With all the flurry of transit funding and construction announcements lately, Mayor John Tory added his own contribution with a media statement at that busiest of stations, Bloor-Yonge. What prompted such a high-profile event? Rumour has it that Queen’s Park plans to fund the Richmond Hill subway extension in its coming budget, and Tory wants to be sure he defends the existing downtown system against overloading from the north.
Specifically, Tory wants to ensure that funding will be available for:
Building new transit lines including the Eglinton East LRT, waterfront transit and the downtown relief line
This is brave stuff, our Mayor rallying his city to the barricades [cue inspirational and very-hummable anthem here] were it not that Tory himself is responsible for much of the confusion and misdirection in transit plans today. His election campaign promoted “SmartTrack”, a single city-wide project that would solve every problem and magically be funded through taxes on new development the line would bring. A “surface subway” would speed riders from Markham to Mississauga via downtown with frequent service at TTC fares. Nothing else (except for a politically unavoidable subway in Scarborough) was needed, certainly not better bus and streetcar service to fill all those spaces in between major routes.
Things didn’t quite work out as planned. SmartTrack has dwindled to a handful of new GO stations to be built on the City’s dime, some of which Metrolinx might have built anyhow, and a few in locations of dubious merit beyond their soothing effect on local politicians. With the demise of a scheme to run GO trains along Eglinton from Mount Dennis to the Airport district, the Eglinton West LRT extension is also on the table, but it stops short of its necessary end, the airport, because Toronto lopped off the outside-416 segment to reduce the cost. Whether Mississauga and/or the airport authority itself will contribute to the LRT remains to be seen.
Tory discovered that surface routes suffered under his predecessor, and vowed more money for buses. Toronto bought the buses, but money to actually operate many of them is harder to come by. The only thing that saved the TTC from widespread service cuts in 2017 was a last minute City budget fiddle to bump the expected revenue from Land Transfer Tax.
Meanwhile in Scarborough, SmartTrack and the Scarborough Subway Extension vie for the same pool of riders, and it is only the comparatively infrequent GO service that preserves any credibility for the subway extension. Planners who once argued that an east-west line through the Town Centre precinct would better serve future development now compliantly endorse the supposed benefit of a single new north-south station between McCowan and the shopping mall.
Mayor Tory might now think of both ST and the SSE as “done deals”, although there’s a lot of ground to cover before the final cost projections and approvals by Council. Those extra GO stations and the express subway might still cost more than the preliminary estimates shown to Council, but there’s no more money coming from Queen’s Park. Indeed, the two governments cannot agree on how to calculate inflation in the provincial “commitment”, and Toronto thinks more money is on the table than is likely to be available. After all, Tory is in no position to tell a funding government how much they will pay out. Even those numbers are subject to change if the Liberals lose control of Queen’s Park to the Tories, as seems very likely in 2018.
Then there’s Ottawa and Trudeau’s huge infrastructure program, just the thing a politician who is desperate to make everything seem affordable could wish for. Except, of course, that the infrastructure pot isn’t bottomless. Once it is divvied up across the country, Toronto’s share is well below the level John Tory hoped to spend with his shiny new Liberal red credit card. Holding press conferences about the need for projects won’t change the amount of money available, and the federal program requires that municipalities, even big irresponsible ones, must set priorities. Tory’s plans also require Queen’s Park to come in with funding equal to the Fed’s contribution at a time when provincial budgets are tapped out, and Toronto’s ongoing game of holding down taxes rather than pay for its own services and infrastructure plays poorly beyond the 416.
What does the Mayor do? John Tory, the man who had a one-line plan to solve everything, now looks to a world beyond SmartTrack.
Eglinton East LRT
The Eglinton East line, an extension of the Crosstown LRT from Kennedy Station east and north to the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC), was supposed to be part of a fully-funded bundle of Scarborough projects as approved by Council. Staff sold a vision of the express subway from Kennedy to STC and the LRT out to eastern Scarborough, a grand compromise that brought (some) LRT advocates on board with the subway plan. That didn’t last long once a realistic look at the subway’s cost hit the table, and one cannot help wondering whether the numbers in that bundle were simply plucked from the air to gain approval. Remember that this comes from the same gang who sold the subway alternative to LRT as being only a few hundred million more and well worth it at the price.
After blowing all of the Scarborough funding (a mix of contributions from all three levels of government) on the SSE, Tory wants Queen’s Park to pony up more. Although the Liberals are no saints when it comes to using transit subsidies to buy votes (and a line to Richmond Hill could be a desperate attempt to shore up support north of Steeles), they might be forgiven for wondering how Eglinton East went from fully funded to nothing in about a year. Was the Minister, Steven Del Duca, conned by Toronto into thinking that the Scarborough problems were all solved with the subway/LRT compromise? Did Tory actually think that Queen’s Park would shift on its position that only the original LRT project’s subsidy was available?
