Metrolinx Contemplates Relief

At its meeting on February 14, 2014, the Metrolinx Board will receive a presentation on the Yonge Network Relief Study. Despite the need for better regional transit links (and by that I mean links that do not take people to downtown Toronto), the elephant in the room has always been the unstoppable demand for more capacity into the core area. Planning for and debates about catching up with the backlog of transit infrastructure cannot avoid this issue, and it skews the entire discussion because the scale and cost of serving downtown is greater than any other single location in the GTHA.

Conflicting political and professional attitudes across the region colour the view of downtown.  Toronto suburbs, never mind the regions beyond the city boundary, are jealous of downtown’s growth, and for decades have wanted some of the shiny new buildings and jobs for themselves. But the development, such as it was, skipped over the “old” suburbs to new areas in the 905 that could offer lower taxes possible through booming development and the low short-term cost of “new” cities.

Strangling downtown is not a new idea, and politicians decades ago foretold of gleaming suburban centres to redirect growth together with its travel demand. The transit network would force-feed the new centres, and downtown would magically be constrained by not building any new transit capacity to the core.

Someone forgot to tell GO Transit where service and ridership grew over the decades. Downtown Toronto continued to build, and that is now compounded by the shift of residential construction into the older central city.

Thanks to the early 1990s recession, the subway capacity crisis that had built through the 1980s evaporated, and the TTC could talk as if more downtown capacity was unneeded. To the degree it might be required, the marvels of new technology would allow them to stuff more riders on existing lines. A less obvious motive was that this would avoid competition for funding and political support between new downtown capacity with a much-favoured suburban extension into York Region. Whenever they did talk about “downtown relief”, the TTC did so with disdain.

Times have changed. Long commutes are now a burden, not a fast escape to suburban paradise. Every debate starts with “congestion” and the vain hope that there is a simple, take-two-pills-and-call-me-in-the-morning solution. Top that off with an aversion for any taxes that might actually pay for improvements, or sacrifices in convenience until that blissful day when transit arrives at everyone’s doorstep.

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