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Province’s push for private funding, additional stops puts Scarborough subway at risk of delays

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The Ontario government intends to rely on the private sector to help fill a more than $1-billion funding gap in its plan to build a three-stop Scarborough subway — a move that marks another twist for a controversial transit project and raises the possibility of construction delays that could leave Scarborough residents stuck taking the bus.

Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek revealed last week the province intends to enlist the private sector to help offset the cost of the more expensive three-stop plan, by striking deals that would offer developers public land or air rights above station sites in exchange for helping fund the transit infrastructure.

The TTC is trying to prolong the lifespan of the Scarborough RT, which was first build in 1985.
The TTC is trying to prolong the lifespan of the Scarborough RT, which was first build in 1985.  (Rene Johnston Toronto Star / Toronto Star)

The plan currently on the city’s books is to extend Line 2 (Bloor-Danforth) to the Scarborough City Centre, which would cost an estimated $3.35 billion. Pending final approval, it’s projected to start construction next year with a completion date of 2026.

Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, who took power in June and have promised to table legislation to take ownership of the subway system from the city, wants to scrap the one-stop plan and build a three-stop version that would extend past the Scarborough Town Centre to Sheppard Ave. East, and have a stop at Lawrence Ave.

An earlier estimate for the city of a three-stop extension that was based on very little design work pegged the cost at $4.6 billion. That estimate was contingent on construction approval being given by council in 2016.

“The developer would pick up the cost of those stations … and it will not be a cost to the taxpayer,” Yurek told the Globe and Mail.

The market-driven approach to building Toronto transit projects has been floated before with little success. But in an email Monday, the minister’s spokesperson said under their government it will work.

“Unlike the last government … we have created an environment where private business can confidently invest in infrastructure projects,” said Mike Winterburn, Yurek’s director of communications.

As an example, he cited a potential agreement Metrolinx announced last fall that would see a developer partner with the transit agency to overhaul the Mimico GO Transit station.

“In future, more agreements will be reached to improve our transportation infrastructure while protecting taxpayers,” Winterburn said.

In November, Metrolinx, which is the most likely agency to take oversee the TTC subway if it’s uploaded to the province, announced it intends to use the market-driven strategy to fund future transit projects.

At the time it conceded that strategy would expose projects to risks associated with the fluctuating real estate market, which could delay transit construction. The agency said the approach could also speed up projects in some cases.

Any delay to opening the Scarborough subway extension could have major implications for transit riders who currently rely on the Scarborough RT, which was built in 1985 and is reaching the end of its service life.

The TTC is currently working to extend the life of critical components of the SRT train cars by at least another 10 years to keep the line running. Details of that plan remain secret despite formal requests from the Star. What information has been released suggest it’s possible to extend the operations of the SRT into 2026 — when the one-stop subway was earlier scheduled to be complete — but any safe operation beyond that date is in question.

If the SRT is shut down before a replacement is built, it could result in all commuters east of Victoria Park Ave. being stuck on the bus for an unknown period of time.

Councillor Josh Matlow, who has chiefly advocated for a network of LRTs in Scarborough, said pushing for a more-expensive subway will only cause more setbacks to delivering transit.

“(Premier) Doug Ford has always been more interested in merely promising subway stations than actually building rapid transit. The absurd suggestion that the private sector is going to cover a billion-dollar shortfall will only further delay delivering results,” Matlow said.

“We need to move forward now with an already approved and funded LRT network for Scarborough to ensure residents aren’t left on the bus.”

Ontario Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek signalled his Progressive Conservative government wants to enlist private funds to pay for a three-stop Scarborough subway extension.
Ontario Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek signalled his Progressive Conservative government wants to enlist private funds to pay for a three-stop Scarborough subway extension.  (Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star File)

The proposed intervention from Yurek, who has cited council delays to transit projects as a main reason the province should take ownership of the subway system, comes as councillors were months away from a crucial vote on whether to proceed with the one-stop subway extension.

In April, the TTC plans to release a report, which had previously been expected this month, on the project reaching the 30 per cent design mark, including an updated cost estimate and construction schedule. Councillors would vote as early as April on whether to send the subway project to procurement.

By contrast, the three-stop plan the city had earlier considered was at less than 5 per cent design when it was abandoned in favour of the one-stop plan.

TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said he couldn’t speculate on how much of the design work the agency has done on the one-stop extension could be repurposed for a three-stop version.

Also, a 2016 business case prepared by city and TTC staff said stations on the three-stop version “were found to be much more complex” than “typical” stations. Due to difficult topography, the station at Lawrence East would have to be built at almost twice the depth as regular stations.

The stations would also require larger than normal bus terminals to accommodate the high number of Scarborough routes being diverted to feed the subway extension.

Winterburn said the government is “confident that private sector support will secure funding and help ensure that construction begins sooner.”

But he said in cases where partnering with private developers is “not applicable,” the province “can still explore traditional funding models for construction.”

Councillor Michael Thompson, whose Scarborough Centre ward would include part of the proposed subway extension, said he welcomed Yurek’s proposal to add stations by striking deals with developers. He said he has heard from residents in the run-up to October’s municipal election that they don’t want to stick with the one-stop plan.

“I would say a good 90 per cent of people I spoke to felt there was a need for additional stations to be included in the Bloor-Danforth expansion into Scarborough,” he said.

“Recognizing that the funding is always a challenge, if the province and the minister has additional ideas and so on, I think that’s something we should applaud.”

A spokesperson for Mayor John Tory — who has pushed a three-stop and then the one-stop subway plan — did not respond to specific questions from the Star about the province’s new plan.

“Mayor Tory is committed to building transit — that’s what he was elected and re-elected to do by Toronto voters,” a statement read.

This is not the first time the Fords have pitched to pay for a controversial, costly subway project by calling for private sector investment.

In 2012, city staff and an expert panel panned a plan by then mayor Rob Ford to have developers finance an extension of the Sheppard subway — a plan for which no private investors actually signed up.

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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