In Building Transit Projects, Canada Should Aim for Practicality Not Grandiosity

December 27, 2021 Updated: December 27, 2021


As a general rule, if you see a shiny new transit megaproject approaching your town, you should get into a private automobile and drive slowly away. But Canadians should hit the gas hard, because even in a world where politicians and contractors manage to overestimate benefits and underestimate costs with uncanny precision, we are overachievers.

A Dec. 26 Canadian Press story says a kilometre of urban subway worldwide in 2019 typically cost $300 million. What a bargain, you may exclaim, before considering that real subways are very big; London’s “Tube” has 400 km of track whereas New York’s has 399 and no nickname. And unfortunately, the story adds, in the Great White North it’s more like $700 million and rising.

The story cites a study for the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario, whose neutral name, appealing slogan “Constructing Ontario’s Future,” and emphasis on constructive, non-partisan collaboration makes me assume it has a hidden agenda. But if it involves not wasting money in dumb ways, I can think of worse plots.

I actually find subways cool. But as Dirty Harry once said, a man’s gotta know his limitations. For instance, I am not cool. And unless your city is big and rich enough to need a central circular subway line like London’s creatively named “Circle line,” and hundreds of stations (London’s 272 or New Yawk’s 472), you can’t afford and don’t need a train set like the cool kids have.

Fortunately, the rule against eating ingredients you can’t pronounce does not extend to reading and authors. So I have been ranting about infrastructure overreach for years thanks to Bent Flyvbjerg, Nils Bruzelius, and Werner Rothengatter, whose names I cannot even spell let alone say, but whose 2003 book “Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition” exposed the “public choice” problem that created an amazingly consistent pattern of cost overruns on bridges, subways, and so on worldwide for many decades. (And neglect of boring sewers and potholes.)

Hey, wake up. I know their title was bad enough and then there was that thing about “public choice.” But it’s going to cost you billions. Already did, in fact. Because projects that dazzle the eye bring big rewards to politicians who back them and contractors who build them. And by the time we realize they cost way more than promised and delivered fewer benefits, the politicians have moved on to higher office or retired with cushy pensions and the contractors keep cashing cheques because the only thing worse than an over-budget subway is a half-built one. As for penalty clauses, multinational construction firms are savvy enough to embed such expenses in the gravy train budget, possibly under “PR.”

The situation “Megaprojects and Risk” pointed to 20 years ago has not improved since, and it has not improved because economics is boring and progressivism is exciting. Why, you can be a world-class city, environmentalist, modern, and sophisticated, because all the experts favour “intensification” or “urban density” and public rather than private transit. It even fights climate change. Rubes may want their own house where they can park on their own driveway next to their own lawn. But sophisticates prefer high-rises and buses… for other people.

So dangle a gleaming infrastructure project before a politician and watch them rise to the bait. As CP noted, in Canada’s 2021 federal election, the two leading candidates in the “battleground” riding of Kanata-Carleton, a suburb of our national capital, both pledged to dump money into a “Phase 3” expansion of our new LRT. Yes, the light rail system with the huge cost overruns and wheels that aren’t quite round that was tested against the wrong kind of snow. What’s not to love?

Yeah, yeah, you may say. But why Canada specifically? You might even claim the cost of subways is higher here partly because many places have lower labour costs and standards. In these enlightened times I can’t actually name countries where you might reasonably be afraid to ride any form of mass transit, let alone through a tunnel. But luckily you can easily think of them yourself.

On the other hand, with many places too poor to build subways, to some extent you’re comparing Canada with Singapore not Durtistan. So why are we, um, special?

We have, CP noted, a problem with fussiness. The cheapest way to build subways is “cut-and-cover” but as it’s noisy, dusty, and disruptive, we select the super-deluxe tunneling option. And we promise voters fancy stations that don’t make economic sense. But again, such things are potentially universal. I claim Canadians go especially off the rails because, as with public health care, we tolerate mediocrity because we know we’re world-class so we can’t possibly be mediocre.

Let people with low standards worry about public sector efficiency and accountability. We have trains to catch.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

John Robson
John Robson is a documentary filmmaker, National Post columnist, contributing editor to the Dorchester Review, and executive director of the Climate Discussion Nexus. His most recent documentary is “The Environment: A True Story.”