The TTC Board received an update from City and TTC staff on the status of major transit expansion plans in Toronto at its meeting of September 28. The presentation was largely delivered by Deputy City Manager John Livey with backup from Mitch Stambler, TTC’s Head of Service Planning. Also at the table, but notable for her silence, was the Toronto’s Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat. A contingent from Metrolinx, another agency studying transit expansion, was in the public gallery, but they did not participate in the presentation or discussion.
This session was a prologue for a report coming to Toronto’s Executive Committee on October 20, 2015, but a great deal of detail remains to be fleshed out. This proved frustrating for the Board members on two counts. First, the lack of detail prevented the TTC from making informed comment on the plans, and second, the process itself has largely bypassed the TTC Board and concentrated work at the City and Metrolinx.
To some extent, the TTC has itself to blame for this situation. During the Ford/Stintz era, meaningful policy debates at the TTC were rare, and the TTC ceded responsibility for large scale planning to the City of Toronto under Keesmaat’s department. At the political level, staying informed about issues is a comparatively new desire by Board members (not to mention some members of City Council) when the issues are more complex than a dumbed-down subways-subways-subways mantra. They have a lot of catching up to do.
Detailed reports on four major projects will come before the TTC and Council over coming months, and these will inundate members with not only a great deal of information but force some hard decisions about just which projects, and at what scale, the City should pursue. These are:
- The Relief Line
- The Scarborough Subway Extension
- Waterfront transit
- GO/RER, SmartTrack and TTC service integration
The situation is complicated by parallel work at Metrolinx, an agency with very different goals from the TTC and the City, and by the inevitable political wrangling over the relative importance of projects. Whether any reports coming forward from staff will be trusted, especially in an environment where Councillors and the Mayor routinely dismiss “expert” advice that does not suit their biases, remains to be seen. Equally difficult will be the question of whether the reports are spun, in advance, to suit specific outcomes rather than presenting “just the facts”.
One difficulty already lurking in the wings is the question of demand modelling. The University of Toronto together with City Planning is developing a new model for GTHA travel. This is much more ambitious than current models in that it covers the entire region and models travel over the entire day, rather than focussing on AM peak flows. The model also allows for route and mode choice by incorporating considerations of fares and line capacity (crowding). At this point, the model is still being calibrated and validated, a process that uses known historical data (from the 2011 Transportation Tomorrow Survey) to confirm whether the model generates flows that accurately mimic what actually happened. (The TTS is conducted every five years by UofT on behalf of municipal and provincial agencies, and the next set of data will reflect demands in 2016.)
Draft results for the new projects and network will not be available until October 2015, and a report on details will not come to Council until the first quarter of 2016. One suspicion is inevitable given this delay: is the “calibration” intended to produce a desired outcome? That’s a tricky question both because it speaks to the independence of the process and also to the way in which the model is used. For example, a model may well reproduce past behaviour perfectly, but that’s a known target and the context for it (then-existing transit, road and land use configurations) are a matter of record.
Future modelling depends not only on the nuts and bolts of the model itself, but of the assumptions put into its configuration. A well-known example of flawed modelling was for the Sheppard Subway in which unduly rosy assumptions about job numbers and locations gave the subway a projected demand well above what it actually achieved. The further one goes into the future, the cloudier the view becomes, and the presumed distribution of population and employment can involve political as well as basic economic dimensions. If, for example, the concentration of jobs in the core area and the polarization of high and low income housing concentrations continues, this has profound effects on future demand. Moreover, such concentration may not suit politicians who view their own turf as the rightful place for future growth.
The City’s Relief Line study has not been marked by its blinding speed for a combination of political and organizational reasons.
For many years, the TTC simply had no interest in a “Downtown Relief Line” claiming that all future demand could be handled on the existing subway network running far greater capacity thanks to the wonders of automation. This position came unglued through a combination of factors including a recognition that even automatic control had its limitations, that the Richmond Hill subway extension was held hostage to the downtown capacity problems, and that heroic attempts to expand existing subway capacity would be very expensive and might not achieve long-term goals. The TTC now accepts that even with improvements in the pipeline, they will run out of capacity on the Yonge line in the early 2030s.
At Council, and especially in Mayor Ford’s office, the idea of building any new capacity into downtown was simply not an item for discussion even though the primary beneficiaries would be travellers from the suburbs who would gain capacity to access the growing downtown job market. The 2014 municipal election put everything on hold until staff had a sense of the climate in which any Relief Line study would be conducted.
