At its meeting on February 14, 2014, the Metrolinx Board will receive a presentation on the Yonge Network Relief Study. Despite the need for better regional transit links (and by that I mean links that do not take people to downtown Toronto), the elephant in the room has always been the unstoppable demand for more capacity into the core area. Planning for and debates about catching up with the backlog of transit infrastructure cannot avoid this issue, and it skews the entire discussion because the scale and cost of serving downtown is greater than any other single location in the GTHA.
Conflicting political and professional attitudes across the region colour the view of downtown. Toronto suburbs, never mind the regions beyond the city boundary, are jealous of downtown’s growth, and for decades have wanted some of the shiny new buildings and jobs for themselves. But the development, such as it was, skipped over the “old” suburbs to new areas in the 905 that could offer lower taxes possible through booming development and the low short-term cost of “new” cities.
Strangling downtown is not a new idea, and politicians decades ago foretold of gleaming suburban centres to redirect growth together with its travel demand. The transit network would force-feed the new centres, and downtown would magically be constrained by not building any new transit capacity to the core.
Someone forgot to tell GO Transit where service and ridership grew over the decades. Downtown Toronto continued to build, and that is now compounded by the shift of residential construction into the older central city.
Thanks to the early 1990s recession, the subway capacity crisis that had built through the 1980s evaporated, and the TTC could talk as if more downtown capacity was unneeded. To the degree it might be required, the marvels of new technology would allow them to stuff more riders on existing lines. A less obvious motive was that this would avoid competition for funding and political support between new downtown capacity with a much-favoured suburban extension into York Region. Whenever they did talk about “downtown relief”, the TTC did so with disdain.
Times have changed. Long commutes are now a burden, not a fast escape to suburban paradise. Every debate starts with “congestion” and the vain hope that there is a simple, take-two-pills-and-call-me-in-the-morning solution. Top that off with an aversion for any taxes that might actually pay for improvements, or sacrifices in convenience until that blissful day when transit arrives at everyone’s doorstep.
Many schemes compete for attention, each with advocates eager for their “solution” win the day, establish their vision for decades to come, and entrench their one technology to rule them all. This is hopelessly blinkered, and adds a layer of “only my solution” rivalry to an already complex problem.
Metrolinx plans a detailed study of the options for serving not just central Toronto, but the region in general with a focus on the Yonge corridor. Where is the demand coming from and going to? Where will the growth occur? What combination of services will address demands in the short, medium and long term?
The Metrolinx work will parallel with Toronto’s own Relief Line Project Assessment whose short-term goal is a better definition of routing options between the Danforth subway and the core area. Toronto Council’s real priorities are clear, however, from the funding dedicated to this study at a level one tenth that of preliminary engineering for the Scarborough Subway.
Over the coming year, Metrolinx will go through the typical Environmental Assessment process to review options [see diagram, page 6]:
- Problem Statement, Long List of Options, Evaluation Framework. This is always the most tedious part of any EA because nothing much actually happens to engage debate. However, this step can be critical if the “problem” is stated too narrowly, or if the “evaluation framework” has a built-in bias to reward progress to specific goals. Indeed, this is a case where there will be multiple goals, and they will not all be achieved at the same rate or to the same degree. (Winter-Spring 2014)
- Long List reviewed and filtered through Evaluation Criteria. During this stage, some options will fall off of the table either because they are impractical, or because they do not make a substantial contribution to the goals. (Summer-Fall 2014)
- Short List and Draft Recommendations. (Winter-Spring 2015)
- Transit Project Assessment (Spring-Summer 2015)
Public consultation and input will occur along the way, and there will be the small matter of elections at the municipal and, almost certainly, provincial levels to complicate the debate. Recent experience shows how transit priorities can be skewed by the need to win votes in key ridings, and actual “planning” has little to do with the outcome.
Both the Yonge Subway and GO Transit services within Toronto are operating at capacity, and the subway, even with planned improvements, will still be full in 2031, a date that in planning terms is at best the day-after-tomorrow. Metrolinx will address two key questions:
- What is the full range of alternatives that needs to be considered?
- What is the optimal phasing with other Next Wave projects including Yonge North Subway Extension and GO Rail Expansion ?
To these I would add an important third question:
- What is the practical capacity of various network components including tracks, stations, control systems and delivery of passengers to and from the rapid transit network?
