In early September, Conservative candidate Jennifer McAndrew made a huge campaign promise outside a suburban Ottawa transit stop in the crucial riding of Kanata-Carleton.
“A Conservative government will support and prioritize Phase 3 of the LRT extension right here to Kanata and beyond,” McAndrew stated in a video posted to her Facebook page on Sept. 2 as the campaign heated up.
Jenna Sudds, her Liberal opponent, produced her own video the next day, making the same pledge.
While some transit supporters would be pleased to see cross-party pledges to build additional light-rail infrastructure, Toronto transit expert Stephen Wickens, who has spent more than a year warning governments against such campaign promises, was disappointed.
The reason is that Canada pays a higher price to build light-rail transit compared to our international counterparts, driven chiefly by the depth of underground tunnels, the grandiosity of the stations and labour costs.
But several experts agree it has just as much to do with something else: politics.
“That’s the heart of it,” said Wickens, who authored an investigative study on the soaring cost of Toronto subway projects commissioned by the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario last year.
Alon Levy, a Berlin-based transit researcher and writer, calculated that globally, the median construction cost for an urban subway was less than $300 million per kilometre in 2019.
But in Canada, the costs seem to go off the rails.
By Levy’s calculations, Toronto’s Ontario Line should cost $735-million per kilometre. The Blue Line extension plan in Montreal? About $775-million per kilometre. Vancouver’s Broadway SkyTrain seems almost reasonable at nearly $500-million per kilometre.
Political meddling at all levels of government – by all parties – can cause a knock-on effect on the price tag of projects.
For example, the cheapest tunnelling method is also the most annoying for the neighbours, so local councillors will up the cost to avoid complaints from constituents.
Just over a decade ago, Vancouver opted for a cheaper tunnelling option when it built the 19-kilometre Canada Line by digging a trench at street level and covering the top. The cut-and-cover method, as it’s known, led to big savings, but also disruptions, controversy and even lawsuits.
“The memories apparently remain so unpleasant that city leaders have made clear the Broadway Line will be entirely tunnelled, even with project estimates running at about $500 million per kilometre, or about 4.5 times what was paid for the Canada Line,” Wickens wrote in his report.
Political promises can also lock governments into commitments that may not offer the best value. As a 2019 study by the Institute of Municipal Finance and Governance put it, the best projects based on the available evidence take a back seat to political considerations. Civil servants are forced then to give what researchers dub “decision-based evidence” to justify a political promise.
“Who is a lowly engineer to say ‘we don’t actually need that’ or ‘let’s cut this station,’ or ‘I know you’ve promised this interest group something so you need to break that promise because that’s going to cost us another half a billion dollars,”’ said Levy in an interview with The Canadian Press.
It’s not just a Canadian phenomenon.
Levy and other researchers at the Marron Institute of Urban Management at New York University have found Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and United States overpay compared to peer counties like Spain, Italy and France.
Marco Chitti, a Montreal-based associate researcher on the project, said one domestic factor that may drive up costs is our federal political system that offers significant power to single parties trying to win votes from the public.
He said parliaments of other nations are afforded more power to water down proposals from the ruling party and get more bang for their buck.
Another issue, according to Chitti, is that Canadian towns and provinces frequently lack in-house competence to provide technical advise and monitor projects. He cited Italy as an example, where technical experts prepare precise, costed plans before politicians make any promises.
According to Chitti, the first step in lowering transit project costs is admitting that there is an issue that needs to be addressed.
“Most Canadian politicians are unaware that Canada has a massive expense problem, a gigantic, tremendous cost problem,” Chitti added.
“I sincerely hope that in the next few years, there will be much more conversation in Canada about the fact that our costs are spiraling out of control.”