Metrolinx Reviews the Richmond Hill Subway Extension

On August 7, Metrolinx released the Executive Summary of an Interim Benefits Case Analysis for the Richmond Hill extension of the Yonge Subway.  The most important text appears on the introductory page:

This interim BCA appraisal of the project raised a number of key network related considerations.  Considering this, Metrolinx, in close collaboration with the City of Toronto, TTC and York Region, will undertake additional analysis to more comprehensively understand these matters and how they impact the network and project scope. The analysis will include:

  • Possible adjustments in project scope, timing or phasing;
  • Consideration of the extent to which improved service levels on the parallel GO Richmond Hill rail corridor to off-load some of the demand on Yonge Subway corridor (existing and proposed extension); and
  • The cost impacts of the various options on the subway yards strategy, Yonge-Bloor subway station improvements; and a future Downtown Relief Line to bypass the Yonge-Bloor congestion pinchpoint.

The BCA process for this project has identified a range of development and congestion pressures along the Yonge Subway corridor. In partnership with York Region, TTC and the City of Toronto, Metrolinx will be carrying out the work above and report back to the Metrolinx Board on the resolution of key project issues in late 2009.

This statement is the first official recognition outside of Toronto Council that the Richmond Hill subway must be reviewed in the larger context of network performance and the stress that additional loads will put on the system.  When Toronto gave guarded approval to the subway extension, but with a long list of pre- and co-requisites, many complained that this was just Toronto being obstructionist, the sort of behaviour that led to politicians being kicked off of the Metrolinx board.  Things have changed.

The Benefits Case Analysis clearly had its origin in simpler times when Metrolinx projects were considered in isolation.  Page 1 of the BCA lists only three alternatives for consideration:  two subway versions (differing only in the number of stations) and a BRT scheme.  There is no mention of alternatives such as GO improvements or LRT, but at least the potential for overloading the existing subway system is acknowledged.  Later, the report acknowledges that it is part of a larger collection of studies (as noted in the introductory text above), but this is not reflected in the options that were evaluated.

In a bit of accounting sleight-of-hand, only part of the cost of Bloor-Yonge Station improvements are charged to the extension project on the ground that other factors will increase demand and the cost should not all be charged to the extension.  This misses the basic point that the extension would be the trigger, and indeed has already been used to justify upgrading capacity on the existing subway system.

The options shown on page 2 show that demand in the corridor between Finch and Richmond Hill would place roughly 9,000 peak hour passengers on the subway, about 3/4 of the total travel in this corridor.  Most of the rest would be on an infrequent GO service (every 30 minutes) in this scheme, even though Metrolinx’ own plans call for substantial improvement in service to Richmond Hill.

BRT is rejected as an option because its capacity is only 3,000 per hour, and the demand is well above this level.

Footnote 2 of this table states the obvious, that demand peaks before implementation of Richmond Hill Express Rail service currently planned for the 2021-2031 timeframe.  Why would we spend a fortune on expanding capacity of the existing subway system if the demand will be siphoned off by another future project?

Page 3 tells us that the benefit-cost ratio for the subway options is 0.7.  We have to take this with a grain of salt given the underlying methodology.  The lion’s share of the benefit comes from reduced auto commuting (“Transportation User Benefits” on page 4), but this would also occur with improved GO service.  The benefit of those redirected trips would no longer be available as an offset to the cost of the subway extension, and the benefit-cost ratio for the subway proposals would be much lower.  This is masked by the absence of an option which includes significantly improved GO service to which much of the “user benefits” would be assigned.

One major flaw in the Metrolinx BCA methodology is the inclusion of “economic impacts during construction”, in other words, the job creation of building the line.  This “benefit” can only be assigned to a specific project if the money would not otherwise be spent elsewhere.

However, in any evaluation of network alternatives, we can reasonably assume that we have “X” billion dollars to spend on something, and the real question is where we get the best return for the investment.  Claiming an economic benefit from construction skews the evaluation of projects to those that cost the most and therefore provide the greatest short-term job stimulus.  One could argue in the extreme that not spending billions on public transit would be beneficial because the money would be available for other uses such as reduction of provincial debt or tax relief.

