This article has been “in the hopper” over the weekend while I worked on other things, and even managed some non-transit entertainment lest my readers despair that I ever leave the keyboard behind. Royson James in The Star beat me to getting the idea out with his own article “Time for Councillors to Ask Tough Transit Questions” yesterday. I have questions too, and some of them will not be easy to answer.
A mountain of reports descended on Council for a bit of light weekend reading when City Planning released its March update on transit plans. I have already commented on the main report over at Torontoist, and more recently on the demand studies, land use assumptions and Relief Line alignment here on my own site.
Council has my sympathy, up to a point, but the sheer volume is, like deferred TTC maintenance, the product of dodging a hard, detailed debate about transit priorities for years, and substituting populist “I deserve a subway” rhetoric.
Here are questions Councillors should be asking of the planners. It’s a long list, but there are a lot of gaps in the reports, despite their volume.
Which Model Are We Using?
The March report bundle includes proposed configurations of SmartTrack (ST) that are very different from those promoted by John Tory in his mayoral campaign, and also very different from those used in the demand modelling. For example:
- Not all SmartTrack stations are present in the options under evaluation, but they are included in the demand models.
- The one-stop Scarborough Subway depends on ST taking over the function of subway stations originally planned at Lawrence and at Sheppard. How is the network affected for ST configurations with less frequent service and no stop at Lawrence?
- What is the effect of the loss of a ST station at Finch?
- Frequent ST service is essential to the attractiveness of the new service, but the most attractive level (every five minutes) is not in the study options.
- How does less frequent service on ST affect its competitiveness to the Relief Line?
Similarly, it is not clear whether the land use plans, which depend on network layouts to determine where growth might occur, are based on different “networks” from those actually under study.
All demand and land use modelling underlying the final recommendations for a transit plan must be based on a matching network configuration (or configurations for alternatives).
Where Are People Travelling in Scarborough?
Often planners point out that Scarborough has a large amount of local traffic within its boundaries, and that a great deal of this crosses from “south” Scarborough below Highway 401 to “north” Scarborough. This situation is not addressed in the transit plan except to the degree that SmartTrack could provide a north-south trunk albeit at the western edge of Scarborough. This also presumes that it has enough stations to be beneficial.
With the truncation of the subway at STC south of the 401, and the abandonment of the LRT option from Kennedy Station to Malvern, there is little left for north-south travel but the network of bus routes. These routes, if past experience with TTC rapid transit lines is any indication, will be gerrymandered to force-feed the subway extension and/or SmartTrack. Indeed, doing both will be a challenge, and the political question then will be which of two competing services the bus network should serve.
The planning district for Scarborough Town Centre is a large area from west of Brimley to well east of McCowan, and much of it is beyond walking distance from a Scarborough Centre Station, an entity whose location is still unknown. How can a single subway station in the middle of this large block be said to “serve” the entire district and stimulate its growth especially when there already are stations on the RT at Midland, STC and McCowan?
The SRRA background study on demand and development includes a chart showing only a small amount of growth at STC. How does this fit with claims of major new development as part of the Scarborough transit plan?
What Are the TTC’s Subway Plans?
The service level on the SSE is claimed to be equal to that of the existing subway, with all trains running through to the STC terminal rather than half of the service turning back from Kennedy as originally planned. An even better service on the Bloor-Danforth line is mentioned with headways going below two minutes after a new signal system is installed.
How does this fit with the TTC’s fleet and carhouse plans? Several projects will have to receive funding, and some of these are not yet part of the TTC’s capital plan.
- Installation of a new signal system with Automatic Train Control (ATC) on the BD line
- Replacement of the BD fleet with cars that can operate under ATC
- Increase of the fleet to provide more frequent service
- Construction of a new west end subway yard to accommodate fleet growth (this would also open up space at Greenwood for the Relief Line trains)
These questions affect the City’s financial plan, and the Scarborough subway’s opening date.
Which Queen-Richmond Relief Line Route is Really on the Table?
Council is asked to approve a Pape-Queen/Richmond Relief Line (RL) route that, on the map, has options including:
- A route through downtown via Richmond or via Queen, and
- A route directly across Queen, or jogging south to serve the Great Gulf / Unilever site before crossing the Don and swinging back north to Queen.
