Union Station Funding Approved

Today, Queen’s Park and Ottawa announced their funding contributions to the Union Station Revitalization project.  Ottawa will spend up to $133-million while Queen’s Park will spend $172-million toward the $640-million total.

At a special Council meeting early in August, Toronto will likely announce the private sector partner who will take the head lease for all of the commercial space in the expanded station, and this lease is expected to contribute a substantial amount to the City’s share of the project.  That partner will be responsible for managing all commercial tenancies.

On other sites that I will not bother to cross-link, there has been an overflowing of bilge on several fronts including the civic workers and VIA strikes, Mayor Miller, spending on “a building that works”, among other arguments.  The level of misinformation, deliberate or otherwise, is staggering.

To refresh everyone’s memory, here is what we are getting for all that money:

  • Restoration of a physical building which has been disintegrating for several years.  Some of this work has already been done or is underway by the City notably the windows in the west wing and the bridge over the Front Street moat.
  • Creation of a completely new two-level concourse area under much of the station.  This will be achieved by digging down so that the lower level is at roughly the same elevation as the existing subway station mezzanine.  The new upper level will handle GO passengers, and will be roughly three times the size of the existing GO area.  The lower level will provide general circulation and shopping.
  • GO improvements and other changes in the station will accomodate a doubling of demand expected at this site over the next decades.  This could not occur without the reconstruction and the provision of greatly expanded pedestrian areas.
  • The lower level of the west wing, now occupied by car rentals and underutilized back-of-house space, will be converted to GO and commercial space.  This work will be completed before work moves to the existing GO space and empty former Post Office areas in the east wing. 
  • Why shopping?  Aside from all the commuters, there will be a large population right outside the soon-to-open south door of Union Station occupying both office towers and condos.  The character of commercial uses in the station should be improved so that it does not appear like an overgrown dollar store.
  • Energy efficiency of the building will be substantially improved, and air conditioning will be provided with deep water cooling from the lake.  Energy is a major operating cost for the station today.
  • The connection to the subway station will be revised to eliminate the stairway between the subway mezzanine and the moat.  The moat will be enclosed so that travellers don’t have to endure the weather, whatever it  may be, to reach the subway and the PATH network beyond.
  • A new northwest PATH connection will be created from Union Station north via York Street to Wellington.  This will divert many commuters from the eastern connection and ease congestion on that side of the station.
  • GO Transit will buy and move into the vacant west wing offices from their leased space at the foot of Bay Street.  These offices will be renovated to modern requirements, but some heritage areas will be retained.
  • Connections between various parts of the building will be improved, and new links will be added to simplify access between sections and to spread out pedestrian traffic.  For example, there will be links to the new GO concourses through the archways in the south wall of the Great Hall now occupied by the Security Office (east) and Harvey’s (west).
  • A new south entrance, built as part of the recent GO Transit platform work, will give passengers direct access to a plaza between the station, the Air Canada Centre and other new developments in the area.  A new taxi stand in this area is intended for use by arriving VIA passengers to separate them from the activity on Front Street.
  • The east entrance via the old Post Office, now Scotiabank, will be reopened and the space on the ground floor will become part of the public area of the railway station.
  • Renovation of the York Street teamways for pedestrian use in a manner similar to what is now in place on Bay Street.
  • This heritage building will be restored, where appropriate, by stripping off more recent additions such as mid-60s ticket counters.
  • GO Transit will rebuild the trainshed substantially in the form it now has but (a) cleaner and brighter, (b) with provision for future electrification and (c) with a glass atrium roof running the length of the shed in the area directly above the VIA concourse (the location is dictated by the location of supporting columns beneath).

Information on this project is available on the Union Station website.

Other projects that will take place in the same timeframe include:

  • TTC’s second platform for Union Subway Station.
  • TTC’s expansion of capacity in the Harbourfront streetcar loop to accommodate the new eastern waterfront streetcar service.
  • The reconfiguration of Front Street from Bay to York to provide additional pedestrian capacity.

It is unfortunate that this announcement comes just as VIA staff go on strike.  However, the project has been in the works for years, and spending on this major work with decades of future benefit is long overdue.  Fortunately, the announcement was not delayed in deference to then-pending strike.  Moreover, the primary beneficiaries of this work will be commuters on GO Transit for whom additional train capacity is constrained by the limits of the station itself.

Some have claimed that there is nothing wrong with Union Station that needs fixing.  They have not looked closely at either the building itself, at the severe congestion problems or at the vast amount of unused space available for expansion, much of this hidden from public view.

This is not a “make work” project, but something Toronto badly needs.  Union Station handles more passengers every year than Pearson Airport on a fraction of the capital budget.  The station doesn’t get to charge an improvement fee to every passenger to fund its ongoing construction and operations.

The reconstruction will be a long project, not without its inconveniences.  We are lucky to have an almost-empty west wing in which to start and create new space for GO so that existing operations can continue during the early phases.  Detailed design will be completed this fall with work in the west wing to begin in early 2010.  The project will complete in 2014.