The SmartTrack scheme was born of an election campaign, but it was John Tory’s signature project, one he is loathe to relinquish despite its shortcomings.
What’s that you say? I am just being one of those “downers” who cannot see our manifest destiny? What’s that line about patriotism and scoundrels?
At the recent Executive Committee meeting, Tory actually had the gall to say that during the campaign, he didn’t have access to a squad of experts and had to make do with the people he had. Funny that. This is the crowd that estimated construction costs on the back of an envelope, who “surveyed” the line using out of date Google images, who ignored basics of railway engineering and capacity planning to make outrageous claims for their scheme.
When the dust settled and John Tory became Mayor Tory, I thought, ok, he will adapt his plan. Indeed, it didn’t take long for a reversal on TTC bus service and the recognition that Rob Ford had stripped the cupboard bare and then started to burn the lumber at the TTC. A campaign attack on Olivia Chow’s (far too meagre) bus plan changed into championing the restoration of TTC service to the days of the “Ridership Growth Strategy” and beyond. Good on the Mayor, I thought, he can actually change his mind.
SmartTrack is another matter, and what Tory, what Toronto desperately needs is a fresh look at what GO, SmartTrack and the TTC could be if only the fiefdoms and the pettiness of clinging to individual schemes could be unlocked. That would take some leadership. I wonder who has any?
Inevitably comments like this bring out the trolls who say “so what would YOU do” (that’s the polite version). Here’s my response as a scheme that bears at least as much importance as a way of looking at our transit network as the competing visions in the Mayor’s Office, Metrolinx, City Planning and the TTC.
First: Stop trying to make GO into two separate systems. It’s a mainline rail network and should be operated as one collection of lines. The idea that these tracks are something like lanes on the 401 where any bus company can just hop on and off with its own service is complete madness.
Second: Stop trying to keep GO as its own precious independent system immune from those pesky riders in Toronto and their desire for lower fares. We hear a lot about “integration” in the context of the 416/905 boundary, but the worst offender is GO itself with discriminatory short-haul fares and no co-fare with the TTC.
Third: Stop trying to pretend that the “subway in every pot” approach will actually build anything useful.
Fourth: Stop trying to make a new network “self sustaining” or a fare system a “zero sum game”. There is, nominally, $8-billion on the table for SmartTrack and billions more for RER and other transit schemes. Why is this spending a mark of investment in GTHA transit while any hint of new operating subsidies is rejected out of hand?
Here is what comes from these principles:
- GO/RER builds on its own network, but institutes a co-fare with the TTC on ALL branches, not just the two occupied by SmartTrack, and fixes its “distance based fares” so that they don’t discourage shorter trips.
- We hear a lot about “transit equity”, but I am mystified about why those who happen to live near or commute via two of GO’s branches should get a special deal of express travel with SmartTrack while those on other legs of the network (Lake Shore, Milton, Barrie, Richmond Hill) are stuck with the existing fares.
- The Scarborough Subway scheme reverts to the full LRT network in Scarborough including Sheppard East, Eglinton/Kingston/Morningside and the RT/LRT conversion and extension to Malvern.
- On Eglinton West, replace the western leg of SmartTrack with the Crosstown line extension that is already on the books. Stop trying to engineer a complex SmartTrack interchange with the Crosstown LRT at Mount Dennis.
- Abandon the scheme to reach the Airport Corporate Centre (MACC) by a roundabout heavy rail route through the airport lands.
- The idea that the MACC service has to go downtown is complete nonsense, let alone that it should be a through ride to Markham. If someone wants to get to MACC, an east-west route on Eglinton is likely at least as attractive as a trip from Union Station, and we have these things called “transfers” to existing rapid transit routes.
I have no idea what this would cost, and am not going to attempt an estimate, but my gut feeling is that we would have money left over from current plans ($8b for SmartTrack plus $3.6b for the SSE). A big problem is that we don’t even know what the current plans will cost or the upheaval they will entail, and I’m not going to try second or third guessing that mess.
There is no question that a GO-TTC co-fare will drive up demand on GO Transit. Fine. By how much? What sort of infrastructure – track, equipment, stations – is needed to absorb this? How does it compare to SmartTrack which itself will require massive upgrades in two corridors to reach its target frequent 5-minute service?
In Scarborough, if both the Stouffville and Lake Shore East corridors operate with a co-fare, what does this do for access at reasonable cost to the core area as an alternative to the SSE?
Reviewing this sort of proposal won’t be easy, and it will require a fundamental re-think of how the pieces of our transit puzzle fit together. But what we have today is a bundle of competing ideas that don’t fit together at all, politicians too full of their own ego to admit things might be changed, and staff too terrified to say that the emperors have no clothes.
GO/RER is a very good start but it should be more, not simply stop in a decade or so content with electrification and 15 minute headways. Queen’s Park has to get serious about funding transit, much more than they have to date, including both capital and operating (including fare restructuring) costs. GO needs heavy duty engineering reviews of just what our rail network is capable of handling.
SmartTrack is GO in disguise and should be merged into GO’s service plans. Sorry, Mayor Tory, but there won’t be any blue and green trains. As for your consultants and lobbyists, I am sure they can find work elsewhere.
For the LRT lines, I don’t care if we call them “Transit City”, I just want to see them built. Give Scarborough the three routes they were originally promised plus access to GO service on two corridors at a reasonable cost, and I suspect they will live without a subway extension.
There are “naysayers” to a scheme like this, of course, who will gripe that we will never see the whole plan built. Well, I choose to be optimistic despite the best effort of politicians and lobbyists to bring gridlock and despair to transit planning.
My bottom line is simple: give this idea a fair shake and tell everyone why it won’t work for solid technical, planning and financial reasons, not simply because you have a warehouse full of outdated campaign literature.
Readers will have noticed that I did not mention the Downtown Relief Line here. It has a place in the mix too, but my concern was to throw all of the pieces of the GO/SmartTrack/SSE puzzle up in the air to see what might happen when they land. I am certainly not abandoning the DRL project, but it’s a bit further off than the timeframe for the projects discussed above.