How Can Transit Serve a Revived Ontario Place?

Today a Ministerial Advisory Committee headed by former Ontario PC leader John Tory released its analysis and recommendations for the future of Ontario Place.

For those readers who are not familiar with Toronto, Ontario Place is a park opened in 1971 with then-futuristic architecture on the shore of Lake Ontario west of downtown Toronto and immediately south of the Canadian National Exhibition grounds (now known as Exhibition Place).  Over the years, its attractiveness faded and much of the site was recently closed pending a review of its future.

Access to the site has always been a problem because the transit loops are at the north side of Exhibition Place over 600m from the entrance bridge to Ontario Place, provided that events within Exhibition Place itself do not block off a straight route south.  The recent Indy car races and the annual CNE itself are two good examples.

Forty years ago, the Ontario Government toyed with a magnetic levitation train under development by Krauss Maffei.  A trial installation of a one-way loop around the grounds was proposed, but all that was ever built was a few foundation slabs and pylons for the elevated guideway.  This project ran out of steam when the German government, a partner with KM, withdrew its funding.  Technical problems also arose, and a simplified version of the technology appeared roughly a decade later as the Scarborough RT replacing the originally proposed LRT line in that corridor.

Many years later, the Waterfront West LRT proposal included a route turning south (and underground) from current point of entry to Exhibition place, under Princes Boulevard (the main east west street in the park), and emerging into the land now occupied by the Ontario Place parking lot.  This scheme was strongly opposed by Ontario Place management who preferred to cater to motorists coming to their site rather than transit riders.

Within Transit City, there is also a Waterfront West LRT.  Its alignment through Exhibition place included various options differing mainly in whether the route followed the north or south side of the park.  Because the WWLRT was seen as an “express” route to southern Etobicoke (a dubious claim at the best of times), a southern route was seen as taking passengers “out of their way”.  Sadly, there has been no recent examination of transit to Exhibition Place as opposed to through it.

The Advisory Panel’s report includes a short section on transit to Ontario Place on pages 45 to 47.  This includes:

ONTARIO PLACE IS UNDERSERVED BY PUBLIC TRANSIT.  TTC streetcars and the GO Train do not go to Ontario Place. Streetcars go as far as Exhibition Place, and the commuter GO Train service provides access at the GO Exhibition station that is adjacent to the streetcar loop. The only mode of public transportation that goes directly to Ontario Place is the Dufferin Street bus — but this is only in the summer season.

Well, no, the Dufferin bus does not GO to Ontario Place per se, only to a loop along Princes Blvd provided that it is physically possible to operate buses on this route.  This service is infrequent presuming that it is not short-turned.  (Some of the Dufferin buses did run south to Ontario place in 2011, but this operation was dropped for 2012 because Ontario Place closed.)

The Advisory Panel recommends that parking for Ontario Place be provided in either a parking structure (under of above ground) or by Exhibition Place which has a vast amount of parking most of the year long.

Among the options proposed by the Panel are:

WE SEE A NUMBER OF OPTIONS TO IMPROVE THE ACCESS REQUIRED to generate the crowds Ontario Place needs to attract:

First extend Dufferin Street further south to provide direct bus access to the area and extend the streetcar loop from Exhibition Place.

Second, create more north south pedestrian and cycling paths.

Finally, bicycle storage and rental locations must grow — to encourage riders to bring their own bicycles, and to link to the growing network of bicycle rentals.

Notable by its absence is any mention of the implications improved north-south access through Exhibition Place will have for events that now take over the entire park.

This brings us to a recommendation:


Working with the PRIVATE SECTOR and PROVINCIAL and MUNICIPAL PARTNERS, Ontario Place should explore NEW PUBLIC TRANSIT OPPORTUNITIES to better access the western lakeshore area. [Caps are in the original text]

It is unclear what exactly is meant by a private sector role in “new public transit opportunities”.  The fundamental point in any transit scheme is that only with very high, sustained demand is there any hope for profitability and hence attractiveness of any scheme to the private sector.

Possibly Queen’s Park hopes to recycle the bits of infrastructure dating back to the Mag-Lev scheme, or hopes for someone to propose a monorail loop around the grounds as an alternative to extending the streetcar/LRT trackage.  This would impose a needless transfer for riders trying to reach any development on the south side of Exhibition Place.