This “analysis” is a farce.  Clearly, Metrolinx sees that an isolated review of the Yonge Subway extension misses the bigger picture.  Oddly enough, they didn’t bother to publish the full analysis, only the summary.  I suspect that the complete report would be far too embarrassing given the superficial work visible here.

We must now await the outcome of several other studies, notably those for improved GO service and for the subway options into downtown.  This work should have been underway long ago, but at least, finally, it is started.  Is the era of “I want a subway” planning finally over?

44 thoughts on “Metrolinx Reviews the Richmond Hill Subway Extension

  1. On J Johnson’s analysis, I just want to comment on the ease of construction within the Hydro Corridor. It is entirely bogus to assume that any cost of grade separating the intersections under an active corridor would bear any resemblance to constructing similar infrastructure in vacant land.

    Nevermind the cost of negotiating with HONI the rights to build, you also have to deal with clearance from the wires (temporary and permanent) which means that you can’t build a bridge, and you can’t drive piles to create an excavation – meaning the underpasses might end up being tunnelled! Either that, or you need to raise the wires. Both will be expensive.

    Oh, and of course, throughout the alignment you have to deal with the shallow high pressure petroleum pipelines of Enbridge, Trans-Northern, Sun-Canadian, etcetera…

    Steve: Moreover, people often forget that the roads they will cross have utilities under them, and these must be preserved during construction. They also set an upper limit on the roof of the underpass and hence the length of the approach structures. The same problem applies to grade separations of LRT lines running along main streets like Eglinton.


  2. If more people would just take the time to educate themselves up on Bus Rapid Transit, the way that I have, we could all avoid having these ongoing rebuttals. To clarify, those case examples from Brampton were just to give you all an idea of what the average going rate for roadway and bridge construction is for the Greater Toronto Area as of 2009. My point in disclosing this information is to demonstrate just how affordable road construction really is, especially in contrast to surface and underground railway construction. In reality, to create a Bus Rapid Transit corridor right across the northern limits of Toronto could start at as low as $6 million per kilometre; covering the cost of lane pavement, building station bus shelters, relocation of various piping and wiring, etc.

    The Energy Reliabilty and Consumer Protection Act has given the Province of Ontario full ownership of the hydro corridors with no compensation to HONI (Hydro One), including the Finch and Gatineau through Toronto. The Act also specifically gave its tenant, HONI, the right to oppose secondary uses around their towers. They can’t, however, just oppose them because they don’t like them. Technical compatibility reasons is the major one cited, but is far less of a problem for BRT as opposed to operating LRT within the corridor because, unlike buses, trams run on current and potentially could interfere with the electrical mains, which I’ve said before.

    There is little need for all-out “tunnels” per se depending on the roadbed depth that we’d assign to make minimum clearance for the crossing of secondary arterials and its associated buried infrastructure. Per my proposal, I’d recommend a minimum clearance profile depth of 4.65m with a grade depression (busway ramps) of 6% on either side of the intersecting roadway. The right-of-way is predominated by only three (3) basic features, which will guarantee a smoother, quieter and safer ride for customers and neighbouring pedestrians/residents alike. These would be:

    ·Safety barrier, retaining noise wall to eliminate ambient noise (0.6m width)
    ·Invert type curb and gutter to keep the right-of-way clear of snow, rain and debitage. (0.8m width)
    ·Hot-mix asphalt and granular sublevel to protect underlying piping/wiring features from the pressures of at-grade busway operation (7.0 m width: 3.5m per directional bus lane).

    The total right-of-way hence should be around 9.8 metres in width. At stations, driveways can further be expanded out to roughly 4.3m per direction to facilitate passing lanes down the median. Expectant traffic levels along the FHC BRT will not call for the need to consume any more land area than this for many years to come. Therefore this project need not be as overly complicated or expensive as one might suspect.

