Two days ago, Toronto’s Planning & Growth Management Committee approved both the Environmental Assessment Report for the Sheppard East LRT and an Official Plan Amendment extending the scope of the transit corridor east on Sheppard to match the LRT line.
Scarborough Councillors popped the Champagne corks, or at least sparkling water, and I got an invitation to talk about the significance of the occasion on Metro Morning.
This should be a big event — approval of the first leg in a suburban LRT network. Back in 1972, the Streetcars for Toronto Committee fought to save what we now call the “legacy” system as a base for suburban expansion, and I have waited a very, very long time for this day.
Over the decades, a combination of Provincial meddling in transit and local subway megalomania stymied transit’s ability to keep up with, let alone form suburban growth. All the planning mantras about leading development with transit from the sixties and seventies are little more than quaint memories.
Finally, early in 2007, the TTC and City announced the Transit City plan for a network of seven new LRT lines. Work began immediately on detailed studies, and three EAs are already underway with the Sheppard Line’s being the first to come up for approval. The Don Mills study recently had a round of public meetings, and the Eglinton study will roll out in the fall. Add to these the non-TC projects in the eastern waterfront and the Kingston Road study, not to mention proposals outside of Toronto, and there’s a lot of LRT on the table.
But wait — don’t start buying your LRT souvenir kits yet.
Once again, Queen’s Park, this time in the guise of Metrolinx, is poised to derail LRT planning in Toronto. In their White Paper on regional transit options, two of the three test networks show a “Metro” on Sheppard from Downsview to the Scarborough Town Centre, and on Eglinton from Kennedy to the Airport. So much for two of the critical, top priority Transit City lines. If this goes ahead, we will be left a much less extensive, fragmented LRT network. That’s a recipe for going nowhere fast.
Metrolinx has concocted a new term “Metro”, but doesn’t really tell us what it is. Word leaking out of Metrolinx suggests that it may mean, on Eglinton at least, an underground “RT” line. This is extremely troubling because the projected demand on Eglinton is way below that needed to justify RT technology, and this has all the earmarks of yet another sweetheart deal for Bombardier.
Even though the public meetings for Eglinton have not started, we already know from statements by the TTC that the underground portion will be built to accommodate future conversion to full subway. Personally, I think this is excessive, but given the cost and upheaval of underground construction, better this be done at the outset.
Eglinton’s big advantage as LRT is that it can surface in the outer sections and greatly lower construction costs. It can also interline with other routes including Jane and an airport-to-downtown service if we ever break the stranglehold Blue-22 has on the Weston corridor. As RT, it’s a one-of, albeit a big one-of.
A major problem with the whole Metrolinx process is that it operates completely outside of the normal assessment protocol for municipal projects. We still don’t have projected demand figures for individual parts of their test networks, and so have no indication of which components make the greatest contribution to better transit usage and connectivity. How can there be technology selections without knowing what the lines will actually achieve?
Of course, Queen’s Park is good at this sort of thing having foisted the Toronto-York subway on us, and probably a Richmond Hill line for good measure. Publishing demand estimates for the entire network might be just a tad embarrassing. Metrolinx would also have to explain why their demand estimates are so much different from the TTC’s and why they chose different technologies for specific corridors.
Metrolinx is fond of public consultation, but the overwhelming purpose seems to be to validate work they have already done, not to direct its future. By the time of recent “stakeholder meetings”, it was clear that the “test cases” were the basis for whatever was going into the draft Regional Plan if only because they had such little time and resources to try out alternatives. Anyone who knows how reports get written in the public sector (or private for that matter) can work backward from the target publication date to a point where, for all practical purposes, major changes are impossible. That date passed at least a month ago.
If there is one thing Metrolinx seems to be good at, it’s proposing that we spend lots and lots and lots of money. In the current setting, the feeling seems to be that we have a transportation crisis and we have to spend our way out of it.
Spending money as a transit policy is nothing new. David Peterson’s Liberals announce a “subway in every borough” plan that even the TTC didn’t know about just before they were defeated by the NDP. The Sheppard subway, originally omitted from the mix because of its cost, was reinstated to make the total dollar value look credible as an election goody.
The NDP inherited this plan and seized on it as a job creation process for the construction industry as the early 1990s recession set in. They were totally uninterested in looking at lower cost alternatives.
Oddly enough, even Metrolinx acknowledges that just building more transit isn’t enough, and we will have to fundamentally change the way people think about travel (and the travel demand itself) to achieve Provincial targets in reduced emissions.
Some of this will come from technological change — the demise of the gas guzzler — and some from the ownership and use of fewer cars per household. Some will come from long term changes in land use and travel patterns, but this sort of thing takes decades to make an impact.
Meanwhile, Metrolinx proposes spending tens of billions on transit, mainly on regional services and infrastructure, but misses the most important component, local systems. A transit trip starts at the front door and the local bus stop, and much better local service is essential to make transit a real alternative to car travel in most of the GTAH.
After transit became politically important with the demise of the Spadina Expressway, we had one plan after another that would spend billions on projects of dubious value, most of which were never built. They succeeded only in convincing people that the transit alternative was too expensive and unreliable. Metrolinx can build a good network or they can build an expensive network, but I have yet to see how they will marry the two concepts in a network that is an effective use of capital and operating funds.
Creative accounting is another potential boondoggle for Metrolinx in which we might finance transit lines by having the private sector build them and lease them back to us, possibly even operate them. Until now, capital debt costs (or long term lease arrangements) that are carried by municipal or provincial budgets have not shown up on transit operator’s budgets as a yearly expense to be recouped from subsidy or from riders. We must be very careful not to so burden transit with a huge debt (whatever we call it) that we cannot afford to operate the service.
Only yesterday, I sat in the Metro Morning studio as Michael Hlinka talked about the decline of the auto industry and the possible bankruptcy of General Motors. This has big implications for Ontario’s ability to finance a big transit network. We could spend all our money on a few lines with the maximum vote-getting potential. We could choose technologies because the vendor has a shiny brochure rather than because they are appropriate. And we will be right back where the last decades have brought us with a transit system that cannot serve, let alone attract, the vast majority of potential customers.
There are two maps, two visions of where Toronto’s transit should go. Transit City should have been part of the Official Plan, but thanks to interagency politics it wasn’t. In a way we were lucky because the prevailing wisdom at the time was heavily subway-oriented. Now, with Metrolinx, it’s almost as if Transit City never happened. Yes, some of the lines are still there, but I’m not convinced that Metrolinx really understands what they were supposed to do or how an LRT network could work.
My fear for all the people on Sheppard East who might ride the LRT four years from now is that they will wait a very long time thanks to a ham-fisted regional agency that would rather build big and bold than build well.