A great deal of effort went into simply explaining that the RL was, in fact, necessary after years of pushing this scheme off of the table. The City’s study looks at three segments of the line: the primary link from the Danforth Subway to the core, an extension northeast to Don Mills, and an extension northwest linking the core to the Bloor Subway near Dundas West Station. Public consultation ran through a long list of options for station locations, and a short list winnowed this down to four permutations of alignments at the downtown and Danforth ends for the first segment. There is not yet a publicly recommended option, but this should appear imminently. It will be no surprise if the proposed line runs from Pape Station in the east to downtown via Wellington Street in the west. However, the challenges lie in how to get from “A” to “B” at least in part because no provision has been made as the city developed along the route of what had been regarded as an unneeded project.
Today the focus is on the first segment, although Metrolinx recently published projections showing that a Relief Line north to Don Mills and Sheppard would provide substantial relief to the existing subway system. It is unclear which model the pending report to Council will use in discussion of the route. If the line is pitched simply as a short connector from Danforth to the core, it will not have the same appeal (or long-term effect) as one going much further north. A related question will be whether the new UofT demand model produces similar demand projections for this route as those of the model used by Metrolinx.
Scarborough Subway Extension
The Scarborough Subway Extension study to date has concentrated on the question of alignment with three possible routes surviving from a much longer original list. This exercise was triggered by concern that the nearby proposed SmartTrack service would cannibalize the SSE’s potential demand and that shifting the route to another alignment could improve its fortunes. Demand modelling played a big role in getting the SSE approved over the LRT network alternative, but Chief Planner Keesmaat has publicly suggested that the numbers used for that decision might not have been reliable, and they are no longer part of the City’s work. The obvious question now is whether there ever was sufficient demand to justify a subway option, and what the outcome of current modelling will be.
This is not just a question of SSE numbers, but of future projections for other lines broadly linking eastern York Region to the core area. How will the demand distribute itself depending on which lines (and service levels) are in the model networks? What will be the effect of a TTC fare frequent service on SmartTrack as compared to a GO service of, say, 15 minute headways?
The debate will come in 2016, but the moment there are “draft” numbers available, it would be surprising for them to be kept secret given the strong political opinions on both sides of this argument.
With planning now well underway for the eastern waterfront including the Port Lands and the scheme to reconfigure the mouth of the Don River, not to mention development of the Great Gulf (Unilever) site east of the river, the question of access to what was supposed to be a “transit first” neighbourhood is back on the table. At the same time, there is some interest in transit to the western waterfront, a project that last saw any real action when David Miller was Mayor. To the east, the work is driven by new development; to the west, by a desire by residents along the waterfront, for a faster way to get downtown.
A major problem with the waterfront is that it had few real political champions except when threatened by schemes for amusement park developments, and it shares with the core the problem that the waterfront is “downtown”, terra utterly incognita to more than a handful of Council members. Waterfront Toronto tried mightily, but its focus has been drawn to other major works (Queens Quay West and the Pan Am Village) while funding limited the scope of its work on Queens Quay East to basic infrastructure upgrades (water and sewers). The TTC has never been much enamoured of the eastern waterfront line in part because of concerns about concessions that would be made to competing users of the roadway.
The Waterfront West LRT scheme goes back a quarter-century to the “subway in every borough” transit announcement by David Peterson in his failed bid to stay in office. It was always the poor cousin (a streetcar line, after all, does not have the political sexiness of a subway), and plans for this bumbled along pushed and pulled by many interests. The TTC built the Harbourfront connection from Spadina to Bathurst and rebuilt Fleet Street as a transit corridor as a first step, only to decide that this alignment didn’t really work for their plans which have shifted north to a Bremner Boulevard scheme of dubious value.
Further west there are various alignments depending on which plan you read. The original scheme at the Exhibition Place was to swing south and serve Ontario Place, but that came to naught because Ontario Place preferred to keep its parking lot rather than gain a new transit terminal. Another scheme took the route north under the Gardiner Expressway, and the existing loop beside the GO station is a legacy of that alignment. (The original loop was further south where the “Enercare Centre” as it is now called is located. A planned underground transit terminal here fell through because nobody would pay for it.) From Exhibition Place westward, there are proposed alignments parallel to the rail corridor connecting to the existing network either via Dufferin Street to King, via a new ramp connecting to the Queen/Roncesvalles/King intersection, or further west via Colborne Lodge Road to The Queensway.
The first goal any Waterfront West study needs to address is the question of just what demand it is supposed to serve beyond the level of a politician’s line on a map, and how it would relate to improved GO, SmartTrack or even a Western Relief subway line.
To the east, a planned route would run from the Bay Street tunnel surfacing east of Yonge and terminating, initially, at Parliament. Eventually this would link up with a realigned Cherry Street and service in the Port Lands including a link to a proposed Broadview Avenue extension. Much of this is years in the future, but the key part, expansion of the station at Union and construction of the link east from Bay, has been a major stumbling block because of its cost. Work that might have been done while the station was closed for construction of the new subway platform went unfunded, and further upheavals await riders whenever expansion of streetcar facilities at Union gets underway.
