A Slightly Less Grand Plan

Ontario’s Finance Minister, Dwight Duncan, yesterday announced that the province will run a half-billion dollar deficit thanks to the international financial upheavals and declining economic outlook.  In this context, I spent the day at a Metrolinx “stakeholders’ meeting” where we discussed details of the Draft Regional Transportation Plan and Investment Strategy.  The whole discussion has a surreal air because nobody is quite sure where the billions to pay for this plan will come from.

There is reasonable agreement about the need for better transit, but much suspicion of whether this plan will join its predecessors on library shelves.

In the informal post-meeting chats, I was asked what I would do if the promissed $11.6-billion MoveOntario money didn’t materialize, if we had to cut back the scope of the “top priority” projects to fit a tighter budget.  This is too big an issue for a short chat, and it deserves a post of its own.

Any budgetary cutback discussion must first consider whether to make the “death of 1000 cuts” or to look hard at big ticket items.  If you need to defer or cut spending, there is more money to be found in large projects than small ones, but we may skip reviews of smaller items that really don’t belong at the top of the pile.

A major problem lies in the dearth of information Metrolinx has published about the detailed performance projections and roles of each component in the plan.  We have demand forecasts only for year 2031 where the combined effect of future job and population growth interact with a completed network.  The published data show only peak point counts, not the demands for each network link.  There is no way to understand which links are cost-effective, and there is no data for intermediate states (such as after the “first 15” are built) to show whether they are an appropriate use of whatever resources might be available.

Metrolinx must publish this information as soon as possible.  Meaningful discussions of cutbacks are impossible without it.

This brings me to the “Business Case Analyses” that are in progress already for some of these lines.  These analyses are proceeding in the old, worn-out style of looking at each project individually rather than collections of projects for their combined effect on the network.  From the 2031 projections, we can see that the regional express rail lines and other new major elements have a big impact on demand on the existing network.  Notably, the forecast overload of the subway system doesn’t materialize because there are other high-capacity lines where the demand can flow.

Meanwhile, the TTC’s report on the north Yonge extension to Richmond Hill raises an old, hare-brained scheme to add a third platform at Bloor-Yonge station for increased capacity.  I won’t go into a detailed discussion here beyond saying that this is horrendously complex and expensive, but at least the TTC finally recognizes that subway capacity involves more than new signalling and more trains. 

The real question, however, is whether the money would be better spent on alternate services to divert riding with new options for travel to the core area.  Should some projects — the Richmond Hill regional express and/or the east leg of the Downtown Relief subway — be moved up as alternatives or as key pre-requisites?  That’s the kind of comparative analysis Metrolinx and the TTC are not doing, but should.

Next we come to project phasing.  Do we really need a line all the way to Richmond Hill?  Is there a shorter “phase I” that will have significant benefits without the cost of the full line?  Analysis on an all-or-nothing basis doesn’t give us staging options.

We need to be open about “the untouchables”, the projects with political clout that soak up billions of dollars because someone wants to see them built.  There is no point in talking about fiscal restraint if billions in proposed spending can’t be reviewed.  A related question is how that “top 15” list came into existence in the first place. 

Some time ago, the Metrolinx Board approved this grab-bag as likely top candidates that should be analyzed in more detail.  However, that analysis isn’t even started for many of them, and there is every possibility that the analyses may show that some projects don’t pull their weight, at least in the short term.  I may be splitting hairs, but that “top 15” has gone from candidates for early study to the definitive list of first projects without benefit of formal approval.  If we are to have a spending review, we must stop assuming that this list has the force of detailed review and blessing.

Oddly, it’s almost an afterthought in the Draft RTP — Metrolinx doesn’t even include a map showing the network with only these lines completed.

The subway to Vaughan is a special case.  There is supposed to be a trust fund holding the funding from Queen’s Park, Ottawa, York Region and Toronto.  Is this money really sitting in a bank somewhere?  Does the provincial share come out of the $11.6-billion MoveOntario pot?  Can we step back and ask questions about why this line is so important?  For starters, someone has to reconcile demand projections in York Region’s own EA that would make the Sheppard subway look busy with the impetus to build this line.  Metrolinx does not break out the section north of Steeles as a separate project, and the published demand for the line gives only the peak point value (likely just north of Downsview Station).

The TTC is already studying alternatives to the SRT including LRT conversion of the existing line.  The original recommendation to keep Skytrain technology only made sense for a line that remained at its existing length or had a short extension.  The further north it goes (Markham is a mooted destination), the less practical and more expensive Skytrain is relative to LRT.  Keeping the RT was a bad recommendation skewed by a desire to preserve Bombardier’s showcase technology, and we cannot afford to avoid this debate.