Waterfront transit should be a big issue with the amount of development underway and planned for coming years, but service to this part of Toronto suffers from one big problem: it is “downtown” and therefore less worthy than other projects. Planning for the eastern waterfront and the port lands assumes that the primary mode of transport will not be the automobile either for new residents or to the new employment and academic centres.
At least that was the idea. But as with so many of our older transit plans, the four years of backsliding under Rob Ford plus John Tory’s insistence that SmartTrack would solve every problem combined to keep waterfront transit on the back burner until recently. A “Waterfront Reset” planning process now underway might change this, but the project is in its early days. What started with a need to revisit the eastern waterfront proposals in light of developments planned near the mouth of the Don River has expanded into a city-wide review from Long Branch to The Beach. The project is at the stage of reviewing a long list of proposed implementations over the area, and the political challenge will be to winnow down the list to those options that actually can improve transit. In an age when “planning” consists of politicians and boxes of crayons, saying “no” to everyone’s pet project is not always easy.
The tough nut, as always, will be Union Station where the subway-streetcar interface is woefully undersized. This link should have been expanded while the line was closed for the Queens Quay project, but there were few advocates at Council. The TTC must share blame in this for continuously downplaying the potential role of the Waterfront East line and the infrastructure needed to support it. Current plans talk of a “BRT” using the proposed streetcar rights-of-way even though nobody has determined how such a service would provide a decent link with the subway system.
A related planning problem is the debate over how density affects transit demand. The waterfront combines three different demand patterns over its length, and this forces any “solution” to address multiple types of travel. These include:
- Home to work/school trips originating along the corridor primarily from new high density clusters, but not necessarily destined to the corridor itself
- Work/school trips to the corridor from other parts of the city including longer-haul travel via GO Transit
- Recreational and special event trips concentrated on multiple possible sites such as the Exhibition grounds
Trips to a destination such as a major employment or academic centre concentrate flow, and this is seen most strongly in the core business district. Trips from a residential area tend to have a more dispersed pattern and do not necessarily translate into strong transit demand, especially if transit does not serve many of the destinations well. This is the classic suburban transit problem where work and school destinations are dispersed and no single line can possibly link all of the origin and destination clusters.
This “Reset” study plans to have its next round of public consultation in June 2017 with final recommendations by late summer. The larger challenge will be to find political support to actually pursue transit improvements when so many other expensive projects vie for attention. In the medium term, the focus will most likely be on the area between the Humber Bay and the Don where most of the population and jobs are located, but even this will require money that the City and other governments have not yet budgeted.
The Richmond Hill Subway Extension
Any discussion of a Yonge (Line 1) extension north to Richmond Hill must recognize the historical background at the political and planning levels. The scheme has been around for a very long time, and dates from an era when various factors combined to make the project appear viable:
- The mid 1990s recession and associated ridership losses on the TTC network changed a jam-packed subway of the late 1980s into a route where, superficially, there was excess capacity.
- TTC management overstated the potential for adding capacity through the combination of new signalling and trains, plus the diversion of demand to the Vaughan (TYSSE) subway extension.
- GO Transit service from Richmond Hill to Union Station was infrequent and showed little sign of improving for a variety of technical and organizational reasons (winding track, lack of GO control over the entire corridor).
- GO fares to downtown were (and remain) substantially higher than a TTC fare which is presumed to be (as on the TYSSE) what riders would pay to make the trip by subway.
For its part, TTC planning consistently downplayed the worth of a “relief” line asking why one would spend billions to divert riding rather than simply providing more capacity on the existing tracks. Moreover, the TTC looked only at the short version from Pape/Danforth to downtown, a line that would have had little off-peak demand in the planning context predating the rise of near-downtown redevelopment. TTC management’s consistent advice was that the Relief Line was not needed. This deeply flawed position allowed planning for a Richmond Hill extension to continue unchallenged.
Times have changed. Ridership rebounded over the decades and the Yonge line is now stuffed full well north of the core area. The TTC reduced its projections of the number of trains per hour it will be able to operate with the new signalling system, and they now acknowledge that other factors including terminal track geometry and passenger capacity at major stations pose constraints. The extra capacity of the Toronto Rocket cars on Yonge has already been used up, and the ridership diversion likely when the TYSSE opens in late 2017 will quickly be offset by the backlog of demand on Yonge. Now it is the City Council’s position that no extension should be built until there is a Relief Line to divert traffic away from the Yonge corridor.
