Maybe Yes, Maybe No, SmartTrack Stations

After a recent Metrolinx Board Meeting (about which more in a separate article), reporters the Star and the Globe peppered Chair Robert Prichard about decisions to approve two future GO stations against original staff recommendations.

Ben Spurr wrote in the Star about the Kirby station in Vaughan that leapt from an initial review to part of GO’s plans thanks to political intervention at Queen’s Park. In between the detailed station reviews and the final recommendations to the Metrolinx Board, a summary report consolidated the detailed reviews. This report, which has not been published by Metrolinx, has different recommendations that those presented to the Board, according to Spurr’s article.

I wrote extensively about the reviews of proposed stations within the City of Toronto in these articles:

Another station that found its way onto the approved list in spite of a negative review was Lawrence East. This station is critical to plans for the Scarborough Subway providing a replacement for service in an area the subway will bypass.

The future of stations that would be added through the SmartTrack scheme is rather cloudy. Even though Lawrence East, for example, is “approved”, this is subject to operational reviews and intensification of land use by the City of Toronto to build demand. Talking of the Kirby station, Spurr reported:

Prichard said the board’s decision was “conditional” and that Metrolinx will continue to update its analysis based on development in Vaughan. If the greater density doesn’t materialize “we can back off,” he said.

For the stations in the City of Toronto, the situation begs more questions. First, Metrolinx required Council to sign on guaranteeing that they would fund added stations for SmartTrack in November 2016. Council was told that Metrolinx was going into design and construction, and that a commitment was needed “now” for this work to stay on schedule. Second, the total cost of the six proposed stations approved by Council was more than twice the cost estimates in the Metrolinx station reviews.

Metrolinx station review cost estimates:

  • Lawrence East: $22.7 million
  • Finch East: $108.9 million
  • Liberty Village: $30.8 million
  • St. Clair: $27.4 million
  • East Harbour (Unilever): $118.9 million
  • Gerrard: $251.7 million
  • Total: $560.4 million

City Council estimate: $1,251.8 million

With total costs much higher than in the original evaluations, the business cases for these stations are even weaker than have been stated. The City is not strictly on the hook for these costs yet, whatever they might be, because there will be a final approval point when more detailed estimates are available prior to tendering the construction work. This point is unlikely to be reached before the municipal election in fall 2018.

Several of the proposed stations pose construction challenges, and it is not clear how well all of them can be fitted into the corridor. Liberty Village station is particularly tight for space.

Lawrence East poses a delicate political problem because it cannot be built while the SRT remains in operation. However, the Scarborough Subway will not open until late 2026 leaving the possibility of an early shutdown of the SRT, or a delay in the provision of a SmartTrack station. Intensification at Lawrence East could be a hard sell given Toronto’s intention to focus substantial development on the Scarborough Town Centre and uncertainty about the type and cost of transit service that would be available.

A related issue came up in discussion of the fall 2017 GO Transit fare increase. This will see fares rise by 3% except those for short-distance trips that will be frozen at $5.65. Metrolinx has recently discovered the importance of short-distance travel on its network as an untapped market after years of deliberately overpricing these trips to discourage demand. Keeping inside-Toronto trips at a fixed cost would allow GO fares to gradually become more attractive to TTC riders, although that would take many, many years. Clearly Metrolinx is rethinking the role of its network both for in-Toronto trips and for shorter trips in the 905 that could become more attractive as service improves.

All of this leaves the question of which stations might be built up in the air subject to future considerations in spite of Toronto Council’s support in 2016.

20 thoughts on “Maybe Yes, Maybe No, SmartTrack Stations

  1. “…intensification of land use by the City of Toronto to build demand.”

    This policy paradigm of intensification although intrinsically valuable, is being incorrectly applied to the SmartTrack project. The modeling that should be used to consider the value of a station should be based upon enhancing access to primary employment districts. By removing barriers to access SmartTrack would allow labour to be allocated more efficiently and effectively creating a more productive prosperous society.

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  2. It’s possible for there to be a Lawrence East station before the SRT shuts down. There is some room on the east side of the right of way if you really want to place a platform. The question is whether the line would be double-tracked before the SRT shuts down which would eliminate the space for that platform and make a single platform pointless.

    Steve: It is clear from the review of Lawrence East Station that Metrolinx really wants clear occupancy of the space if they’re going to build an ST station. It may be possible to squeeze in a single track arrangement, but this could compromise operations if trains stopped on that section.

