Streetcars on St. Clair

Yesterday, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Divisional Court, issued its ruling on the matter of Save Our St. Clair Inc. vs the City of Toronto and the TTC.  The Court ruled that the proposal for the St. Clair streetcar reserved right-of-way did not meet the test by which a judicial review would block the scheme, and therefore the application by Save Our St. Clair (SOS) was dismissed.

I am not going into the long and sordid history of this project, and those who know me well are aware that my feeling about both the City/TTC proposal and the position taken by its opponents was “a plague on both your houses”.  SOS made fundamental misrepresentations about the impact of the line and took positions about aspects of the plan that were diametrically opposed to each other.  Increasing pedestrian space, preserving parking and maintaining unimpeded traffic flow give one glaring example.

However, the City/TTC did an appalling job, even with much public consultation, of putting forward a reasonable plan.  There are many to blame in this and I won’t try to name names.  Here are a few of their worst gaffes:

  • The Environmental Assessment actually says that implementing this right-of-way will allow the TTC to save costs by cutting the number of cars on the line.  Not improving service, but merely keeping it at the same level with fewer cars.  This is the classic bean-counter mentality — justify a project by claiming you will save money rather than by talking about better service.
  • The road engineers, given the imperative to minimize negative impacts on road capacity, had a field day with throat widenings and turn lanes.  This has little or nothing to do with the transit project, but the transit folks don’t dare step on the roadies’ toes.  The impact on pedestrian space predictably drove the locals mad, but the TTC sat mute on the issue.
  • The TTC, for reasons that still baffle me, is wedded to using centre poles to hold up the overhead even though side poles have done so for decades and the Spadina line uses side poles.  Putting a row of poles between the tracks may look cute, but it widens the transit ROW by one metre and cuts back on the space available for sidewalks.  Where do we want extra space?  In the middle of the road on on the sidewalks?
  • The City Planning folks claim that the EA process prevents them from doing detailed design before the EA is approved.  This is a project where a lot of neighbourhood-level charettes would have gone a long way to examing alternatives and giving the locals a sense that they were talking about meaningful stuff.  Instead, the only design workshops we got dealt with the design of transit stops and the colour of paving tiles.  Strange that we can have a subway EA (Spadina, just published) that goes into excruciating detail about design, but we couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do the same thing for St. Clair.  Strange that we can make such a fundamental decision as the use of centre poles before we do any detailed block by block design.  The City is playing fast and loose with the rules.
  • The engineers who did the design work, such as it was, published a first cut at an alignment that was posted on the City’s website.  It showed the general alignment, the scope of the revised street outline and the stop locations.  Alas, the base map they used was out of date, and some locations for sidewalk moves would require the demolition of new buildings.  One stop was moved farside to make room for a left turn lane, but nobody checked that the new location was on a downgrade into an underpass.  The construction drawings for Phase I (Yonge to Spadina) included the placement of a temporary Hydro pole in a location where the revised sidewalk is at the minimum acceptable 2-metre width.  Where is the pole?  1 metre from the curb. 

This sort of incompetence made opposition to the project child’s play, and seriously undermined the efforts of advocates who tried to say “no, it won’t really be like that”.

Now that this legal wrangle is behind us, the worst thing we could do would be to proceed with no further detailed design, no consultation with the neighbourhoods, and slavish devotion to the dictates of the road engineers.  The TTC needs to do now what it didn’t do before, to engage in meaningful discussions about designs and real tradeoffs between the many groups who want to use up precious roadspace.

Once again, we’re hearing about the way that streetcars will run in ROWs throughout the suburbs.  Yes, very nice, but the TTC must do a much better job on those proposals if it expects them to pass neighbourhood and Council approvals.

As an historic footnote, it was 34 years ago in the spring of 1972 when a group of, let’s face it, railfans got together to work on saving the St. Clair streetcar.  Streetcars for Toronto was born from a desire to save not just one line, but to establish the streetcar as a model for new rapid transit lines in the then-growing suburbs.  We were successful in our first goal, but the machinations of TTC management, Provincial politicians and technology snake-oil salesmen thwarted what could have been one of North America’s showcase Light Rail networks.  We are starting again, slowly, but we are three decades behind.