on queer and gender theory. Butler wants to eliminate the very idea of motherhood and women, arguing instead that biological sex, like gender, is nothing but a social deception. Butler, who uses the pronouns they and them, goes further and claims that the body’s genitalia is itself socially constructed. Sex isn’t an obvious fact simply “based on observation.” We are born as a blank slate without the influence of biological connection. That’s why gender studies advocates refer to assigned sexes at birth, meaning that we are not rooted to them in our behaviour if we so choose. 

What we believe about the differences between men and women isn’t based on any eternal concept of nature but on social power dynamics and customs, is the claim. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum reminds us this is nothing new. John Stuart Mill said the same thing in his The Subjection of Women: “What is now called the nature of women is an eminently artificial thing.” Where Mill understood that women were kept in subjugation by hierarchies of power, Butler teaches that “nature is not the ground upon which construction of gender happens.” This is an extraordinary admission even though our species, as writer and podcaster Andrew Sullivan says, existed “before we even achieved the intelligence to call it a sex binary.” 

Butler demands that only an understanding of culture, history, languages, and anthropology can answer the question of what a woman is. We must see the changing nature of women and their roles through time. In other words, the privilege of knowing what a woman is belongs to a select few gender studies scholars. The idea of gender is a continuum with countless definitions of gender behaviour, ever-expanding preferences akin to identifying new chemical elements on a Periodic Table. And the only reason we define women as we do today is through the social demands of the patriarchy, heterosexuality, and, finally, white supremacy. 

In Who’s Afraid of Gender? Butler continues the assault on our misguided perception of gender by widening the door that defines what a woman is to the point that any man can claim membership. Transwomen are now allowed membership and the special honour of accessing women’s spaces. Suppose a man wishes to exhibit their preferences to take on feminine attributes. But why can’t the definition of manhood expand rather than intrude on the definition of women and their spaces? 

Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaks during a Friends of Ireland Caucus St. Patrick’s Day luncheon in the U.S. Capitol, Friday, March 17, 2023, in Washington. Alex Brandon/AP Photo.

Butler’s book wasn’t written to answer questions but to attack critics of the very notion of gender and transwomen, including trans-exclusionary feminists such as J.K. Rowling and Unherd writer Kathleen Stock. They are accused of “fascism”—a word Butler uses liberally—to attack Evangelicals, Christian Orthodox, Catholics, or any organization in favour of traditional families. The author even accuses defenders of families of using “junk science” to defend their case—a curious claim given that gender studies is hardly a field based on established science. Butler lives in a Manichean world of good and evil where enemies must be destroyed. But who are these enemies when a growing number of liberals and leftists are resisting the move to diminish the rights of girls and young women? 

Butler claims that attacks on gender are a “phantasm” or an illusion invented by the enemies of gender to hide behind the world’s real problems of capitalism, neoliberalism, destruction of the environment, attacks on immigrants, poverty, Indigenous Peoples, and the oppression of Black and brown people. And any resistance to Butler’s idea of gender is seen as an attack on liberal democracy. 

The Irish referendum wasn’t only about rights, tolerance, or one’s right to choose a preferred gender identity but about the nature of language. When the Irish were asked to vote, they knew intrinsically that words matter, and changing the constitution by abandoning the phrase “mother” or “woman” to satisfy the political trends of progressive gender advocates would have a deep and lasting effect on their culture and identity. That was a step the Irish weren’t willing to take.