Late in May, John Tory launched his “SmartTrack” transit line, the centrepiece of his “One Toronto” plan. Media reps gathered for a preview at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, and the launch was handled almost entirely by Tory’s staff. All of the background papers are on the One Toronto website, and little has been added since that event.
Even then, in the early days of the campaign, there was good reason to distrust Tory’s grasp of his own proposal, let alone a willingness to engage in debate, when he made the briefest of appearances for a canned statement to give the media clips for the news broadcasts, but answered few questions.
I was modestly impressed that at least a Mayoral candidate was not just thinking at the ward level for a transit proposal, but felt the plan was rather threadbare — a single line to solve almost all of Toronto’s problems.
Wearing two hats that day – as both reporter and activist – I was scrummed by the media for comments, and the Tory campaign chose to lift one phrase out of context as an “endorsement” for SmartTrack that remains online.
Steve Munro, Toronto Transit Blogger, said, “This is very much a refocusing of what transit in Toronto should be.”
What I was talking about was the need to look at the region and at trips to points other than the corner of Bay & Front and times other than the traditional commuter peaks. As to the specifics of SmartTrack, I was rather less complimentary.
In brief, SmartTrack would see electric multiple unit (EMU) trains operating primarily on GO Transit corridors between Unionville on the Stouffville line and Mount Dennis on the Weston corridor (the Kitchener-Waterloo line). At Eglinton and Weston, the line would veer west along the former Richview Expressway lands to the Airport Corporate Centre, but not to the airport itself.
The route would charge regular TTC fares with free transfers to the existing system, and with frequent all-day service at peak levels of every 15 minutes. Over its 53km it would have 22 stations, and might, according to the campaign, carry over 200,000 passengers per day.
Although the total cost would be $8-billion, the cost/kilometre is about $150m, cheap by subway standards, but certainly not trivial. Tory expects that both Queen’s Park and Ottawa would chip in 1/3 each leaving Toronto to find only $2.7b on its own hook. This would be accomplished through the magic of Tax Increment Financing, basically a scheme to borrow against the taxes from future new development to pay for current improvements.
To fund the SmartTrack line, Tax Increment Financing revenue will be leveraged over 30 years as development activity and assessed values increase along a new transit route. It is estimated that $2.5 billion in present value dollars can be raised over that time. All revenue estimates are based only on projected new office development in three precincts within the following districts along the SmartTrack line: the Central Core; the East Don Lands site; and Liberty Village.
This rather presumptuously implies that SmartTrack would be responsible for much new development although these areas are already densely populated and more projects are in the approval and construction pipeline. The taxes they will bring are intended for general city building, not least of which is the considerable infrastructure required to serve the densification of downtown and its shoulder neighbourhoods.
A similar dodge was used when a variant on the eastern branch of SmartTrack was proposed in 2012 by Markham Councillor Jim Jones in his I-METRO-E scheme. His financing depended on the assumption that the entire waterfront east of downtown would generate tax revenue thanks to one new line that would be some distance from much of the development.
As for operating costs, nowhere does Tory address the question of what a massive new TTC-fare rapid transit line would add to the operating deficit, or what side effects this could have such as service cutbacks elsewhere in the network without increased subsidies.
Paying for transit proposals with Monopoly money is an old game in Toronto, but one might have hoped for better from a representative of the business class as a candidate.
Is There Room on GO’s Corridors?
Over much of its length, SmartTrack requires space in the GO corridors to operate, and at the planned frequency, that means two tracks. That’s two tracks GO does not have today, at least not sitting there just waiting for new trains.
The Stouffville corridor has to be double-tracked for the Metrolinx RER scheme, and the problem will remain of fitting both SmartTrack and frequent GO service to points beyond Unionville all on the same line. Scarborough Junction, the point where the Lake Shore East and Stouffville corridors diverge, will almost certainly have to be grade separated given the combined frequency of service. Fortunately for Tory, Metrolinx already considers this a possibility, but SmartTrack would certainly force the issue.
To the west, a new pair of tracks exists for the Union-Pearson Express service, but that goes to the airport via a different route through north Etobicoke. It is not clear whether SmartTrack could share the same infrastructure at least to Eglinton.
Within the Union Station Rail Corridor, SmartTrack shares capacity problems with RER. As the capacity on individual GO corridors grows, the combined effect at Union could overwhelm that station. This brings us to discussions of satellite stations or alternative alignments through downtown, not to mention fundamentally reconfiguring Union to improve platform operations and focus on through-routing.
The problem here is that Tory has, in effect, appropriated a chunk of the Metrolinx RER scheme as if it were his own line with no consideration for whether both services could co-exist.
Is There Room on Eglinton?