Yonge will see some medium term benefits, mainly from new signalling and automatic train control in 2019-20, but any new capacity will easily be exhausted by the 2031 timeline of current planning studies. That is “tomorrow” in the context of a decade-plus lead time to design, finance and build a new line.
The Relief Line
The fundamental question behind a “Relief Line” is this: what is it supposed to achieve? That may seem simple, but the answer depends on how one sees today’s network and the priorities for future growth and change.
For many years, debate hung on the Bloor-Yonge interchange and just how many people might be diverted from it. That was the crunch point, and planning, such as it was, focused on fixing that problem. Solutions included heroic schemes to increase platform space and separate passenger flows to decrease dwell times. However, a billion dollars worth of station changes would do almost nothing to address demand elsewhere on the route.
It is no secret that riders north of Bloor, and often well north of Eglinton, cannot always board a southbound train in the AM peak. Multi-train waits are needed at downtown stations for northbound service in the PM peak. The slightest disruption brings havoc. Meanwhile on Bloor-Danforth, it is common for east end riders to wait for multiple trains westbound in the AM peak.
(Although schedules call for a train every 140 seconds, or 25.7 trains/hour, the TTC never achieves this on average. For all of 2016, the average values ranged between 22 and 24 trains on Line 1 YUS. Meanwhile on Line 2 BD, the situation was somewhat better with values around 24 for several months except during the summer (the compound effect of reduced schedules and train failures thanks to no air conditioning), and a big dip in December. [See CEO’s report for March 2017 at pp 30 and 32.] The TTC’s inability to hit this target comes from many factors including the usual collection of delays from passengers or equipment, but also from their own operating practices. Even with a new signal system, it is far from guaranteed that the TTC will actually operate the level of service to which they aspire.)
“Relief” is not a question of providing more capacity at one strategic point (Bloor-Yonge) but of diverting a substantial number of current and future passengers to an entirely new route.
Probably the biggest obstacle a “Downtown Relief Line” faced lies in its name, from which “Downtown” was removed comparatively recently. This viewpoint led many to see the line primarily for its downtown segment rather than for areas further out that it could serve. By contrast, the Richmond Hill, Vaughan and Scarborough extensions are all seen from their outer ends looking in.
Thanks to the TTC presenting the “DRL” as a short Danforth to Downtown bypass rather than as a route with a wider reach, its political constituency has been limited, even within the City of Toronto. Only when Metrolinx looked at the line in a much larger context, all the way north to Sheppard (Don Mills Station), did the outlook shift both for what the line could achieve and who it would serve.
The question of a name for this line has been discussed on this site before, but I will make the point again: if we were talking about the “Don Mills Subway”, the line would have been built years ago. A route south from Sheppard and Don Mills, through the about-to-redevelop node at Eglinton (and a connection to the Crosstown LRT), serving Flemingdon and Thorncliffe Parks, and then (finally) connecting with the Danforth subway and onward into downtown is a very different animal from a Danforth/Downtown link. It would provide a completely new path east of Yonge and divert considerable traffic away from the existing congested lines. This would not be an “only” solution in the manner that SmartTrack was sold, but a major contribution to overall improvement of the network.
Yes, it would be expensive, but one can see the skew in past comparisons where credit for the avoided cost and complexity of expanding capacity on existing lines and stations was not considered an offsetting saving against the “DRL” cost.
The Need for Leadership
The Relief Line’s next date at Council will see a recommended alignment between Gerrard Station and Eastern Avenue go to Executive Committee on May 16, and then on to the full Council on May 24. The formal Transit Project Assessment and Environmental Project Report processes will work their way through public meetings and eventually to Queen’s Park through the summer and fall of 2017. Provincial money is already in hand for detailed design work.
How to pay for this project and how quickly it should advance to serve a wider area than the Danforth/Downtown link are two key, interlocked problems. Simply waiting for money to appear is not enough because the Richmond Hill extension will force the issue.
If political dynamics, the short term need to win provincial seats in York Region, advance one project over the other, there is a real danger than only one will be built. Within Toronto, the divisive tone of “Scarborough deserves a subway” must be replaced with a view of the whole transit network, and of its role in sustaining the city’s life and economy. There may be money from Ottawa and Queen’s Park, but both have their limits and Toronto must be prepared to invest in its own future.
Can Mayor Tory rise to this challenge, or will he remain a prisoner of his own flawed SmartTrack plan and of his tax-fighting political philosophy?