On the Sheppard/Finch corridor, current thinking is headed toward an eastward extension of the Finch LRT to Don Mills (where it would connect to the Don Mills line) and a westward extension of the subway to Downsview.  These may be viable projects in the long term, but we have to consider them separately from the original Transit City proposals.  Indeed, the Don Mills LRT isn’t even in the “top 15”, and there isn’t much point building the Finch line east of Yonge until it has something to connect with.

At Finch Station, there are big problems with the bus terminal and with the design of a future LRT interchange.  What happens if the subway extension gets underway and much of the bus operation shifts north?

On Eglinton, a line whose projected peak ridership is similar to both of the subway extensions, but whose extent provides rapid transit service to a far larger area, we are faced with an expensive central tunneled section that cannot be avoided.  Indeed, the size of this project requires that it be started sooner rather than later so that its benefits as a key part of the overall network can be available.

In the Don Mills corridor, should the DRL end at Danforth or continue north to Eglinton with a major transit hub linking the Eglinton and Don Mills LRT lines to the DRL subway?  This won’t be part of the “top 15” list, but the Don Mills Transit City study would make a lot more sense if the TTC stopped trying to shoehorn an LRT right-of-way into Pape or Broadview.  That scheme (and related alignments) are holdovers from the days when this was a BRT study, and this nonsense has to stop.

On the Weston/Brampton rail corridor, why do we persist with the fantasy of the Toronto Air Rail Link (TARL, formerly called “Blue 22”) that will chew up track space for a premium fare service on the same route as a proposed regional express service to Brampton?  How much does the private sector-proponent of the line hope to make from this service?  Can they be bought off?  Is it cheaper to not build Blue 22 and devote the resources to upgrading GO in the same corridor?

What are the possibilities for the CPR North Toronto Subdivision?  What options do we have for cross-region service via this corridor especially as an alternative way for riders from the north-east to get into the city without using the RT/subway network?  Negotiating with CPR won’t be easy, but doing nothing may condemn us to building rapid transit capacity elsewhere we might not actually require.

If there is a common thread in all of this, it’s a simple message:  Metrolinx started off designing a network, and they must not lose sight of the network view of any solutions.  Look at revisions to the plan as a whole, look at where the benefits are greatest in the short term so that we spend what money is available on projects that will show real improvements for transit.

Toronto has decades of making wrong, expensive choices, and transit suffers a well-deserved reputation as an “also ran” thanks to those decisions.  Provincial belt-tightening is just the opportunity we need to focus on what really works, on what we really need.

14 thoughts on “A Slightly Less Grand Plan

  1. Hi Steve:-

    Agreed wholeheartedly! My question is though, why does it take a real crisis for governments and their agencies to now be forced into thoughts like these? Should this not have been the thinking by the powers that be all along? To consider where money would be best spent, rather than squander some on the prima donna project(s) and then get on with the network, maybe! Sheeeesh!



  2. One transit hub that needs a large investiment is Square One/Mississauga City Center area. This area has to be in the top 15 because next to Union Station it is the busiest transit hub in the GTAH. I would like to see some kind of light rail link to the Bloor subway divert all the MT buses that presently use Islington Station as one of their destinations. With an electric rail link to the B/D subway a lot of polluting bus traffic would be removed from our streets. I know that most MT users would get on the GO to get down T.O. but presently a lot of MT buses that transport non-GO Mississauga Transit users to Toronto’s system. I think the ridership is already there and just needs the proper type of infrastructure built to support it.


  3. Thanks for the caring, careful analysis and calling for a proper review. I have serious concerns about the speed to put “shovels in the ground” when I have less confidence about the merits of some of the plans being short-listed. We may waste a few hundred million here and there, and for what?

    Another concern is that this is all more of a suburban drain on compact urban form that ignores the older city of Toronto and the transit needs there while pouring great resources in to lower density residential and job sprawl in an effort to fix the unfixable – because they won’t change land use and densities.


  4. Steve:-

    Excellent editorial!

    I wonder if anyone has ever studied the economic impact of building infrastructure like public transit versus giving tax breaks, loan guarantees and cash to the perennial basket case big three automakers. My guess is that building infrastructure provides greater overall value at a lower cost.

    I echo Mark’s comment, transit does seem to be a “frill” that can be ignored when times are tough; “State of good repair” anyone?


  5. The CPR North Toronto Sub makes far more sense for what is esssentially a Regional service than does Eglinton.

    Regarding Eglinton, if the line is tunneled and the same plan is followed as on Yonge and Bloor?Danforth, the line will likely run behind the stores on Egliton rather than directly under the street. If this is the case, why not build it as an off street surface LRT. This appears to have been done for the Metropoilitan Division to the west of Yonge although I don’t know that the track was ever used.

