Updated July 5: Christopher Hume wrote again in yesterday’s Star on the issue of giant fire trucks.
The St. Clair transit right-of-way issue surfaced again recently with the publication of a report by Toronto District Fire Chief Robert Leek claiming that the design was unsafe for emergency vehicles. Only a day later, the Fire Chief Bill Stewart walked the route with TTC Chief general Manager Gary Webster and concluded (also here) that with some minor adjustments, there was nothing wrong with the route.
Disagreements like this are nothing to scoff at, and they come in the context of rumours that various municipal agencies were forced to toe the line on approving the St. Clair design. We will never know how much truth lies there, and the issue remains clouded in politics.
Without question, the arrival of such a report, its release on the date of a TTC Commission meeting, and its release through the office of a Councillor known to oppose the St. Clair project put the debate in totally the wrong light. Instead of a legitimate technical discussion, we have a political ambush placing the Fire Chief in an untenable position of contradicting his District Chief or of disavowing previous sign-offs to the St. Clair design.
The St. Clair project overall is not without its problems, some of which arise from trying to squeeze too much out of the available road space. The TTC wants wider safety islands. The Transportation Department wants left turn lanes. Everybody wants more sidewalk space, not to mention bike lanes. There just isn’t enough to go around.
Add to this, the TTC’s pig-headed insistence on using centre poles for overhead support. Very early in the public consultation process, it was clear that this was a non-negotiable part of the design, even though it required a right-of-way one metre wider than otherwise necessary. Various claims were made including:
- Maintenance of the power distribution was simpler with underground feeders buried in the right-of-way and connected to the overhead via taps running up the centre poles.
- Complete elimination of wiring between side poles would simplify emergency access by the Fire Department.
- Fewer lighting poles would be needed if they did not also need to hold span wires.
In fact, nothing prevents the TTC from putting feeders underground on any route, regardless of where the poles might be, except for their own penny pinching. Indeed, only recently, the TTC rejected a proposal to underground its feeders unless another agency paid the cost. On St. Clair, they got to bundle the work with the line’s reconstruction.
Complete elimination of wiring beside buildings has been a gradual process throughout the original City of Toronto as Hydro slowly moves its plant underground, but even that work affects only major streets, and many streets have brand-new pole-mounted distribution lines.
As for the lighting, it turned out that the light fixtures chosen for St. Clair (again a design choice made before the plans were made public, and a choice that discarded the historic “acorn” lamps used in the original City of Toronto) would not provide enough illumination if the poles were moved further apart. In fact, between Yonge and Bathurst (the completed section of the route), the pole spacing for lighting is almost identical to that for overhead supports. No sidewalk space was saved, and indeed, road width was lost because of the extra room for the centre pole line.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the lamps originally installed on St. Clair regularly burned out because of poor ventillation design in the luminaires, all of which had to be replaced.
The centre pole design has, alas, been repeated on Fleet Steet where the long, gentle curve requires many closely spaced poles that add nothing to the streetscape.
These poles, of course, are one major part of the debate about the right-of-way design because they make use of the streetcar lanes by free-wheeling vehicles (buses, fire trucks, etc) more difficult as there isn’t a clear two-lane path occupied only by the occasional streetcar.
The St. Clair project suffers also from appallingly slow construction. After losing a year to a court challenge about the project overall, the TTC and City of Toronto are proceeding at a glacial pace, and construction will not finish until late 2009. The “2007” stage of work (east of Dufferin to west of Lansdowne) only now in the final stages of completion, and the “2008” work will, with luck, finish before the snow flies. Slow construction progress does not make for good neighbourly relations with the affected communities.
At St. Clair West Station, the TTC encountered an unexpected set of power cables buried in the station structure, and these were exposed during repairs to an expansion joint. That was good for many months of delay, and they have still not yet scheduled reconstruction of the approach ramps into the station. I am sure they will find a way to stretch that out to a two or three month project sometime in 2009 just when everyone was hoping to experience construction-free rides on most of the line.
If this is a harbinger of what we will see on Transit City, we will all wait a very long time for that network to be completed.
Returning to the Fire Department, we find the problems are not all of the TTC’s making. Christopher Hume wrote yesterday about how “standards” about road geometry arise from TFD’s insistence on buying large vehicles. This affects street layouts especially in the older part of the city whenever changes are proposed, as well as designs for new neighbourhoods. Large streets with broad intersections are needed to handle large vehicles, and only the best of suburban street design will do. As Hume points out, cities all over the world have narrow streets and deal with this by acquiring fire equipment sized for their geometry.
The St. Clair project is a tangle of competing political and technical interests and none of the agencies involved, including the TTC, shines out as a voice of reason. Today, the hope is just to get the work finished and move on to something else. However, St. Clair was to be the great shining example of what could be done with surface rail transit on a wide street. That shine is a bit tarnished, and that colours discussions of lines like Sheppard, the new hoped-for example of what can be achieved.
The TTC has to get this one right. So far, I am pleased with the calibre of public information and involvement in the Sheppard LRT project’s Environmental Assessment, but the best attempts can be screwed up by last-minute design changes and poorly managed construction.
Meanwhile back on St. Clair, the public meetings and design proposals for the last stage (Caledonia to Keele) are yet to come. I hope that the designers will accept that this section has a narrower street, and that it passes through a neighbourhood only now getting on its feet economically. A good, sensitive design, executed as quickly as possible, is needed to complete this project on a positive note.