At its meeting of January 22, 2015, Toronto’s Executive Committee will consider a report (SmartTrack Work Plan 2015-2016) recommending a work plan for the study of Mayor Tory’s SmartTrack proposal together with other related transit projects. This is intended to dovetail with Metrolinx’ work on their Regional Express Rail (RER) network, and will have spillover effects on studies of both the Downtown Relief Line (DRL) and the Scarborough Subway Extension.
The most important aspect of this report is that, at long last, a study is reviewing transit options for Toronto on a network basis rather than one line at a time. Factors such as alternative land use schemes, fare structures and service levels will be considered to determine which future scenarios best support investment in transit. Rather than starting with a “solution”, the studies are intended to evaluate alternatives.
If this outlook actually survives, and the studies are not gerrymandered before they can properly evaluate all strategies, then the process will be worthwhile and set the stage for decisions on what might actually be built. The challenge will be to avoid a scenario where every pet project on the map is untouchable rather than making the best of the network as a whole. The term “best” will be open to much debate.
The report goes out of its way not to prejudge the study’s outcome because several difficult questions must be addressed:
- How does SmartTrack relate to the RER plan, and how will these services co-exist on the GO rail corridors?
- How will SmartTrack affect GO’s electrification plans including timing and location of maintenance facilities, and fleet planning?
- Does SmartTrack trigger the need for additional infrastructure and how will this affect GO operations, the Union-Pearson express (UPX) and the neighbourhoods through which SmartTrack will pass?
- What is the feasibility of the proposed Eglinton West branch of SmartTrack including a link to other services at Mount Dennis?
This is not to say SmartTrack is impossible, but that the vague relationship between this scheme, other plans for the same corridors and existing operations have never been explored beyond the level of simplistic campaign literature. Toronto has passed the point where simply drawing lines on a map constitutes “planning”.
The specific recommendations include:
- That the City Manager “in partnership with the Province” conduct the study described by the report.
- That Council request that several elements of SmartTrack be included in the RER studies: more frequent two-way service, more stops, “accelerated” electrification, service and fare integration with the TTC.
- That the City Manager, Metrolinx and the TTC study the feasibility of options for the Eglinton West corridor from Mount Dennis to the Airport Corporate Centre.
- That the City Manager prepare a strategy for cost sharing of the RER enhancements and for financing the City’s share of capital costs.
- That funding be provided in the 2015 and 2016 Capital Budget for studies.
- That Council request the Province and Metrolinx to work with Toronto and other affected municipalities on “an outreach and engagement strategy” for RER including SmartTrack.
- That various reports arising from this work come to Executive Committee in fall 2015.
Funding for the studies in 2015-2016 amounts to $1.65-million of which $750k was approved by Council when it launched this process in December (Request for Report on Review of SmartTrack and Regional Express Rail Plans). The remaining $900k relates to the Eglinton West corridor including a Transit Project Assessment for whatever scheme (if any) proves workable. That assessment would run into 2016.
The work plan proposes, if required, a second report to City Council early in 2016 to provide the final business case, funding strategy and implementation plan for the Eglinton West Corridor, subject to further Council direction. [p. 2]
Metrolinx is already working on a detailed review of RER plans for all of its corridors, and will present a consolidated request to Queen’s Park in 2Q15 regarding the priorities for RER and other “Next Wave” projects that, collectively, will draw on the $15-billion provincial commitment for GTA transit over the next decade. According to the city’s report, the province is expected to respond to this request in 3Q15. Obviously the position and scope of SmartTrack needs to figure in this review, and the level of funding required from Toronto for the incremental cost above the RER project is a key question.
There are key differences between SmartTrack and the Metrolinx RER scheme notably the service frequency, the number of stops, and the inclusion of a “TTC fare option”. Exactly what this means is unclear because phrases such as “fare integration” mean different things to different people. In Mayor Tory’s campaign, it was clear that he intended SmartTrack to operate as an integral part of the TTC fare system. Whether this would be as part of the base fare, or with some sort of “premium” will depend a lot on the generosity of both Metrolinx (as operator) and Toronto Council (as potential funder) of this service.
The current study does not include any discussion of operating costs nor of the financial implications of various fare structures, although service level, integration with TTC routes and fares will play a major role in the attractiveness of SmartTrack as transit corridor. Metrolinx will include fare options in its RER studies, but to what extent this will include SmartTrack is unclear.