The estimated cost for the line to Parliament Street is $520m (2016$) of which $270m would be for the station upgrades and the new Queens Quay east tunnel, $100m for surface infrastructure and vehicles, and $150m for the reconstruction of Queens Quay East to the same general configuration as that we now see on the western side.
SmartTrack and GO/Regional Express Rail (RER)
Overall, this is probably the most important and most frustrating part of the presentation because so much detail is missing. What we do know is:
- Metrolinx wants to run many more trains on most of its corridors under the brand name of “Regional Express Rail” or “RER” with service as often as every 15 minutes, although this is a step back for levels of 5-6 minutes originally talked of in their plan “The Big Move”.
- Mayor Tory’s “SmartTrack” scheme arose during the election campaign as a modified version of a “Big U” scheme to link Milton with Markham via Union Station. The Tory version would run to the Airport Corporate Centre in Mississauga via Eglinton to the Weston rail corridor, and then follow existing GO trackage south through Union and then northeast on the Stouffville corridor.
- Metrolinx demand projections for the Relief Line study show little effect on the subway network from SmartTrack because it is too far away to do much good. Behind the scenes it is no secret that this conclusion did not sit well with the Mayor’s Office.
- Metrolinx has been and remains evasive on the question of SmartTrack service levels that would be constained by (a) the capabilities of their own rail corridors and (b) by the need to fit RER and other services into shared territory.
RER is a major infrastructure plan for Ontario and its agency Metrolinx, and when completed, it will make a huge difference in travel around the GTHA. Whether and how SmartTrack actually fits into this is quite another matter. Metrolinx openly speaks of SmartTrack as if it is simply a supplementary GO service stopping at more stations, while the TTC talks of SmartTrack as its own operation with widespread integration of TTC services and SmartTrack stations.
SmartTrack faces major technical hurdles beyond simply the question of service level notably the viability of the route from Mount Dennis to the airport via Eglinton West. The city is also studying alignments that would stay on the rail corridor to the point where the UPX spur branches off and then running south to reach the Corporate Centre lands.
Financially, the SmartTrack proposal is little more than notes on the back of a rather worn envelope. Basically, Tory’s campaign said there will be “x” kilometres of line, and we will multiply by an average value for “overground” construction from London and Berlin (think of “overground” as an electrified GO line), and – voila! – we have a cost of about $8.3-billion. This did not include provision for the complex link at Mount Dennis, and it was unclear for some time whether the estimate included any tunnels at all. All of this would be paid for through the magic of tax increment financing (about which I will not burden you, gentle reader, beyond saying that snake oil has a better reputation for this project).
At this point, we don’t know how where SmartTrack would go, how often it can feasibly provide service, what the fare will be, who will ride it, or how much it will cost to build or operate. Ridership numbers may come back looking great provided that trains run often and fares are at TTC, not GO, levels, but this could also have a high subsidy cost and may challenge the capacity of the GO corridors. Conversely, a less frequent service may “fit” within GO’s operations, but be less attractive to transferring riders who might face longer waits for a SmartTrack train than the benefit of a faster trip to downtown might provide, especially if this is at a premium fare.
The Deputy City Manager neatly avoided these questions because all of the studies, including engineering analyses of various routes, are not yet complete. At some point, however, the pleasant fantasies will have to end and everyone – Mayor Tory, Metrolinx, Council and the TTC – will have to discuss how all of this fits together based on real plans and engineering, not campaign promises.
Service integration between TTC and SmartTrack is possible at a wide variety of locations although this begs several questions:
- To what degree should the feeder network be gerrymandered to serve SmartTrack? (Think of how Scarborough Town Centre and Kennedy stations distort the routes around them.)
- Are all of the SmartTrack stations actually going to be built?
- What will be the service frequency?
- Will SmartTrack actually be a TTC fare operation, or GO operation with some sort of premium fare + TTC transfer privileges?
- What alignment will SmartTrack actually take in northwestern Toronto?
[Note that the image above is clipped on the sides in the full report from which it was copied.]
The Executive Committee meeting on October 20, 2015, should see a revised version of this update notably including some of the engineering evaluations of various alternatives that were not discussed here, but the picture will remain incomplete until the ridership simulations are finalized for meetings in 1Q16.
Any action on the Waterfront lines is a longer-term issue because Council and the TTC must first decide what or even if they will pursue these projects before a work plan to update the Environmental Assessments and/or to proceed with more detailed design.
Public consultation will occur in November 2015 jointly by the City, TTC and Metrolinx, but as with Council, members of the public will not have the full comparative picture because the demand studies will not be out yet. This could lead to “support” that is not fully informed by the final version of various studies, although how much attention will be given to such work by the current crop of politicians is anyone’s guess.
Council and Toronto as a whole will move from debating lines drawn on a cocktail napkin to a detailed network proposal, and will have to face hard questions about the value of investing in every part of it.