Finally, Metrolinx has its own scheme to bring the “Don Mills / Downtown Relief Line” west from a proposed GO terminal at Bathurst Street into Exhibition Place.  If that’s a goal, and it will happen quickly (not very likely), then this will compete with other proposals that would be termed “short term”.

As with the eastern waterfront, planning for transit to the western waterfront has been a slipshod affair between the TTC, the City, Waterfront Toronto and Metrolinx.  If we are serious about redeveloping Ontario Place and the lands along Lake Shore Blvd., we must include good transit as an essential part of any plan.

Updated July 28:  The Globe & Mail weighs in with an article (the print version includes a large map).

How Long Will Rebuilding The SRT Take?

When OneCity was announced with much, if short-lived, fanfare back in June, the centrepiece of the scheme was a proposal for a Scarborough Subway.  Toronto could have a full-blown subway to the heart of Scarborough at a small price, and without the disruption associated with a long shutdown of the RT.

  • A subway would be built from Kennedy Station east along Eglinton and then north on Danforth Road and McCowan to Sheppard with stations at Lawrence, Scarborough Centre (shown as McCowan and Ellesmere on the OneCity map) and Sheppard/McCowan. (OneCity presentation at page 15)
  • Once the subway opened, the RT would cease operating.  Users of existing stations would have to access the subway at its new location.
  • The cost of this option compared to the expected cost of the RT conversion to LRT was $484-million.

According to OneCity (at Page 16) an SRT shutdown would take over four years during which service would be provided by a fleet of 43 shuttle buses.

When I wrote about OneCity, I received an email from Jack Collins, Vice-President of Rapid Transit Implementation at Metrolinx in which he said:

Your recent blog posting implies that Metrolinx or the Province has increased the duration of the SRT shutdown period from 3 years to 3 to 4 years.

This is not the case. The first time we heard 3 to 4 years was during the City Council debate on Wednesday concerning the One City Plan.

This duration did not come from a Metrolinx representative and in all our discussions with the TTC staff the shutdown has been three years, and hopefully less if we put our minds to it.

I wanted to assure you and your readers that even with an AFP type contract, the current Metrolinx plan is:

  • SRT will stay in service until after the 2015 Pan Am/ Para Pan games
  • The AFP contract will have a condition that will limit the shutdown period to no more than 3 years
  • As part of the AFP contractor selection process, contractors will be encouraged to come up with plans to reduce the shutdown period to less than 3 years

One might be forgiven for a bit of confusion here.  When Queen’s Park confirmed funding recently for the Toronto projects, the announcement included:

The Scarborough RT replacement and extension to Sheppard Avenue: work will begin in 2014 and be completed by 2020.

[This announcement originally said “2015”, but this was corrected subsequently to “2014” to align with Metrolinx plans.  However, the end date stayed at “2020”.]

When the proposed staging for the rapid transit projects was before the Metrolinx Board on April 25, the report proposed:

… the Scarborough RT replacement and extension to Sheppard Avenue, with a construction start of 2014 and an in-service date of 2019, …

and further:

The previous plan included a construction schedule for the Scarborough RT of 2015-2020. The schedule allows for the SRT to be in service during the Pan Am/Parapan Games in the summer of 2015, after which the service would be shut down for construction. Planning, design and engineering work will be completed prior to construction in order to minimize down time.

The revised plan will move up SRT completion by one year from 2020 to 2019. This would be accomplished by starting work on the extension of the line between McCowan and Sheppard as a first phase, allowing the existing service to continue until after the Pan Am/Parapan Games are completed.

The presentation slides included:

SRT replacement is a priority

The SRT has high, established ridership, it is near the end of its economic life and in need of replacement. Project acceleration has benefits and staging can be done to avoid any disruptions during the Pan Am/Parapan Games period.

It is quite clear from these statements that a four-year shutdown from 2015-2019 was contemplated, and this no doubt led OneCity proponents to quote such a term in their plan.

Metrolinx now claims that the shutdown will be for, at most, three years.  This means either that:

  • The line will close immediately after the Games in 2015 and re-open in 2018, or
  • The line will close sometime after 2015, possibly as late as 2017, in order to reopen “by 2020” as per the Queen’s Park announcement.

