At its recent meeting, the TTC approved two reports related to the Ashbridge Maintenance and Storage Facility (MSF for short). One dealt with the removal of contaminated soil and capping of the site at Lake Shore and Leslie, while the other addressed various requests from the City’s Budget Committee regarding site access by streetcars and possible alternative locations for vehicle storage.
The Ashbridge site selection and the proposed route connecting it to the existing streetcar system have been the subject of much debate over the past few years. The community holds strong, if not always consistent, views on the subject, and has been generally supported by their local Councillors. As it happens, Leslie Street is a ward boundary with Councillor Fletcher to the west and Councillor McMahon (formerly Councillor and TTC Commissioner Bussin) to the east.
Throughout the process of site selection and design, there has been a sense that “the fix was in” for the Ashbridge property, although purely from the TTC’s viewpoint, it is probably the best site. The debate, however, isn’t going away, and there were two hours of deputations on the subject at the Commission meeting. (These preceded the six hours we dedicated souls spent on the proposed service reallocations.)
This article is an attempt to pull together various threads of the debate and comment on them. For the record, I was not a party to the deputations, nor was I consulted by Councillor McMahon on the details of her proposal.
The City’s website for this project contains all of the background material.
What’s a “Maintenance and Storage Facility”?
The TTC now operates its fleet of streetcars from two carhouses, Russell in the east and Roncesvalles in the west, and does heavy maintenance on the fleet at Hillcrest in Harvey Shops. This building dates from the beginning of the TTC (the site was once a race course out in the countryside), and it is designed to handle standard streetcars roughly 50 feet long. The building is divided into service bays north and south of a central transfer table (a horizontal version of a steam railway turntable) which is long enough to hold one standard-length car.
When the ALRVs (the streetcars that bend in the middle) appeared in Toronto, an addition was built on the easternmost tracks in the shops which have direct access from outdoors. This allows the ALRVs to drive through the old building, across the transfer table, and into the new longer wing on the northeast side of the building where they are maintained.
The maintenance facilities at Hillcrest, as at the two carhouses, are designed for cars with underfloor equipment and maintenance access from pits under the vehicles. The new Low Floor LRVs (LFLRVs) have their equipment on the roof, and require a different layout of their shops for maintenance. This, combined with their extra length, makes Harvey Shops totally unsuitable for the new fleet. Rather than attempting a retrofit, the TTC proposes a new building for heavy maintenance on the LFLRVs.
The new fleet will be 204 vehicles each about twice the length of a CLRV (today’s standard streetcar). Expressed simply by length, the current fleet is 195 CLRVs (one of the original 196 has been scrapped due to extensive damage) and 52 ALRVs, the equivalent of 78 CLRVs by length. This gives a total for today’s fleet of 273 cars. The new fleet, by length, will be the equivalent of 408 cars. This allows for additional service and some system growth, although the Capital Budget does include separate provision for cars for new waterfront routes. (I will deal with the streetcar fleet plan in a separate article.)
Even after all of the existing cars are retired, the two carhouses cannot possibly hold all of the new fleet, and a third carhouse is required. The TTC proposes to include this with the new main shop for LFLRVs at Ashbridges Bay.
The proposed MSF is located on the southeast corner of Leslie Street and Lake Shore Boulevard in land that is now open space, but is fenced off. It is immediately north of the Ashbridges Bay Sewage Treatment Plant.
The Martin Goodman Trail runs along the north and west sides of the site. This trail is used both by cycling traffic to and from downtown by residents of the east end, and for access to the Leslie Street spit.
Commissioners Street runs west from Leslie at the south end of the site, and in long-range Waterfront transit plans, it includes an LRT line, the eastern end of the Portlands route. However, this area is unlikely to be redeveloped for a few decades.
The large block of open space includes a berm raising the elevation considerably above the surrounding streets, and this must be removed to bring the grade of the site to an appropriate level for the new yard. The underlying soil must be capped to prevent contaminants from escaping.
The site was chosen for its size and its location close to the existing streetcar system. The proposed yard entrance at the southwest corner (Commissioners Street) is 800m south of Queen Street where a full “Y” junction will be installed.
Early in the project, the TTC reviewed a number of sites for the new MSF. (See page 8 of the presentation panels for a meeting of June 2009.) Many of these were rejected as too small, although other factors were at play.
Site 11 (southern Etobicoke): This is a large property west of 8th Street between New Toronto Street and Birmingham Street, about 300m north of Lake Shore Boulevard. It is directly south of the Via and GO rail yards. There are three blocks of land of which the middle third is occupied by a Canpar building, but land on the other two thirds is vacant. They are connected by a tongue of land along the south edge of the site.
The eastern block and the connecting tongue are currently offered by Build Toronto as a potential development site. I do not know the status of the western block between Canpar and 13th Street.