    Steve: The alignment will be understreet because taking the property “behind the stores” in many cases involves demolition of some rather large residential buildings. In Leaside, it’s low-rise residential on both sides. From Bayview to west of Yonge, there are high rises on both sides of the street. Past Duplex, you’re back to low-rise commercial/residential. Through Forest Hill don’t even think of coming onto the surface and chopping a piece off of back yards behind the commercial strip.

    The BD and Yonge lines were able to build where they are only because these areas were all old, low-rise and in some cases run down areas, and demolishing houses for subway construction was acceptable in the 50s and early 60s. Eglinton is a very different place, and 2008 is a very different time.


  6. Extend the subway to Steeles and stop for now. As you said yourself, the bus terminal at Finch is very crowded. Finch as well is one of the three “new downtown” stops, and should not also have to serve as the “north toronto” stop and as well the “york region” stop. Part of the problem is we don’t have any place to put the people. It’d be like adding extra lanes to the allen highway. Great, except what are all those new cars to do when they reach eglinton? By the time a train reaches eglinton it is full of people and shoving more people on the subway in Richmond Hill is not going to help that.

    That being said, Finch as a terminal should not be one of the busiest stations, this means there needs to be an extension. Go to Steeles, build a TTC terminal on the southwest corner and a YRT terminal on the northeast. When we find ways to deal with the overcrowding, then we can build into Richmond Hill. Until then we can use the money to actually get Transit City going before the government decides it has other “priorities” and it becomes another “what could have been”


  7. There has to be improvements somewhere on the system, even if it’s just BRT. (Upsetting) If we can build BRT and convert it to LRT if it’s quote “Boom Times” then so be it. Something has to be done, and it has to be done now!


  8. Nick J Boragina wrote, “When we find ways to deal with the overcrowding, then we can build into Richmond Hill.”

    My position for sometime has been to extend the subway to Steeles (there are 2 TTC routes (not counting the Yonge route) and 9 YRT/VIVA routes (not counting some express routes) that use the full Steeles-Finch stretch of Yonge. Using Finch and Steeles both as turn back points will be idea for increasing capacity when the new signaling system is in and the half-as-often train frequency north of Finch can easily handle the load of these buses.

    Beyond Steeles, using LRT as a “pre-metro” feeder makes far more sense than further extending a 30,000 people per hour mode further out. The added benefit is that for the same money, it can reach farther, or if cash is tight, it can be built to the same length for less money and extended as cash becomes available.

    The entire Spadina extension should look at the “pre-metro” idea of using LRT.


  9. I was at the Metrolinx forum on Wed. Oct. 22. Some of these same issues were raised at our table.

    If the senior governments are not going to come through with as much money as expected, allegedly due to the recession, then what happens?

    Obviously there is more than one project going on at a given time so it one option is to just slow things down. Thus what is planned for 15 years would take, say, 20 years. The question then arose: “Who gets to decide which projects get delayed?” Will the province adopt a “Hands-off approach” and let Metrolinx (which includes the board) decide which go ahead?

    What is the review process? They have to make a number of assumptions about the future. The longer the time frame, the more “iffy” they are. One can demonstrate, now, a need for certain projects to be undertaken. However, once one project, whether an LRT/BRT or improved GO service occurs, then people change their habits and suddenly there isn’t the demand for the other project(s) that target the same group.

    If the Finch and Jane LRT’s are built then that improves access to the York campus for certain groups of commuters. Thus there would be less of a crowd at Downsview waiting for the buses. (Also by that time the busway would be built.) Throw in better VIVA service and better GO service and you can mothball the subway extension.

    Similarly with transit to the airport. If all these LRT’s & BRT’s will connect to the airport then what demand is there for a rail link especially the Blue 22 boondoggle? People who work at the airport generally don’t live downtown in the vicinity of Union Station.


  10. what wrong with TTC? I will not ride on LRT on ground! I hate LRT on ground! Im perfer LRT in underground or Subway! If TTC can’t afford it, why not rise price from $ 2.75 to $ 3.00 or $ 3.25 a simple? we want is “express in underground” LRT or Subway! not LRT on ground or Streetcar or bus because road will more traffic! I know City of Toronto will hit 3,100,000 between 3,200,000 Population by 2031 (only 23 years left go ahead) but right now Toronto near 2,700,000 then might rise to 3,500,000 by 2031 … If Government did out of control with Population Number.

    Ontario Government’s Project for Toronto Population:
    2011 – 2,698,490
    2016 – 2,800,280
    2021 – 2,896,510
    2026 – 2,979,650
    2031 – 3,045,160

    In My Opinion, TTC need build more Subway Line

    1. Downtown Relief Line
    (from Dundas West Station to Union Station to Pape Station)

    2. Sheppard Line
    (from Don Mills Station to Scarborough Centre Station)
    Add Willowdale Station (between Sheppard-Yonge Station and Bayview Station)
    (from Sheppard-Yonge Station to Downsview Station wait for next 10-15 years for more money)

    3. Eglinton Line
    (from Eglinton West to Pearson International Airport Station)
    (from Eglinton West to East … wait for more funds if they need it, how much capacity?)