Too much discussion from The Big Move and other studies has been little more than drawing lines on a map without thought to the limitations each location and technology presents, not to mention the problem of network access. The GO model of providing acres of parking for inbound commute trips is not a viable way to build a regional network for all-day, two-way commuting, much less strong off-peak local travel.
Metrolinx proposes six broad goals for the study [page 9]:
- [Transportation] Improve service quality, increase transit choice and ridership, increase network flexibility and meet local and regional transit travel needs for existing and new passengers through measures such as new infrastructure, operations or policy direction;
- [Financial] Are fundable and provide value for money in the short and long term;
- [Environment] Enhance and protect our natural environment and contribute to minimizing the impact on air quality and greenhouse gas emissions;
- [Economic Development] Encourage regional economic development, improve access to downtown, major employment generators, employment, leisure and local businesses by sustainable modes;
- [Community] Help foster an equitable society by contributing to the creation of inclusive, accessible, livable and connected communities; and
- [Deliverability] Are feasible to build and operate, do not place undue pressure on other parts of the transportation network, and are financially sustainable.
These are the obvious goals of any transit project, but as stated, they are motherhood definitions of a “good” system. The details are key:
- What is meant by “value for money”? Shorter travel times? Stimulus for or enabling of continued development? Reduced personal cost of commuting? Reduced burden on governments to provide capacity for auto travel? Access to employment and leisure activities from a wider regional community?
- What is meant by “financially sustainable”? How will this contrast with the cost of a “do nothing” or “do little” option? Will there be political recognition that nothing is free whether it is paid for directly by public levies and fees, or indirectly through development charges or private sector partnerships?
- How will the Yonge corridor projects, important though they might be, relate to the broader transportation network especially for east-west travel within Toronto and with the much larger GTHA?
- If a project is intended to stimulate development, will this recognize the need for feeder and local services to handle travel that is not directly on the rapid transit network?
- Will a one-size-fits-all evaluation matrix be used? Will a project that is “good” in a regional sense necessarily serve local requirements, or should these be evaluated independently? A project could have value for something beyond its contribution to Yonge corridor relief.
A very long list of options (to which there will, no doubt, be additions) appears on page 11. To Metrolinx’ credit, this list touches many parts of a journey and a wide variety of approaches to the problem. Some of them have implications for the entire network (fare policy, for example) while others are only tangentially related to the Yonge corridor itself (waterfront LRT services, improved streetcar services).
This list, for all its strength, remains focused on inbound commutes with the presumption that integration of fares and service for the originating part of a trip is separate from fare integration with the TTC.
The list of potential transit improvements is long, and contains pet projects of every flavour (except Swan Boats on the Don River). All of the options must be included, if only for the purpose of evaluation, so that the “sounds-nice-but” schemes can be excluded from further consideration.
The Toronto region badly needs a hard, technical look at the capacities of its existing and proposed transportation systems.
- What is the realistic capacity of the subway, what are the constraints to expansion, and how can this capacity be achieved? How robust and resilient will the service be when demand approaches the upper limit of capacity, and should this even be attempted?
- What is the realistic capacity of the GO Transit lines? Are there physical or organizational limitations that prevent expansion (or even implementation of service) on some corridors? What corridors can benefit from electrification and how soon will this be required?
- How will “near downtown” areas that are too close for regional, GO-like solutions be served?
- What is required to improve local transit services in the 905 so that parking is not the pre-eminent form of rapid transit system access?
- How can the “solutions” proposed for the Yonge corridor be applied to the wider network?
- What are the financial implications of the growth in transit demand for the region?
Some of these questions will be outside the scope of this Metrolinx study, but the rest of the GTHA won’t be sitting still for the next two decades. The questions deserve answers in a broad, regional context.
This is work Metrolinx should have undertaken at least two years ago, if not more. The announcements, the ribbon-cutting ceremonies of the “First Wave” projects, were just a start, but too much of recent history has been back-patting, “look at what we’re doing” events, while much more challenging problems were ignored. Planning focused on individual projects rather than the network as a whole, and the change shown with the Yonge corridor study should find its way to all of the GTHA’s transit plans.
When the public consultations start in March 2014, this will not be a time for yet another warm fuzzy Metrolinx road show with pictures of smiling transit riders and bold recitations of the “progress” already underway. Transit riders are not smiling, and motorists who might join them are even less entranced by the inaction on network growth.