The most laughable part of SmartTrack is the route it takes from Mount Dennis to the Airport Corporate Centre. Decades ago, land was reserved north of Eglinton for the Richview Expressway:
The Hamilton Expressway (also known as the Richview Expressway) was to have run from the Mount Dennis area (where it would connect to the Crosstown/400 Extension) westward to the junction of Highways 401 and 27. From there, it would be built by the provincial government to Hamilton. The Metro government began land assembly for the project along Richview Side Road (later Eglinton Avenue). The Ministry of Transportation, when upgrading the 401/427 interchange in the 1970s, designed the interchange to connect with the new freeway. This is why today there is a very wide right of way for Eglinton Avenue in Etobicoke and an elaborate connection from the 401 and 427 to Eglinton Avenue, as those were the ramps for the Hamilton Freeway. [From TransitToronto]
Over the years, transit proposals eyed this land, but the planning consensus going back into the 1980s was that any new line should be in the middle of Eglinton Avenue. A median LRT or BRT was proposed there long before Transit City came along to recycle the idea.
As Rob Salerno reported in NOW Toronto recently, Tory’s planners relied on outdated views of Eglinton Avenue to assume that there was room for a new rail corridor. In fact, Build Toronto has been selling off this land (reserving a small strip to allow for road widening in case an LRT or BRT project is undertaken), and chunks are already occupied by buildings.
Getting from the Weston rail corridor to Jane Street will require tunnelling below an existing residential neighbourhood, and constraints on the curve radius will make a shared station and convenient transfer with the Eglinton Crosstown LRT impossible.
Tory appears to have dodged around any debate re surface operation on Eglinton so that he can avoid the “war on the car” brigade of which the Fords are chief exponents. He also avoids directly challenging the Union Pearson Express for which a rail access into the airport already exists. Meanwhile, he condemns the Eglinton Crosstown line to a stub ending at Weston Road with an inconvenient transfer for through passengers headed not to downtown, but on a continuous east-west journey. As for the airport, that would require a separate shuttle from the corporate centre.
How this arrangement would serve the entire airport district, a major employment centre, is unclear.
Why Do We Need Two Lines in Scarborough?
In yet another dodge around controversial debate, Tory prefers to leave the Scarborough Subway scheme as is rather than reopening the LRT/subway battles and the blatant pandering to Scarborough’s need for recognition as a real city with its own subway line. In Tory’s plan, the three-station subway (Lawrence, STC and Sheppard) remains while SmartTrack operates only a few kilometres to the west with stations at Lawrence, Ellesmere, Sheppard, Finch and Steeles.
During the subway debate, subway-level riding from an updated demand model was claimed for that corridor. However, the new riders (over and above earlier projections for the LRT alternative) would be drawn from the same territory that SmartTrack serves in Markham.
If the GO corridors really can handle frequent service, then the expected subway demand may not materialize, and Toronto will have paid a high premium to finance infrastructure beyond what it actually needs.
Which Riders Would SmartTrack Serve?
Tory claims that SmartTrack would attract over 200,000 riders per day in part because of the diverse set of trips it would serve. Not only would the line funnel riders to the core area, it would provide new service to the lands south of the airport, as well as the developing business district in Markham.
A map on page 8 of a backgrounder on Surface Subways shows employment clusters in the GTA including the large grouping around Highway 404 and Highway 7. That’s definitely a node worth shooting for, but the rail line is actually a few kilometres to the east in Unionville, the proposed northern terminus.
Similarly, the airport district is spread out over a large area that cannot be served by a route stopping only its southern edge.
An integral part of any new transit to these nodes will be frequent connecting bus services, a chunk notably absent from Tory’s plan. It is no secret that the “last mile” links to rapid transit are crucial and can affect a line’s attractiveness.
On its trip into downtown, SmartTrack would serve northern Etobicoke, but only with stations at Kipling and at Jane. These will be handy for folks living nearby, but good feeder services will be essential.
On the Weston corridor, there would be stops at Eglinton (albeit a difficult one to integrate with the Crosstown LRT), St. Clair, Bloor (Dundas West Station), Liberty Village and Spadina. These are all stations that could be served by Metrolinx service already operating or planned for the corridor, especially by an airport link rethought as a more local service.
A major problem in attracting riders, however, will be service frequency and station access time. The closer one gets to the core area, the time actually spent on a train becomes less important than the time required just to board it. A “Liberty Village” station would actually be on the northeastern edge of that neighbourhood, quite distant from many residents and businesses it might try to serve. A Spadina station would be very close to Union in an area already served by the Spadina/Harbourfront streetcar.
To the east, the one station associated with new development lands would be at the Unilever site south of Queen and east of the Don River. This would do nothing for the large population planned in the new developments west of the river and mainly south of the Gardiner Expressway. Tory has been notably silent on transit service to the waterfront.
Continuing east to Scarborough Junction, there would be stops at Queen, Gerrard, and Main/Danforth. These could attract some transfer traffic, but again the extra time needed for that transfer, at least 10 minutes on average, will counteract the time saving of the faster trip to Union.
As for those 200,000 daily riders, this is a dubious claim. On a transit line with good all-day demand, typically half of the ridership comes during the peak periods, and half in the off-peak. Within the peaks, a line runs at or slightly above nominal capacity about 50% of the time at the peak point.