Either way, Metrolinx owes the City a clear statement of its intentions given the frequency with which construction schedules for the “Transit City” lines have been adjusted.  The current situation, according to Collins, is:

We are planning one AFP contract for both Eglinton and SRT to optimize procurement time and contractor selection.

As indicated earlier, the contractor will be required to not exceed a 3 year shutdown period for the SRT and hopefully the contractor will be able to improve on the shutdown period.

The overall schedule of work will be determined once we have a contractor on board at financial close. It is premature to set a specific date for the shutdown of the existing RT, the construction of the new LRT and its opening for revenue service until we have a schedule agreed with the contractor.

It is quite clear from this that the start date for construction is not yet settled, but that it is intended to be at most three years whenever it happens.  If this drifts out beyond 2015, this raises a question of the cost of maintenance and reliability of the SRT which is already a delicate flower.

Any discussion of the future of Scarborough’s rapid transit network must proceed on an informed basis.  Queen’s Park is somewhat misleading in saying that work will begin in 2014 and complete by 2020 if the construction schedule has not already been decided.  Even the 2014 date for prebuilding the extension from McCowan Station north to Sheppard is really subject to whatever the prime contractor for the project proposes.  The words “by 2020” do not inspire confidence.

Meanwhile, the OneCity advocates will have to refine their cost proposal for the subway extension.  They claim a subway cost of $2.3b even though an estimate done for Mayor Ford’s transition team by the TTC pegged the cost at $3.3b including vehicles but not including a new or expanded yard facility.  Given that the TTC has more T-1 cars than it needs to serve the existing Bloor-Danforth subway, it may be possible to extend the line without buying more cars (that surplus is a long story in its own right) or building a new yard.

TTC owns 370 T-1 cars.  The BD line requires 43 trains for peak service (258 cars) and Sheppard requires 4 (16 cars) for a total of 274 cars.  Add in spares at 15% and this brings the fleet requirement to 316 at 2011/12 winter service levels.  If all BD trains ran through to Sheppard, this would require roughly 13 more trains plus spares, half that with a turnback at Kennedy.  15 trains would cost at least $240m.

The TTC’s cost estimate for a subway to Scarborough Town Centre is $2.6b including vehicles.  Adjusting for the T-1 surplus would bring this down to $2.3-2.4b, the number claimed by OneCity for a subway extension all the way to Sheppard.

The whole debate between OneCity and Metrolinx, between a Scarborough Subway and the RT/LRT replacement, needs to proceed on a much more informed basis than it has to date.  With luck, staffs of the various organizations will bring credible information to Council in fall 2012 and will not “cook” the comparison of various options to suit political aims at City Hall or Queen’s Park.

The Fate of OneCity (Updated)

Several postmortems have appeared on blogs about the supposed death of OneCity and what might follow:

Updated July 19, 2012 at 7:00 am:

Updated July 16, 2012 at 11:15am:

My own take on OneCity’s fate together with the original article detailing proposals for dealing with transit planning follow the break.

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The Missing Half of OneCity

Last week brought the excitement of the OneCity network announcement, followed by mildly supportive words from Queen’s Park and its agency Metrolinx, followed in turn by rather stronger provincial denunciation of a City that can’t make up its mind on transit.  Queen’s Park can hardly talk about consistency given their happiness to leap into bed with Rob Ford’s subway plan until Council gently reminded their provincial cousins that the Mayor had not bothered to ask for Council’s approval.  Meanwhile, delivery dates for provincial “commitments” drift off into the 2020s with the flimsiest of excuses about the limitations of an overheated construction market.  This is the same provincial government who talks about the power and capabilities of international companies just itching to work in the Toronto market.

All this kvetching detracts from two major issues.  First, once we get past the obvious conflicts created by proposals for the Scarborough Subway and the Scarborough/Etobicoke express services taking over the GO/ARL corridors, the rest of OneCity doesn’t step on any provincial toes.  As with so many of the debates here (and on other transit blogs), it’s the “I’m 100% right and you are 100% wrong” outlook that gets in the way of intelligent conversation.  There may be a role for the Scarborough Subway, although I am less certain about the proposed services taking on GO corridors.  At least we should get more information about the options and effects, not to mention defensible costs and demand projections (something neither the TTC/Toronto nor Metrolinx have been strong on in either Transit City or The Big Move).