The financial arrangements should prove interesting:
The capital cost sharing and City financing strategy will be developed for consideration with the fall 2015 report to Council. The strategy is dependent on key elements of the business case such as the incremental capital cost estimates for SmartTrack, and the development potential identified along the SmartTrack corridors. High-level cost estimates for all SmartTrack corridors will be available in the fall. An update to the financing strategy will be provided in the winter 2016 staff report, if required.
Ongoing negotiations regarding project governance, financing, and project delivery are underway among the City and funding partners. It is expected that these negotiations will produce agreements or letters of intent for review and approval by City Council. [pg.10]
The report completely sidesteps the fact that “development potential” along the corridors includes lands outside the City of Toronto, and yet there is no mention of participation by the affected municipalities in funding the incremental cost of bringing improved transit service to them.
Rail Corridor Capacity and Infrastructure
Anyone familiar with the rail corridors in Toronto will know that in some locations, the provision of additional tracks, let alone station structures, will not be a simple matter. The service levels proposed will tax some existing junctions (such as Scarborough Junction where Stouffville and Lakeshore East services merge), not to mention the combined requirements for track time and routing of the many services in the Weston corridor (Milton, Kitchener, UPX, SmartTrack and a future HSR to London).
On the Stouffville corridor, GO Transit has already completed an Environmental Assessment for double-tracking the line between Scarborough Junction and Unionville. This study did not review station options except where GO stations already existed (Kennedy, Agincourt, etc.). Even at Kennedy, a proposed new platform would conflict with the existing SRT corridor, and it is unclear whether new SmartTrack stations could be inserted at Lawrence and Ellesmere while the SRT remains in operation. Construction of the “Glen Murray” route for the Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE) would also pose conflicts with infrastructure work for SmartTrack.
On the Kitchener corridor, there has already been a substantial upgrade in the corridor’s capacity, although the city report suggests that more may be required. Of note is a long-awaited change at Bloor Station:
Metrolinx anticipates constructing a direct connection between Bloor GO Station and the TTC Dundas West Subway Station by 2016. [pg. 14]
Whether this is a true, direct connection to the station proposed long ago by the TTC but stymied by the owners of the Crossways development, or simply a walkway along what used to be Vincent Street to link Bloor Station and Dundas Street opposite the subway entrance, is unclear. The Mobility Hub page for Bloor-Dundas claims that Metrolinx is working to provide a connection into the subway station:
In tandem with the redevelopment of Bloor GO/UnionPearson Express Station in time for the 2015 Pan Am Games, Metrolinx will pursue partnerships to create a pedestrian tunnel connecting the GO and TTC stations. [Public presentation December 10, 2012, pg. 24]
If SmartTrack is to make a meaningful connection to the subway, it must have a direct connection, not a roundabout walk.
Eglinton West Corridor
The Eglinton West corridor poses the greatest problems because it is a major new component within a larger plan (RER) that is much more fully developed. Until SmartTrack came along, this corridor might have been an extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT, or maybe a BRT route, or simply the 32 Eglinton West bus.
Additional analysis is required to accelerate the review of the Eglinton West corridor for integration into the overall RER review underway for the Kitchener GO and Stouffville/Lakeshore East GO corridors. An expedited feasibility study will be jointly undertaken, to assess options for implementing a SmartTrack heavy rail transit operation along the Eglinton West Corridor to the Mississauga Airport Corporate Centre. Critical in this phase of work is the assessment of the interchange between the proposed Eglinton West Corridor with the Kitchener GO Rail corridor in the vicinity of Mount Dennis. [pg. 9]
In an earlier article I wrote about the challenges of getting from the Weston rail corridor to Eglinton Avenue including an interchange with both the LRT line and a future Mount Dennis GO/RER station (That Pesky Curve in Mount Dennis). The Eglinton West link is the weakest part of the SmartTrack proposal, and it is essential that we move beyond the inevitable political debates amounting to little more than “my consultant knows more than those pesky transit bloggers”.
Totally absent from the city’s proposal is any study of westward extension of the LRT line, no doubt because in its current planned state as a surface operation, this would arouse the wrath of Etobicoke politicians who would lie in the path of bulldozers before an LRT was allowed across the Humber River. If, however, we are prepared to bury SmartTrack on Eglinton West, why should this be the only option? This is a glaring omission.