SmartTrack is really two lines (the west and east legs), and so the goal is really 100k on each side. (By analogy, the YUS subway serves the same central area with its peak demand divided between the two arms of the line.) 25k would be the am peak demand, much of which would be inbound to the core area. This would require a service capacity of about 10k per hour at the peak point, a real challenge for trains every 15 minutes.
The fundamental problem with SmartTrack is that it looks nice on a map, but the mechanics of actually operating the route and using it as a transit rider are more challenging.
SmartTrack and the Relief Line
Any service in the rail corridors such as the Metrolinx RER scheme will have the most benefit for trips originating in the outer 416 and the 905. Travel time savings and a 15-minute headway represent a real improvement over today’s offerings there. If the intent is relief of subway demand, it must come by diverting that type of rider away from the outer ends of the subway network, not by intercepting trips that are already on local TTC services closer to the core.
Tory’s position on the Relief Line (the formal “DRL” which many including me have advocated for years) has changed from the early days of his campaign.
Back in March 2014, Tory announced:
John Tory has a plan for a more affordable, functional and liveable Toronto. Job number one in that plan is building the Yonge Street relief line.
Only a few weeks later, he launched a broadside at the Olivia Chow campaign for treating the Yonge Relief line as a lower priority:
… you can get action on Yonge Street Relief Line from me now.
There was no doubt that the “Relief Line” in question was the DRL because SmartTrack’s announcement was still nearly two months away. Now that Tory’s scheme is the centrepiece of his campaign, the possibility of a new frequent-service subway providing local service in the areas close to downtown drifts off to the future in a Tory Toronto.
Toronto needs both better service on the GO network and additional local capacity linking the core, near-downtown areas and the wider network. A single line cannot perform both functions.
Missing From The Map
Notable by their absence on the SmartTrack map are three important new LRT/streetcar services: Sheppard East, Finch West and Waterfront. However, in August, Tory claimed continued support for the Finch and Sheppard as planned for 2020 and 2021 opening dates.
Tory makes no mention of transit to the Waterfront, a project mired in anti-downtown rhetoric, dreams of Ferris wheels in the Port Lands, and a lack of serious commitment by Council and the TTC to the “transit first” once touted for an area equal in size to the current downtown.
Tory falls into the trap of emphasizing construction, new lines that, someday, might improve the lot of some transit riders, while ignoring the basic day-to-day needs of the existing system.
In August, the TTC proposed a suite of changes to make the system more attractive to riders including improved transit service, replacement of transfers with a two-hour fare, and a system-wide move to proof-of-payment and all-door loading. Tory’s response? “Irresponsible” because there was no funding scheme.
In that one word, Tory not only displayed his ignorance of Council operations – an agency proposes how it might operate while Council decides how or if to fund the changes – but also his focus on throttling expenses and holding down taxes. There was no sense he understand the severity of the looming problem of system capacity.
The TTC operating subsidy for 2014 will be about $430m, of which Toronto provides $340m and Queen’s Park $90m from gas taxes. A further $100m is needed to run WheelTrans, and this is completely funded by Toronto. Service cuts under Rob Ford and Karen Stintz capped subsidy increases, but this cannot continue forever, and better transit service is a common demand across Toronto.
Even without inflation, Toronto’s current level of operating funding would amount to $8.5-billion over the next quarter century, more than the estimated price tag for SmartTrack. A ten percent bump in funding ($34m/year) could be focused on the surface network and on restructured fares with considerable benefits long before any rapid transit expansion will open for business. (New money would do less for the subway where physical constraints limit the scope for capacity expansion, and fixed costs for operations and maintenance dominate the overall budget.)
On the capital side, the TTC has $9-billion in capital needs for system maintenance and vehicle replacements over the next decade, but only about $6-billion in known funding. This does not include “below the line” projects Toronto needs, but does not include on the official list. An artificially small shortfall in funding is the result, but not one anyone talks about.
The absence of a meaningful platform to address transit needs beyond a few rapid transit projects shows just how threadbare that platform really is.
Can John Tory Change?
Since its announcement, SmartTrack has been the John Tory campaign’s mantra, the centrepiece of his platform, and his solution to almost every problem. The fundamental problem is that SmartTrack cannot be built as proposed, and addresses only part of the overall transit challenge in Toronto.
Campaigns are an horrendous time to ask candidates to shift position. They are terrified of appearing weak, uncommitted, vacillating, unable to lead the city to a single, defined goal. But the mark of a good would-be mayor is the ability to grow beyond a simple slogan like “subways subways subways” and “the gravy train”.
Tory wants to be a mayor who will work with all sides of Council, and he will not achieve that by trotting out a single plan over and over at every meeting for every issue. As a leading candidate in the polls, Tory should have the headroom to embrace more options for transit, to show that he can see beyond his campaign literature.
Can John Tory move beyond a one-track platform and show he really understands the complexity of transit needs, or will he bull ahead with a shiny, but ultimately half-baked scheme that will short-change Toronto?