    Canada Government, Ontario Government and City of Toronto … really wasted their own idea, what is stupid? why we need LRT? during winter time, I have to stand and wait for LRT, I feel so freeze and cold!!! I would not happy with it so why they need Blue 22? look at Vancouver, they got Skytrain to YVR! look at New York City, they got Subway to JFK! what wrong with Toronto? I feel very embarrassed because I am Ontarian and I always love Toronto since I was kid but TTC look so messed up!

    My Opinion, 3 Subway Lines would be WORTH IT more than 7 LRT Lines. I wished I am Mayor or Government, I would re-think about Future, Not Present! that why all my friends live in Toronto and they always said “TTC is BAD SERVICE EVER!” what I ever heard all the time! I did asking all of my friends “which you like Bus or Streetcar or Subway?” and they answered me, all of them perfer Subway!

    Steve: Well, Tim, aside from your atrocious grammar, you have not been paying much attention to TTC plans and alternatives now under study.

    1. Downtown Relief Line. It’s part of the Metrolinx 25-year plan, and is worth study as a way to reduce the need to build more capacity into the existing Yonge line. The TTC is not proposing to build LRT in this corridor and, although I have supported LRT here in the past, the projected demand is such that subway technology may be more appropriate.

    2. Sheppard Subway. The extension to Downsview is one of the options under study by both the TTC and Metrolinx as a means of simplifying the route structure across the top of the city. Don’t hold your breath for an eastern extension further than Consumers Road because the demand just isn’t there.

    3. Eglinton. The proposed LRT line is to be in a tunnel at least from Weston to Leaside, possibly from Jane to east of Don Mills. This is under study by the TTC and Metrolinx.

    As far as construction costs, bumping up the fares a dollar will not come close to paying for a full subway network.


  11. Am I reading the foregoing right? They’re actually considering extending the Sheppard subway to Downsview? I know I saw a report a few years back which clearly stated that an extension west to Downsview had been eliminated from consideration. I don’t think anyone should hold their breath on that ever happening or, for that matter, an eastward extension to Consumers Road. I’m having an extremely rough time believing any extension will ever happen. If I’m wrong I’ll show up for opening day festivities wearing nothing but a pair of tightknit gym shorts i still have from my teen years thirty years ago and a pair of sandals!

    Steve: There are some strange ideas floating around in planning circles. One big problem with the Metrolinx process is that the first round consists mainly of drawing lines on maps. Missing links look important whether they really are or not. Sheppard at this point might be a subway all the way across, or an LRT conversion of the existing line.

    Metrolinx doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty — stuff like how much the line would actually cost and what benefit it would have — until after the map is settled, and then only on a project-by-project basis, exactly the wrong way to build a network.

    By then the political pressure to build something overtakes economics. I won’t say anything about those subways north of Steeles Avenue that could have been the beginnings of a large LRT network in York Region.


  12. I too wonder why Mayor David Miller and Councillor Adam Giambrone are so anxious to put shovels in the ground next year when so many details need to be sorted out regarding Transit City?

    Steve…is there a way you could talk to them and tell them to slow down in order to make sure they get this massive plan right?

    Steve: Actually, Queen’s Park is anxious to have shovels in the ground on as much as possible as soon as possible. The challenge has been to make sure that whatever gets fast-tracked is properly thought out. The portion of Sheppard that will start construction late in 2009 is common to all plans. The detailed options and design for Eglinton and Finch West are still under study, and I would be surprised to see any actual construction on either of them before 2010 at best.


  13. Being a relatively uninformed newcomer to all of these nice transit ideas, one thought keeps returning. There is another alternative for connecting the Don Mills LRT to the BD subway. It seems obvious to me, but no one seems to see it. The proposed routing as initially publicized goes down Overlea, and Millwood and then Pape. But… but… Donlands starts there as well, and would seem to me to allow more juggling of rights of way than either Pape or O’Connor + Broadview. I expect I’m missing something rather obvious, but I don’t see the immediate issue with using an improved Donlands station as the interconnection point. It’s not like the Pape Station bus/subway connect is all that marvelous.

    Steve: Yes, there are strong arguments for Donlands as an alternative especially considering problems getting across the Don Valley south of Thorncliffe Park. The routing across the Leaside bridge has problems with curve radii, and an underground Donlands route would better locate the line for a dedicated valley crossing further east.

    Much of the planning for this route was hamstrung by the project starting as a proposed busway, and buses would run on existing roads. If we untether the route from the road system, there are better options.


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