It is unclear why this site is listed as “too small” given that the eastern block is roughly 250m x 375m, comparable to the space at Ashbridges Bay.
Like Leslie Street, 8th Street is lined by housing and it also has a Fire Hall.
This property is geographically further from the heart of the streetcar system, and would entail higher dead-head costs for cars running to and from service.
Site 13 (Lever Brothers): The old Lever Brothers factory at the foot of Broadview is bounded by the Don River to the west, the CN corridor to the north, Lake Shore Blvd. to the south, and other industrial properties to the east. The factory would have to be demolished along with any associated site cleanup. It is unclear whether this site has a willing owner, or if expropriation would be required.
When the site selection was underway, part of this site was used by a nearby movie studio, although this use has since ended. That’s why the site is listed as “too small”, although it has other problems.
Access is more difficult than at the other sites because Broadview does not run straight through, and cars would have to jog along Eastern, under the railway, and then back southwest along a strip of land connecting to the main site. A straight route would require creation of a new TTC-only road through the parking lot of the BMW dealership (the one with the cars in the building window at the south end of the DVP) and a new underpass beneath the railway. Between Eastern and Queen, there is housing on some of the adjacent land.
Another approach that avoids the railway would require running streetcars down one of the north-south residential streets east of the rail corridor and approaching the site from the north-east. This has numerous problems including length, dead-heading and neighbourhood effects.
The two sites above are the only alternatives from the original study that have been discussed recently.
Access to the Carhouse
There has been much debate about the effect of installing streetcar tracks on Leslie from Queen to Commissioners. This was not helped at the project’s outset by the publication of a scheme that would have place these tracks in reserved lanes, total overkill for a set of yard tracks. This sensitized the community even though the scheme was quickly withdrawn.
Local issues include:
- noise effects of the track on Leslie and the special work at Queen (where there is senior’s residence on the northeast corner)
- effect on cyclists of streetcar tracks crossing the Martin Goodman trail on the south side of Lake Shore at Leslie, and again at the site entrance on the east side of Leslie north of Commissioners
- the operational feasibility of sending up to 85 cars into service from Ashbridge Carhouse to Queen Street to build up the morning peak service.
The existing track at Russell Carhouse is not exactly quiet, and has been due for reconstruction for some time (this is part of the 5-year track rebuilding plan). The special work at this carhouse is, in effect, the local reference point for noise much as the badly worn and noisy track on Queen’s Quay is the reference point for residents considering waterfront expansions. Track on Queen at Leslie is the “new” track with sound insulation, but of course at present there is no special work.
All three of the originally considered sites (Ashbridge, one on Eastern between Pape and Leslie, and one on Unwin Avenue) involved track on Leslie, although the second of these only required track north of Eastern and included an alternate route via Carlaw.
Both the Lever Brothers and Etobicoke sites would also involve new tracks through a residential area, and so this is a common issue everywhere. The bike path is an issue for both the Ashbridge and the Unwin sites.
During discussions about alternatives, a scheme to route cars to Ashbridge from the north-east was proposed. This would have run through the west end of Russell Yard (using existing intersections with Queen), then west via Eastern Avenue, south via Knox and across Lake Shore into the site.
The TTC objected to this on various grounds:
- they did not want to give up the space in the yard for connection tracks, and that an expansion of the carhouse was planned (this expansion has been dropped from the plans);
- the revised junction at the northwest corner of Russell Yard would require acquisition of a house where there was an operating business (the property is now for sale);
- the turns to and from Eastern would add to the length of time needed to get cars to and from the Ashbridge site;
- operation on Knox would conflict with Canada Post requirements (actually, the main activity on the site is at Woodfield Avenue, the east end of Canada Post’s property);
- a new signalled transit intersection would be required on Lake Shore east of Leslie for cars crossing from Knox (which dead ends) to the carhouse.
There is considerable concern about traffic congestion on Lake Shore at Leslie and the effect of the added streetcar traffic. Oddly enough, the City’s Transportation Services Department did not raise this during the original study, or if they did, it was done very quietly. In any event, if this is a problem, then the same issue will exist for a transit crossing at Knox.
The Knox alignment would cross the Martin Goodman Trail, but only in one location, the site entrance.
There has been some debate about the number of streetcars that will operate on Leslie during service buildup. The TTC’s fleet plan calls for a 20% spare factor for LFLRVs meaning that they would schedule at most 80 cars for the AM peak from the Ashbridge site. However, with planned service and route expansion, this could grow a bit.
Service on various routes builds up over an extended period with the first cars going out before 5am and all of the service on the street shortly after 7am. This means that there would be a headway of less than 2 minutes over a two hour period turning out of the carhouse onto Leslie, proceeding north to and then turning east or west onto Queen.
