The St. Clair Right-of-Way Debate (Updated)

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.

15 thoughts on “The St. Clair Right-of-Way Debate (Updated)

  1. I’ve actually quit the “Toronto Party” over this issue. All of the points you make are valid and most are logical, yet the argument became “oh my god, and this is what they are going to do to sheppard east!”. It is so obvious to those who pay attention that many of these specific prolems (IE the horrible lack of roadspace on St.Clair for all the things they want to cram in there) do not exist along the other routes, but the political damage has been done. This is why I call the TTC “Idiots”; even when they do something right, they manage to do it wrong.


  2. Steve, I call St Clair Avenue Pole city, There are too many poles on this street especially Spadina and St. Clair. Those Pesky centre poles tick me off. I was by Dufferin the other day and I noticed the centre poles have added “clutter” to this neighborhood. These Poles should of been omitted from this design.


  3. Because of the current use of trolleys by the streetcars, the wires have to be positioned just so. When the TTC changes to pantographs, would they be removing some of the poles?

    Steve: You are asking a peevish question in the best tradition of this site. I believe that the initial plans for the “city” network will be to put longer trolley shoes on the new cars, not pantographs, so that they can handle the added power draw without a complete conversion of the overhead suspension.

    If and when they do switch to pantographs, it has huge implications for our complex intersections, and it will take a long time to re-engineer and rebuild the entire network. Considering that they only just started to use hangars that are compatible with pans in the past year, they have a lot of catching up to do.


  4. I can’t believe that SOS is still griping and being a pain to the broader community that supports the St. Clair ROW (myself included). Someone really needs to let them know that there is a time to fight and a time to let go; they’ve definitely had the former, and now it’s time for the latter.

    A few days ago, buses were substituting for the 512 streetcar service. The bus that I was on drove down the length of the ROW at a decent speed, fast enough that we were zipping past the stream of auto traffic. If a 40+’ bus can do this, then why can’t a 47′ fire truck do the same? I doubt that the fire trucks are that much wider than a bus.


  5. I knew this was going to happen (the fire dept and poles debate). I was never in favour of the poles and thought simple overhead wiring similar to the rest of the streetcar network was the answer. Whoever’s bright idea to put the poles up should see the mess and the problems these poles bring up.

    As for a 40′ bus traversing down the ROW, I bet the drivers of these buses are drinking lots and lots of caffeine (and developing good grips on the steering wheels) lest they sideswipe a pole. Mind you, unless someone corrects me, I think the width of a fire truck is a lot less than a bus. So there are definitely some clearance issues, maybe the ROW was designed for buses in mind but not a hulking fire truck.


  6. Reading this entry and the one about the Waterfront West project reminds me of the saying that ” a camel is a horse built by committee”


  7. Interesting comments by Christopher Hume about appropriately sized fire trucks. Who cares how big your fire trucks are, this isn’t a competition!

    At least two recent fires in the old city one at the Trinity Bellwoods and another at Kensington Market were complicated by the monster trucks which I understand replaced smaller models used by the pre-amalgamation TFD.

    Unless someone corrects the “one size fits all” thinking areas like “the Market” will need to be bulldozed to accommodate these behemoths. And bulldozing the neighbourhoods of the old city will be over my and several other dead bodies!

    As with transit it seems that one size fits all is the pervasive thinking at City Hall.


  8. Stephen Cheung wrote: “As for a 40′ bus traversing down the ROW, I bet the drivers of these buses are drinking lots and lots of caffeine (and developing good grips on the steering wheels) lest they sideswipe a pole. Mind you, unless someone corrects me, I think the width of a fire truck is a lot less than a bus. So there are definitely some clearance issues, maybe the ROW was designed for buses in mind but not a hulking fire truck.”

    I have personally driven buses on the St. Clair ROW as well as on the Spadina ROW (at the lower end where there are centre poles BTW). My understanding is that TTC’s buses are as wide as are legal under the HTA. I, therefore cannot see that a fire truck can be any wider than a TTC bus. I am a “carefully selected and trained” professional operator who finds driving on the ROW to be a true test of my driving ability (and yes I do keep a tight grip on the steering wheel!). I would expect that firefighters are just as trained to drive their vehicles as I am to drive mine. I have watched fire trucks on many occasions navigating through traffic and have no doubts as to the driving abilities and skills of their drivers. My opinion is that this whole issue is more about politics than it is about whether or not emergency vehicles can navigate the ROW. It is interesting that the politician who is raising the issue has always been opposed to the St. Clair project!


  9. I’ll start by being up front. I rather like centre poles for wide streets. They make the overhead of the street look tidier and I suspect they are more secure during ice storms etc. Wide streets supporting trolley overhead require very wide poles along the side like there are on Spadina and these are an eyesore because of all the postering. It makes little sense to poster a centre pole.