    What really is overly complicated and expensive, however, is the proposed Finch West Transit City LRT line which will fetch a minimum of $1.2 billion dollars or $67 million per kilometre for 18 kilometres. And that’s just covering one-third of the total mileage a Finch Crosstown BRT line would traverse. Since announced in March 2007, the hypothetical terminuses for the FWLRT line has extended out, thus compounding on the final costs.

    Meanwhile the Gatineau, QB Bus Rapid Transit corridor opening in 2011 will be 17kms long (mainly through urban areas no less, in contrast to Finch’s suburbia) and wind up costing a mere $195 million dollars or $13 million per kilometre. To add on a one-stop 2km long route branch to the corridor will cost another $38.5 million, still making the total busway cost only $233.5 million dollars. By the way, that city’s council had the courtesy of polling its constituents and asking them which would they prefer: BRT or LRT. BRT was overwhelmingly favored and found to produce a better ROI (return on investment) by providing service levels within the same range and quality as LRT would, only not breaking the bank in the process. The specially equipped buses and traffic signals will be able to ‘talk’ to each other and reduce delays at traffic lights. Compare this to the TTC’s mismanagement of the downtown streetcar ROWs where queue jumping is seldom and occurences of bunching-and-stalling are the norm.

    FHC BRT not only saves money from not having to invest in a Finch West LRT line, but several other projects as well can be revised. With it in place there’d be zero need for a Sheppard East LRT, let alone Sheppard subway expansion. Roughly 80% of the line would exist where no other automobile traffic persists (primarily the FHC and running adjacent to the Belleville Sub throughout eastern Scarborough). The community of Agincourt could be served as part of the main trunk of the busway. 100% ROW exclusivity would be possible were transit-only lanes ran down select areas of Humber College Blvd, Highway 27, Queen’s Plate Dr, Grandstand Entrance Rd, Islington Ave, Finch Ave W, Warden Ave & Sheppard Ave E; end-result resembling this:

    The placement of the Belleville Subdivision near Midland and Sheppard bolsters the case for a Bridletowne-Bay Mills-Agincourt alignment were bus transit allowed to operate along the rail embankment lands as is permitted in the case of busways in other cities here in Canada:

    The SRT expansion could also be revised in favour of extending the Bloor-Danforth Subway Line to Scarborough Centre instead and letting local buses/BRT takeover dispersing people from there. Were more emphasis placed on redirecting feeder traffic from YUS and onto a ‘Don Mills’ LRT line extending into York Region on a private exclusive ROW, a lot of the Yonge Line’s overcapacity issues would be resolved also. Perhaps then, only a subway extension to Yonge and Steeles is warranted as nearly one-half of all the riders presently feeding into Finch Stn would soon have TYSSE terminating within Vaughan, and BRT lanes along Warden and McCowan transporting Markham residents to/from Fairview Mall and SCC.

    Maintaining the 36 and 39 buses in conjuntion with FHC BRT would leave no one behind, still lead to urban growth and redevelopment and make for a fast, reliable Crosstown commute. Hence FHC BRT supplants the subway’s function for northern Toronto residents as well those of neighbouring cities (Brampton, Malton, Vaughan and Markham). All this would play a role in alleviating the Bloor-Yonge subway interchange and capacity on both trunk subway lines.

    Why so many people have succumbed to the ‘LRT-is-flawless’ illusion I do not know? Too bad it’s only after the money’s already squandered that people will wake up and realize that perhaps Transit City along Finch wasn’t all that good of an idea. That a cheaper yet remarkably superior option in Bus Rapid Transit on private lanes might have worked just as well; with bi-articulate energy efficient, environment-friendly CNG or hybrid electric vehicles carrying loads of up to 275 passengers per trip at headways of every 180 seconds. That maybe it’s just a last-ditch effort on the part of a polarizing mayor to stay in office. Oops!

    I really wish someone would discuss seriously with me the implications of designing a Crosstown FHC BRT (perhaps Steve will make it a blog entry?) instead of nitpicking at miscellanies.

    Steve: No I won’t. This isn’t the J Johnson website. The last time I looked it had my name on it. Please note that this is the last epic comment I will let through.

    As for those underpasses on a BRT corridor, they would come precisely at the locations where you would want to have stations, and this would make the line even less accessible than it already would be up in the hydro corridor rather than on Finch itself.