The southern route costs more, but the demand model shows it will attract more riders presuming that the Great Gulf development actually occurs. However, the southerly route is dismissed because of the cost and complexity of the river crossing (a $400 million difference in the cost estimates). If this option is really not under study, why has it not been eliminated already? Conversely, if it is under study, then its relationship to other projects including ST and GO/RER needs to be taken into account, and demand modelling should treat this as a separate option.
As for the Richmond option, we have heard a lot about the benefits of a City Hall station that would provide walking access east to Queen and west to Osgoode stations on the YUS. Enthusiasm for this option suggests that Richmond Street really is not under study except possibly as a fallback position.
Finally, the Queen/Richmond options more-or-less kill off the possibility of serving a new Metrolinx GO station at Front and Spadina with the western end of the RL. The status of this project and its need for connectivity to the downtown rapid transit network must be clarified so that we don’t end up with an orphaned GO station.
The Small Matter of the “Big J” Relief Line
The Relief Line study extends north only to Danforth, but it is well known from previous projections that a route further north to Eglinton or beyond would have a major effect in offloading demand from the Yonge line south of Bloor Station. Moreover it would reduce Danforth-to-Yonge transfer traffic, an important component in congestion at the Bloor-Yonge interchange.
Even if a northern extension is not part of “phase one” construction planning, knowing the potential for relief would inform both a decision about the RL’s priority and importance, and set the stage for detailed study of a “phase two” to Eglinton or Sheppard and Don Mills. This is particularly important in light of claims that even with the RL (to Danforth) and ST, the Yonge line will still be full in a few decades.
The demand model should be run with the longer “big J” versions of the Relief Line to determine its benefit.
On The Waterfront
With the decision on the Gardiner reconstruction more or less out of the way, the future transit network serving East Bayfront, the Keating Channel precinct, the Great Gulf site, and the Port Lands should be sorted out. In particular, the ability to which Great Gulf will or can be served by surface transit should be quantified so that the residual requirement for the rapid transit lines is well-understood.
There are many other issues about possible waterfront services, but these are part of the “waterfront reset” which is a separate exercise. In the context of current reports, the big issue is how the Great Gulf site will work overall.
Yonge Extension to Richmond Hill
Demand models, and especially those related to relief at Bloor Yonge, should include information about the projected demand on the Yonge extension. This should include not just the updated values at Bloor-Yonge with the extension in place, but the numbers of riders added in at the north end of the line, and the capacity this removes for riders further south.
SmartTrack Costs and Financing
The SmartTrack project has changed very substantially since its proposal in the election campaign. It has lost the western spur to the airport, several stations, and the originally claimed level of service. An updated cost estimate is required to fit this project into the City’s financial plan and to co-ordinate with any funding that might be available from Ottawa.
A related issue is that GO/RER construction, although a Metrolinx responsibility, will trigger costs from the City for upgrades/replacements of its infrastructure. This cost must be added to the rapid transit financing even if SmartTrack does not proceed.
What will the operating costs and governance model be for SmartTrack? How will subsidy requirements for this service compete with subsidies for the TTC?
A commentary by City and TTC staff on the Metrolinx fare integration study is shown as one of the reports pending for June 2016.
This report should address nuts-and-bolts questions about fare levels, not simply a collection of “principles” than can be interpreted to suit the reader’s prejudices. Metrolinx clearly wants a distance-based fare system with a premium fare for “rapid transit” including the subway.
The TTC is now installing new fare gates throughout the system that will make charging separately for subway trips possible.
When will the TTC and City take a public position on the future of TTC fares, whether there should be a move away from a flat, one-zone fare system, and if so, what the effects will be on the cost of various types of trips?
The Rush to Decision
After years and years of delay, the last thing we need is to be stampeded into approvals that might have to be unwound. We have a bad habit of hijacking the transit debate, saying “this must be the plan” and then saying “we cannot change the plan”. Only a palace coup or an election gets around that deadlock.
City staff do not serve us well by dropping major reports on Executive, and then Council, with limited lead time, and the very real possibility that supplementary reports will continue to appear right up to the meeting date. That is no basis on which to make any major commitment.
Fortunately, most of the recommendations in this round are for more reports, but the time for actual decisions will be required on crucial issues such as the priority of various transit projects and the financial backing Toronto must seek.
Any future reports should come out with lots of warning so that Council (at least those members who care about such things) can inform themselves.