    Aside from that, is the fire truck situation any worse on the “new” St. Clair than it is on Queen or King or Dundas or most of College to name but a few streeets wihich are not grand avenues like St. Clair?

    Watch for Margaret Smith to run for City Council in the next municipal election.

    Steve: The side poles that hold up the street lights are at almost identical spacings to the centre poles holding up the overhead. If magically we could have ONLY centre poles, then your goal (and a lot of nice streetscaping) would be achieved. However, where we once had two poles, we now have three.


  10. When the planning for the new and improved Regents Park was underway I remember much debate on how the new streets being (re)created in this area would need to be wide enough for the giant fire trucks (and too wide for a compact neighbourhood.) It is thus not only because of the ROW situation that the City needs to reconsider its policy of buying only monster trucks.


  11. It’s sad to hear that labour unions were one of the reasons that fire trucks cannot get to a fire in time – people’s lives are at stake, you’ld think the union would realize that.


  12. Businesses will flourish and fail as they always have, communities will still be intact. People will come and go, move into the area, move out of the area as before and really, the sky is not falling. The discussion just keeps going and going on how St Clair is doomed because of centre poles, sidewalks not big enough and on and on. I for one like the St Clair ROW, I like the centre poles and the line when completed, will be just great. It will serve the citizens of Toronto, but the local people and business will benefit most.

    As I have stated before on this site, I have seen responding fire apparatus on the St Clair right-of-way traveling with apparently no problems. Just because it’s a right-of-way doesn’t mean that the pedal must to the metal! If conditions require it, slow down! Fire vehicles, in particular, slow down for speed bumps or other traffic calming devices that the city builds in the roadways!

    I have seen responding fire apparatus stopped “dead” in traffic in the downtown area, waiting for a distant traffic signal to change so that traffic can try and clear a path. Could fire apparatus have a head-on collision with a streetcar or could it hit a centre pole? Certainly it could! If it’s traveling on King, Queen or Dundas could it hit a streetcar head-on or clip a pole if they are running in the curb lane? Again, certainly it could! Accidents can happen anywhere, anytime and it’s time the SOS group got off their thoughts that they are far worse off than other parts of this City.

    I have ridden a bus, in service, on the St. Clair right-of-way. The driver moved along, at the speed the streetcars move, loaded and unloaded passengers and he didn’t seem to have a problem. The vehicle didn’t loose a mirror to a centre pole nor did it fall off the ROW. The driver was very competent, which is what we expect behind the controls of all TTC vehicles.

    Lets look at the St Clair West Station entrance and exit ramps. Here we have ramps that have always had centre poles, the ramps don’t appear to be wider that the street ROW and the buses and fire apparatus have been using those ramps from day one. It may have happened, but I have not heard about any buses or fire trucks bouncing off the walls or centre poles on the ramps! Before amalgamation and because of the boundary lines between Toronto and York, when there was a Fire Call at St. Clair West Station it would have had double the number of fire apparatus using the ramps, as both the City of Toronto and the City of York would send a “normal response” of apparatus to the location. Again, no problems.

    The tightest spot, from what I can see, for buses and/or fire apparatus passing each other is on the ROW from just east of Bathurst to just west of Vaughan. Vehicles must slow down and proceed with caution when passing. And what can we say about this area? Well, there is no centre poles to blame, not a one!

    Steve: Just a note of clarification: My opposition to the centre poles is comes from the extra metre they take from space that might otherwise be dedicated to wider sidewalks or other street facilities. With the lighting poles on virtually the same spacing as the transit poles, there is a clutter to the street that was not present on the old St. Clair.

    Good design is a question of balancing competing interests for the best overall solution. On St. Clair, the design was decided long before anyone had a chance to comment. Any attempt to change it was met with astonishing resistance and with claims about the evils of side poles that were demonstrably untrue.


  13. What reason, if any, has the TTC given to justify putting those poles smack in the middle of St. Clair?

    Steve: The TTC claims that this arrangement simplifies overhead maintenance. This may be true, but properly maintained span wires don’t fall down often, and they have never produced any stats to indicate the relative benefit of centre poles to other design issues.


  14. Re Centre Poles: It wasn’t just the TTC. The Fire Department had also indicated their preference for the centre poles as they felt that side poles and span wires would be more intrusive for their aerial ladders and general firefighting activities on the sidewalk areas.

    Steve: Seems that the fire department wants it both ways. Centre poles to simplify fire fighting, no poles to simplify driving down the right of way.


  15. The FAQ for the Eglinton LRT contains the following comment about emergency access to the right-of-way:

    Q18) Can emergency vehicles use the dedicated right of way for the LRT?

    Yes. Emergency Medical Services and Fire Services are being consulted on how the LRT right-of-way can be designed to accommodate their vehicles.


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