    Very few TC lines even have hydro corridors running parallel to them and so this is a very special option. As for rail corridors, the assumption that they are sitting there for use by BRT is a false one both for railway operational reasons, and for basic safety of coexistence in a corridor. The diagram on the STO site you linked shows a corridor that clearly has far more space around it than is occupied by the rail track, and that’s not a fair comparison.

    Moreover, as I have said many, many times before, there is a fundamental difference between a line-haul system taking everyone to a single central destination and a line designed for ons-and-offs along the route. BRT can carry higher volumes for line-haul at low cost because stations can be kept simple. Only a handful of major nodes need mutiple lanes and bays.

    As for Hydro One, you may be interested to know that a big problem with the York U BRT line involved discussions about rent (!!!) for allowing a road to be built on their lands. Someone appears to be working under a different set of assumptions than you about who calls the shots on that sort of thing.


  3. Steve said: As for Hydro One, you may be interested to know that a big problem with the York U BRT line involved discussions about rent (!!!) for allowing a road to be built on their lands. Someone appears to be working under a different set of assumptions than you about who calls the shots on that sort of thing.

    Exactly right; ORC may own the land, but they’re no easier to deal with than HONI directly. HONI’s “technical compatibility” rationale for stopping development on their corridor is a pretty effective way to stop the development, particularly at each intersection.

    Currently the wires within the corridor are high enough to allow at grade objects such as cars and people to pass under them with the safety separation Hydro demands. There is not significant excess clearance between the wires and the ground.

    As I said in my earlier comment, you can’t have a bridge without raising the wires (nevermind constructing one, which would require a higher amount of lifting for construction vehicle clearance). Even economically driving piles to shore up any excavation through the area is going to be a dodgy proposition.

    The minimum clearance posited by J Johnson only provides the box the buses must pass through; depth of beams (probably a metre) for the top, plus (as Steve noted before) a utility space for sewers, watermains, gas all need to be provided (another 3 to 4 metres) means that the busway is really almost 10 metres down at the crossing. Some of these utilities can be pretty sizeable…

    I’m not even going to get into the NEB regulated pipelines.

    Oh, one other thing: when I suggest tunnelling, I’m not thinking TBMs. I’m thinking more along the lines of mining (NATM or the like).

    I have no quarrel with BRT per se, but the FHC is not a freebie for us to use, and the technical limitations on vertical alignment are not insignificant.


  4. Today’s (August 24) Toronto Star had an editorial lauding the Commission’s plans to study the Downtown Relief Line, as though the TTC had just made a significant announcement in the past couple of days, or as though it was an agenda item in this week’s Commission meeting. (“Now, Toronto Transit Commission officials say they are re-examining the relief line with a thorough analysis that will include public consultations.”) I don’t see it in the Commission meeting agenda, and I haven’t seen any news about the DRL recently (in the Star or elsewhere) other than here. Are they talking about the Metrolinx BCA (I don’t think so) or did I miss some sort of big announcement?

    Steve: Earlier this year, Council asked the TTC to study the DRL as an alternative way to provide better service in the north-south corridor. This was triggered by concerns about the effect of the Richmond Hill extension and massive works needed on the existing subway to handle added riding.

    At the media briefing for the Transit City Bus Plan (and other occasions), Adam Giambrone mentioned that this study would get underway in the fall.

    Metrolinx put the DRL in its 25-year plan, but the City’s position is that it needs to be moved up and be built concurrently with the Richmond Hill line. Another part of the puzzle is the planned frequent service on the Richmond Hill GO line, another item in the 25-year plan.

    A big flaw in the BCA process is that it looks at proposals in isolation even though the regional plan is a network. “Alternatives” don’t just include various ways a line might be built, but also the alternative ways a network might develop. The DRL by itself looks expensive, but it could avoid large costs elsewhere in the network and provide valuable new services.

    My real concern is that the TTC will not examine the option of the line running north to Eglinton, even though this was part of early plans for the line. I have discussed this at length elsewhere and won’t repeat the arguments here.


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