Second, and at least as important, is the complete absence of money for improved service and maintenance, including a huge capital backlog on the TTC for vehicles and facilities.  The Ford era saw “savings” through cuts in presumed future growth.  A bus order for system growth was cancelled, and a new garage dropped from the plans.  The size of our future streetcar fleet was trimmed about 10%.  Who knows how many cars we really need given the strangulation of streetcar routes for service by the TTC.  Service growth in general was artificially depressed by changing loading standards to fit more people on each  vehicle.

These were all one-time fixes, fudges that got Toronto through two budget cycles while meeting the meddlesome demands of an administration for whom transit was just too much fat waiting to be cut.

The sad part is that thanks to two years of see-no-evil budgeting, nobody really knows what the true backlog in operations and maintenance might be, or what it will cost to put things aright.  Even if OneCity gets some sort of approval and funding, its projects won’t see a rider for years, and in some cases decades.  Should people who cannot get on the King streetcar or Finch West bus have to wait a decade for someone to address their problems?

OneCity is a plan for enhancing transit on major routes, but it’s only half of a network plan.  Most Torontonians will still ride on ordinary bus and streetcar routes for part or all of their journeys, and they are just as deserving of good service as those who will have new subway and LRT lines.  Indeed, even those who will, someday, see a new faster route should not have to wait for its construction.  “Coming in 2021” is cold comfort to someone waiting for a bus in February 2012.

If Council refers OneCity to staff for a report on costs and first-cut details of projects, we will learn more about the options for rapid transit in Toronto.  A long-overdue, informed conversation may actually happen rather than endless posturing for one neighbourhood or another.  But it will only be half a conversation.

Toronto needs to know what it will take to bring better service before we can build our rapid transit dreams, and what might come to many corners of our city that will never see a subway, LRT or BRT line.  What is our goal for these neighbourhoods?  What does “good service” mean to this newly enlightened Council?  How much will it cost?

These questions are just as important for transit’s future as contemplating the route of a new subway or the mechanics of a tax increase.  Council needs to ask them loudly and strongly as part of an integrated review of Toronto’s transit network.

Meanwhile, down the road at Metrolinx, a little humility might be in order.  This is an agency which, until fairly recently, did not even acknowledge the importance of local transit as part of the regional system, and still boasted about its high farebox recovery thanks to cherry-picking the most cost-effective services.  The provincial “investment strategy” must sustain not just the simplest, cheapest lines on the GO Transit map, but a wide range of services across the region including those provided by local carriers.

Is Toronto, is Ontario, serious about transit being a real alternative, about providing a “car-free” option to a much wider market of riders, or do they both simply prefer to hold press conferences with pretty maps?

The maps are nice, and the accompanying studies will fill yet more space in my library (or storage on my hard drive), but it’s the space and time in between that’s most important.  Riders will wait a very long time for some of these brave new transit lines to appear, and they deserve better than a walk to a crowded, infrequent bus route or a drive to a parking lot that fills before 7am in the meantime.

Toronto Council should demand that the TTC look not just at shiny new lines for the indefinite future, but that it address its real requirements today.  If the “new TTC” gets bogged down planning for the 2020s while transit continues to wither from overcrowding and underfunding through the 2010s, they are not doing their job.

TTC Meeting Wrapup: June 29, 2012 (Updated)

Updated July 3, 2012 at 5:00 pm:  The TTC has clarified the issue of the number of locations for debit card facilities.  “60” refers to the number of locations to be done in 2012, with a further 23 in 2013.  The count refers to booths, not to stations, and the project will result in all regularly staffed booths accepting non-cash payments.  Thanks to Chris Upfold for this info.

Original post of July 1, 2012 follows:

The TTC met on June 29 to consider an agenda that didn’t have much of great importance.  The “elephant in the room” was the OneCity plan announced earlier in the week by the Chair and Vice-Chair, and supported by most of the other Commissioners, but this item was not on the agenda.  Concurrently with the meeting, Bob Chiarelli, Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure was announcing Cabinet approval of the four LRT lines approved by Council in March, and pouring cold water on One City.  It was rather strange sitting in a calm TTC meeting while Twitter went crazy with reaction to events up the road at Queen’s Park.

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