The proposed study includes a detailed review:
The Eglinton West Corridor of the SmartTrack plan envisions a new separate heavy rail corridor, that is not a part of the existing GO Rail network. The proposal outlines a continuation of the SmartTrack line at Mount Dennis west toward Mississauga Airport Corporate Centre along Eglinton Avenue West. Analysis is required to examine the technical feasibility, community impacts, and cost implications of a heavy rail line including:
- Availability of right-of-way;
- Feasibility of any required tunnels and bridges;
- Station locations;
- Crossings, grade separations;
- Operational and infrastructure implications on the Kitchener GO rail corridor, including the interchange between corridors; and
- Transit network connectivity and access to service.
It is recommended that the initial review of SmartTrack on the Eglinton West Corridor be addressed in an expedited feasibility study. The study will consider the issues identified above and assess rapid transit options for SmartTrack along the corridor. The feasibility study will recommend the type of transit service to be provided on the Eglinton West Corridor, and how best to serve the study objectives of providing transit access from downtown Toronto to the Mississauga Airport Corporate Centre. [pp. 14-15]
This leaves many options open and I can only hope that alternatives will not be precluded before staff have a chance to review what might be possible.
Among the requests from Toronto Council is that the SmartTrack corridor be electrified on an “acelerated” basis. The report notes that Metrolinx priorities are also affected by maintenance requirements:
[…] electrically powered trains will need to access maintenance and storage facilities. Metrolinx is constructing a new facility in Whitby, designed to accommodate electrification. The location of the facility requires Metrolinx to electrify the Lakeshore East corridor as an early priority. [pg. 14]
Although a small maintenance facility is planned for the UPX trains, this will not be sufficient for the scale of operation SmartTrack entails. The staging of electrification on GO’s network will be driven by many considerations including the amount of opposition to electrification on line still owned by the freight railways. This may require a rethink of how GO services are now operated to optimize the use of electrified territory. That is an issue for the RER studies, but the service level implied by RER plus SmartTrack operations will certainly shift priorities among the corridors.
The Planning Context
An important part of this study will be a review of how SmartTrack and other proposals will affect and work together with each other and with development plans.
The analysis of the SmartTrack proposal’s potential ridership will be undertaken by City Planning and the University of Toronto in consultation with Metrolinx and the TTC. A key input to the City’s and University of Toronto’s Regional Travel Demand Model is the distribution of population and employment. Projections of population and employment for 2021, 2031 and 2041 will be produced by City Planning and Strategic Regional Research Associates (SRRA). The projections will be based on the small area projections developed by City Planning as well as readily available projections for the GTHA area, augmented by a more up-to-date assessment of residential and commercial development potential along the SmartTrack corridor.
After the initial round of ridership modelling, the projections will be revised to reflect a more intensive assessment of development potential in the SmartTrack corridor. The revised projections will support the second phase of the ridership analysis, which will identify how the various options advance the goals and objectives of the City. It’s anticipated the options will include variations on:
- station locations;
- frequency of service;
- fare structure; and
- population and employment distributions
The impact of SmartTrack on the projected ridership of other planned rapid transit facilities will also be assessed. The review of SmartTrack will also be integrated with a number of related planning studies, such as the Official Plan Review (Feeling Congested?), Relief Line, and Scarborough Subway Extension. The results of these reviews will provide important data and findings and enable staff to assess results across a network analysis. [pg. 16]
SmartTrack has often been touted as a replacement for the Relief Line subway, although it more likely would only defer, not eliminate the need for additional capacity into the core area. Rather than debate this question as a matter of suburbs-vs-downtown fervour, Toronto could finally see updated numbers to show how all of the potential additions to the network might fit together and who they will serve.
An important related question is that of real estate development and intensification of residential and work-based populations. Do the many proposals require additional development to make them financially worthwhile? What is the potential benefit for land owners, and for municipalities who will reap higher taxes? Will additional revenue actually be used to offset transit investment costs, or would it be needed for other improvements?
The studies of SmartTrack, RER and other transit proposals provide an opportunity for a unified view of rapid transit improvements rather than the piecemeal approach taken by individual agencies and politicians. When the work plan report comes to Executive and then to Council, it is vital that this process not be gerrymandered in advance to favour specific schemes or outcomes. Indeed, a study which is seen to be fair and unbiased is the best possible support any project could have.
With unusual speed, Toronto will have specifics to consider, real options to digest, and this should lead to an agreed plan, not simply more rounds of debate. Whether the outcome will be to everyone’s liking is another matter. What Toronto needs is the best elements of the many proposals now on the table, with no sense that “my line” or “your line” takes precedence.