Some months ago, John Sewell gave a series of talks about the origins of suburbia. Among the fascinating background materials were several maps showing the expressway network in what we now call the GTA and beyond.
Some of these maps are now 70 years old, but they clearly show the precursors of many of the 400 series highways. Many decisions about future land use and development turned on alignments that Ontario identified and protected years before they were needed. Long term planning has benefits, but it can also be an invisible hand directing the future.
Three long-lived transportation projects in Toronto come to mind. All shared two common factors:
- property development interests played a role in advocacy for these projects, and
- all of the projects were “too expensive”, but they stayed on the books
One project is already built albeit in shortened form, one is in early days of construction, and one refuses to die even though it’s little more than a billboard and a perfunctory website.
There are two official reasons for this line:
- It was deemed essential to transportation needs of downtown North York, and intensification on Sheppard was not to proceed without it. This was a clever ruse to link development pressure with Mayor Lastman’s dream of Sheppard & Yonge as the centre of the universe.
- David Peterson wanted to get re-elected. In the runup to the 1990 election, Peterson announced a “subway in every pot” plan including Sheppard, Spadina/York U, Bloor West to Dixie, Eglinton West, the RT to Malvern and the Waterfront West LRT. Sheppard was not in this list originally and had been rejected due to cost, but Peterson wanted the entire package to have more heft (if we say we will spend more, it shows more “commitment” to transit in Toronto).
A line nobody except Lastman and his friends really expected would be built got official status as an election goodie.
Peterson lost the election to Bob Rae and the NDP for whom subway projects meant jobs for an ailing construction industry, never mind any concerns about cost-effectiveness. Sheppard started along with a bit of Eglinton, but that lasted only to the Mike Harris Years. Harris wanted to kill Sheppard as well as Eglinton, but backed off to placate the then-anti-Megacity Mel.
“Downtown North York” has developed and despite Sheppard being barely half a line, and as predicted most of the riders go to downtown. Local bus service on Sheppard from Yonge to Don Mills is a shadow of its former self because there is so little local demand (and the TTC’s lack of a decent minimum service quality policy for this type of area).
This project was moribund thanks to Mike Harris, but York University’s lobbyist could be seen regularly at TTC meetings making sure his project stayed in view. Along came the Ridership Growth Strategy as a way of improving surface operations at low cost with a good payback in ridership, but the subway fraternity worried that their projects would be sidelined. TTC management (and no doubt friends of the Spadina subway extension project) engineered an amendment to RGS in which the TTC embraced the Spadina and Sheppard Subway Extensions as their top priorities.
I asked then Chairman Moscoe why he let this go through, and his answer was, in effect, don’t worry, we will never have the money to build it. However, the TTC was now officially on record supporting these lines and that vote showed up over and over again as justification for further work on plans. Queen’s Park, ever so happy to respond to TTC’s official wishes when they happened to support a pet project of the Liberal Party, promptly set up a Trust Fund arrangement so that monies from any government could be sequestered for future use on this project, and this alone. No raiding the piggy bank for new buses or better service.
The VCC extension crept into sight again thanks to the Liberals. Civic leaders, wary of offending senior governments, stayed mum assuming that Ottawa would never pay up and the project would just die.
Surprise! Stephen Harper wants votes in the 905, the line is funded and now we have to build and operate it. Meanwhile property owners will happily benefit from a transit connection to downtown.
Front Street Extension
Hamish Wilson, an advocate for whom every issue is somehow connected with Front Street, recently wrote to me about Go Transit:
Under-reported and under-appreciated are the possible harm to the GO service from the Front St. Extension and the moving of the Lakeshore West railtracks for the road tunnel under them to just west of Bathurst. I can’t remember exactly what Gary McNeil said at the Feb. St. Lawrence Centre forum and the record has not, repeat not been available as a podcast, but he seemed to say that the FSE would mess up the GO Lakeshore West service for a year or three. Since GO brings in 3 of 4 people in that corridor, why are we doing this?
The c. $60M to be spent in moving the railtracks could likely buy about two new trainsets. If we’d devoted the entire $250M FSE cost to GO transit instead of a road folly and started to build the trainsets, we could have had about 6 new trainsets built by now. We’ve been waiting for four years for a decision on the request for an Individual EA vs. the Class EA [for the FSE] but we can’t seem to make up our mind as to whether we like transit or more record heat and early smog. It’s nuts: we wish to build subways to sprawl and big roadways in the core that messes up the effective transit.
My own notes from the St. Lawrence Centre Forum show that McNeil said that the FSE would be “very bad” for GO and would disrupt the Lakeshore service for five years.
Recently, I came across demand estimates for the waterfront road network buried in a report for the East Bayfront LRT at page 15. With the full buildout of proposed new developments, by 2021 the projected peak hour road volume eastbound at Dufferin Street is 6,900 on the Gardiner and 800 on Front Street. The Gardiner is still running way over capacity, and the FSE is barely over 50%. Some of this obviously can change by tuning the model, but I am surprised nobody noticed this projection, flagged it, and buried it from public view.
The premise of the FSE is that we must build it in order to take traffic that would be diverted if the central part of the Gardiner were demolished. Does anyone still believe we will actually do this? Suburban councillors are apoplectic at the thought of tearing down the expressway because their constituents will be stuck in traffic when they try to go through or into the old part of the city. Without their support, this project will not happen.
The FSE/Gardiner teardown strikes me as one of those phony linkages between issues just like our “need” for a Sheppard Subway to handle traffic from new developments in North York.
There may be a rationale for a local road along the bottom of Liberty Village connecting to Front at Bathurst, but we don’t need a quarter-billion dollar project to build it. Developers may gripe that would-be condo buyers won’t be able to drive straight onto the Gardiner and west to Mississauga or north to Markham. Sigh. If they want to work there, let them buy condos there. We should not be building expensive expressway connections so that out-commuters will line up to buy in a neighbourhood that much more logically is part of downtown.
Maybe, the FSE is a case where we need to take the line off the map and sometime not too far from now people will stop trying to reserve funding for it. The Sheppard Subway extension “priority” is now replaced with the Sheppard East LRT in Transit City, and there’s hope that the tyranny of old plans might finally be waning.
Each of these projects was or may be a lost opportunity to change direction, to build what is really needed rather than following an old plan whose time has come and gone. Please don’t tell me about York U and its subway. An LRT network running through the university would have done wonders for access to that site at a fraction of the cost.
Will Transit City be another long dormant plan? Will we have to wait 20 years or more for it to gain the status of manifest destiny? I hope not, indeed I hope to be riding LRT lines all over the city 20 years from now.