This will require traffic signal priority to ensure that cars run through as quickly as possible, especially on the closely spaced signals at Lake Shore, the entrance to Loblaw’s parking lot and at Eastern. Traffic signal priority at this level — with a green wave anticipating streetcars rather than reacting only when they are too close to run through without stopping — has not been Toronto’s strong suit as any rider of the Harbourfront line knows. This is a generic problem for any access route to a large carhouse with a single exit that is not located directly on a carline like Russell or Roncesvalles.
Alternative Proposals from Councillor McMahon
Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon proposed a set of alternatives for the Ashbridge MSF originally at the City’s Budget Committee on January 24, 2011.
A revised version of the presentation was given at the TTC meeting, but it is not available online.
The nub of Councillor McMahon’s argument is that space can be found for the carhouse (running repairs and cleaning) and maintenance facilities elsewhere on the TTC system including:
- Exhibition Loop
- Additional capacity at Russell and Roncesvalles
- The former Danforth Carhouse site
At Hillcrest, there are parcels of vacant space (the land use has evolved over much of a century including expansion to the west to accommodate Duncan Shops which replaced Parkdale Garage). However, these parcels are not contiguous and are not all suitable for storage. Whether any of them could be used only for a new maintenance facility and/or partly for storage (leaving the remaining carhouse function to be accommodated elsewhere) is hard to say. The proposed spaces are tight, and might be better suited to a restructured Hillcrest property once streetcar maintenance leaves Harvey Shops.
Exhibition Loop is a large property on the north side of Exhibition Place under the Gardiner Expressway. Additional storage tracks could be built here, but more is needed for a true carhouse so that cars can be serviced overnight.
The TTC is reviewing whether some storage functions could be performed at either Hillcrest or Exhibition Loop, but it is unclear when they will report on the subject or how that might affect the design at Ashbridges Bay. At most it might divert some storage away from this site and reduce the service build-up effects, but it would not eliminate general concerns about the site, the new tracks on Leslie or the bike path.
A map in Councillor McMahon’s presentation includes the old Danforth Carhouse as well as the St. Clair Carhouse sites. (St. Clair is an error in that whoever made the map didn’t know where Hillcrest was, accurately.) The Danforth site has not been an operating carhouse since the BD subway opened in 1966, and its function as a bus garage ended in 2002 when the new Eglinton garage opened. Danforth is a comparatively small site now that part of it has been sold for housing, and it would require a connection track down Coxwell through a residential neighbourhood. It is rather odd to see a proposal with many of the same problems as Ashbridges Bay in this presentation, and by the time we saw the version at the TTC meeting, the Danforth site appears to have fallen off of the table.
The Future of the Ashbridges Bay Site
The Toronto Port Authority did well unloading their land to the City and TTC who will bear the cost of grading and remediation. Some who object to the MSF argue that the land is needed for future expansion of the sewage treatment plan south of Commissioners St. If so, then the green space south of Lake Shore will be lost in any event, and the intrusion of land clearance (dump trucks, etc) in the neighbourhood will occur some day, just not today.
The TTC has approved the contract for the land clearance, and I fully expect to see a new building on the site in the next few years.
We might have looked at alternatives. An obvious one is the Etobicoke site — this could eventually replace Roncesvalles, a difficultly shaped piece of property requiring a lot of work to handle the new fleet, and a parcel that would certainly attract interest for development. All the same, Etobicoke has issues of its own and we are unlikely to see an overnight approval if it were proposed, and the clock is ticking on LFLRV deliveries. Moreover, replacing Roncesvalles doesn’t answer the Ashbridge question.
Space at Hillcrest may be useful, but on a temporary basis to store retired cars much as the dead tracks at Wilson Yard hold old subway equipment. It wouldn’t be the first time. The parking lot on the northeast portion of the Hillcrest property was once full of PCCs after Danforth and Lansdowne carhouses closed in the 60s. Longer term, the TTC will have to come up with a plan for this site considering that the eventual retirement of the CLRV/ALRV fleet will shift the streetcar heavy maintenance elsewhere.
The Streetcar Fleet Plan
Although I will turn to this in detail in a future article, an important point for planning is that the existing fleet cannot begin to disappear immediately after the first of the new cars is delivered except, possibly, for those cars that are so unreliable that they may as well be scrapped now. There is a backlog of service requirements on the streetcar network that must be backfilled once new cars displace the existing fleet on a few routes. Only when the combined capacity of the new and old fleets actually exceeds current requirements can we start to retire old vehicles.
Indeed, the Queen and King routes, which now use ALRVs, are slated to get LFLRVs after the ALRVs have been retired. This means that enough CLRVs must remain active to replace ALRVs on these routes pending their conversion. In turn, this means that space at Roncesvalles and Russell for new cars will not be freed up immediately upon the first delivery of LFLRVs and putting off the construction at Ashbridge is not an option.
We must also hope that the LFLRVs’ reliability will be good when they arrive (so much of them is, after all, “off the shelf”) and that we will not see an extended period where new cars accumulate but old ones remain in service.