With all the upheaval of transit plans for Scarborough, politicians fall over each other to tell Scarborough residents how downtrodden and ignored they have been, how they always get the short end of the transit stick. How will we fix this? Build them a subway!
Mind you, that subway won’t open for 10 years, and riders on the Scarborough RT will have to endure more cold winters and overcrowded service, not to mention bus routes that run occasionally and unreliably.
We should remember what Scarborough was originally promised with the Transit City scheme announced years ago by then-Mayor Miller and now-Candidate Adam Giambrone:
- An LRT line from an underground station at Don Mills & Sheppard with a direct connection to the Sheppard subway running east to Morningside and beyond.
- An LRT line from Kennedy Station east and north via Eglinton, Kingston Road and Morningside to Sheppard serving the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC).
- An upgraded and extended Scarborough RT using LRT to reach east and north to Malvern Centre.
The Sheppard LRT is “funded” by Queen’s Park, but actual construction is a moving target with completion now planned for 2021.
The Eglinton/Morningside line (aka “Scarborough-Malvern”) drifts in limbo not even a part of the Metrolinx “Next Wave” implying completion at best by the late 2020s.
The Scarborough LRT has been replaced by the Scarborough Subway. Although Council attached many conditions to the financing for that line, you can bet that no politician in Toronto is willing to pull the plug, to return to the LRT scheme, with provincial and municipal election fortunes in play. One way or another, even by the simple expedient of giving Ottawa more time to pony up “their fair share” (whatever that means), the subway scheme will stay alive, and the Scarborough LRT will start to resemble Monty Python’s “dead parrot”. It will be “sleeping” only in the minds of its most ardent advocates.
Politicians love to tell us how much they support better transit in Scarborough, and they could start by talking about something more than the subway.
The Sheppard LRT
The Sheppard LRT and other projects were pushed off into never-never land because Queen’s Park wanted to actually spend money far in the future while still having a (threadbare) credibility on “commitment”. It was all about cash flow and the provincial debt. By 2018, Ontario will be back in a surplus, and spending from general revenues on transit won’t look so bad on the books.
The SRT/LRT conversion has now been transformed to a subway where construction won’t get seriously underway until after the SLRT would have opened for business. Spending on the “Scarborough” line has been pushed off mainly to the next decade. An Environmental Assessment, detailed planning and engineering will take about 4 years, according to the TTC, with 6 years of construction to follow (2018-2023.)
Queen’s Park could show real interest by spending some money now on Scarborough transit, and they should start with the Sheppard LRT. Except for the connection under the DVP to Don Mills Station, this is a surface line that should be easy to build. Some preparatory utility work has already been done when this was still a TTC project.
Before Rob Ford’s election, Metrolinx was poised to add the “Morningside Hook” to the Sheppard LRT project by building the northern part of the Scarborough-Malvern line. This would give UTSC and the nearby Centennial College campus a link north and west to both the Scarborough LRT (now the Scarborough subway) and the Sheppard subway. That plan died with Rob Ford’s abrupt cancellation of Transit City, but this should be back on the table as an integral part of the Sheppard LRT plan.
Cash flow, always Queen’s Park’s nightmare, shouldn’t be a problem with the $1.4-billion of SRT/LRT money rededicated to the subway project. Meanwhile the Sheppard LRT, even with a 2+km extension to UTSC, will cost Queen’s Park less than the SRT project given the $330m in federal funding already earmarked for this line.
Meanwhile On The Buses
Facing a flat-lined operating subsidy for the past two years, the TTC cut back service both by trimming lightly-used routes and by changing loading standards so that a bus can be more crowded, on average, before service standards dictate that service should be improved. This rolled back the Ridership Growth Strategy implemented in the Miller/Giambrone years to reduce crowding, make service more attractive, and provide capacity for growth. It also conveniently deferred expansion of the bus fleet and capped, for a time, the increase in operating costs by stuffing more riders onto the existing buses.
Another plan from that era, the Transit City Bus Plan, didn’t even make it through Miller’s council thanks to a war between the TTC and the Budget Committee over jurisdiction for approving major changes in TTC subsidy needs. The plan would have provided:
- A core network of routes where service during all periods would never be less frequent than 10 minutes.
- Express bus service on most of the core routes so that riders making long trips could do so at higher speed.
- Enhanced express bus service on routes that would eventually become Transit City LRT corridors to build demand in advance of the LRT service.
- A minimum frequency of 20 minutes on all routes outside of the core network.
- More bus shelters.
- Better route supervision.
- More transit signal priority.
- Queue jump lanes at critical intersections.
- Improved facilities for bus-subway connections at stations.
The plan has its imperfections:
- Some routes are excluded from the core network because LRT construction was presumed to be imminent when the report was written.
- The streetcar network is ignored in the core network because this is a “bus” plan even though one Transit City route would be on the existing 501 Queen line in Etobicoke.
- Strangely the 94 Wellesley bus would be a core route even though much more important streetcar lines nearby are omitted.
These aside, the Transit City Bus Plan is an excellent starting point to revisit the question of bus service on the TTC. (The planned rollout of the new streetcars will bring greater capacity to that part of the network.)
The Political Question
Do Glen Murray and Karen Stintz actually care about Scarborough, or are they just trolling for votes with plans for a 10-year off subway line?
Are Stintz and TTC CEO Andy Byford serious about the need for increased transit operating subsidies (both have stated publicly that the flat-line cannot continue into 2014) and will they aim higher than getting barely enough to keep existing services operating?
At the very least, the TTC as an organization and as a Board needs to be an advocate for improved transit, transit that is more than a flavour-of-the-month subway plan, transit that is a real commitment to travel in all corners of the city. Plans for improved service may not get funding the first time out at Council, but at least the plan will get a hearing, will be championed by some who believe in transit people can actually use.
That’s what happened with the Ridership Growth Strategy. Knowing what the options would cost (almost always far less than doom-and-gloom predictions) and what they would provide to riders was essential in gaining approval and funding even if advocates didn’t win on the first round.
Does Toronto Council really care about overall quality and benefits of transit where people use it, or will they expect another year of belt-tightening from the TTC?
Up the road at Queen’s Park, does Minister Murray really believe in showing transit results now, or does his commitment stop at campaign appearances in a forest of Liberal-red subway posters? Will he direct Metrolinx to bring the Sheppard LRT forward so that Scarborough can see some transit improvement within this decade? There is no reason, beyond political sloth and timidity, that this route cannot be open by early 2018 at the outside, preferably sooner. What can we do when there is a real will to build, rather than to endlessly delay and avoid real “commitment”?
The Scarborough Subway and the Sheppard LRT should be a package deal if the politicians want to really show Scarborough some love. The Transit City Bus Plan, or something very much like it, should be part of the 2014 budget proposals by TTC if local politicians want to show all of Toronto that transit really is front and centre in their campaigns.
The Role of the Commuter Rail Network
A separate but important discussion underway at Metrolinx, TTC and the City of Toronto is the future role the GO network could play in providing parallel capacity and “relief” to growing demand on the subway network. This is a separate issue from the Scarborough LRT network which would serve different trip patterns. Recent attention to GO should not presume it is the only solution to our transit problems, but that it is an important and much overlooked addition.
I will turn to this in a future article.