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  3. The SRT provides a quasi-rapid transit service for Lawrence Avenue East with 4 minute service at rush hour. There is a need for Lawrence East to access rapid transit because in the east there is a dense population at Kingston Road/Morningside/Lawrence and Birchmount and Lawrence has dense growth with talk of a condominium project at Midland and Lawrence. In Dec 2015 the SSE was to be two stop and the TTC anticipated bus headways at 1.6 minutes with buses from many directions for the Lawrence Ave East subway Station. City planners (David Copper, now departed) insisted Lawrence Ave East was merely a curb side stop, relying on walk-in catchment studies without consulting the TTC on bus catchment demand.

    City planning is now forced to build a Lawrence Ave East SmartTrack station with frequency averaging 8.3 minutes during rush hour, meaning if you just miss a train you have a 15 minute wait. It is unresolved if there is an up charge to switch from TTC to SmartTrack. To this day city planners insist that their primary worry was cannibalization of service between a SSE station and SmartTrack on Lawrence.

    They truly don’t understand the impact of their one stop SSE decision. With the one stop, there is no shortening of bus routes to improve transit in Scarborough. A Lawrence Avenue East subway would have significant impact on shortening bus routes and spending all that money on a SmartTrack station is for a white elephant. The latest plans are for a bus stop at the top of the Lawrence Ave overpass with passengers descending to the SmartTrack platform.

    Steve: Yes the design of the connection at Lawrence East ST station is terrible and will guarantee that it is not well used. What is so frustrating is that Scarborough is getting screwed by having bought into and fought for the subway plan that kept losing pieces to keep it alive. If Tory would just abandon SmartTrack and the cost Toronto will have to bear, this problem would not exist.

    Of course, if there were no ST, then the subway might have taken a cheaper route further west, one that didn’t face the same geological hurdles and costs for a station at Lawrence.

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  4. Council needs add the stop at Lawrence station at the next review. $300M is worth have a stop with better frequency in a more optimal location and operation when the subway is built.

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  5. All the Scarborough MPs and MPPs are already taking credit for advancing the Scarborough extension with senior government funding. The boat has already sailed, so the best thing to do is to optimize what is being built. If we cancel a funded transit plan, it will set back transit in Scarborough for another decade. It is like the Charter of Rights, once it is set in stone, people complain about it. As Charlottetown and Meech Lake have shown, once everyone put their opinion in it, it stalled and nothing happened.

    Those Smart Track stations have GO DNA all over it. Every GO station is the same with parking lots and lack of connection to local transit. Smart Track stations will succeed if we optimize the design for people and not people parking their cars. The connection at Milliken GO is laughable. The YRT Shuttle has a stop at the railway crossing. But people cannot cross the Steeles Ave without a crosswalk or pedestrian bridge. No one will risk their life walking across a busy street. The other alternative is to walk 200m to Old Kennedy Rd and cross there. But who wants to walk 200m for a bus stop?

    There should not be any parking lots at the Smart Track stations. A kiss and ride or pickup lot is fine, but those do not occupy large amount of space. If we remove 50 parking slots, a few bus bays can be put there. Mr. Tory should also realize that most of the Smart Track stations are not located in residential or commercial areas. Industrial areas are very hostile to pedestrians. There should be Bixi stands within a 5 km radius of every Smart Track station along with the necessary cycle tracks and multi-use trails. This way, people can at least get to the station if a bus does not go there. This is way cheaper than building a Lawrence East Station on Line 2. I personally want both Smart Track Lawrence East and TTC Lawrence East. However, political realities dictate otherwise.

    I took the Stouffville Line today both ways for a return trip during midday. It is a superior service to the TTC. From Milliken GO, I was downtown in about half an hour. The ride was quiet and smooth. Using their new scheme, I was able to save some money by only using one TTC fare. Look under TTC Times Two with Metrolinx. Using GO for part of the trip really saves time.

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  6. That Gerrard SmartTrack station looks mighty expensive. A $250 million station a few hundred metres down the line from a $120 million East Harbour station looks like a colossal waste. Mind you one of the supposed benefits of shifting the relief line over to Carlaw at $100 million, $200 million, at least according to the City, is for a better integration with the gold plated SmartTrack station which may or may not be built. IMO the cost for both the ST and re-aligned RL stations is not worth the meager benefits. That’s $400-500 million which can be much better spent elsewhere.

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  7. Benny Cheung says “There should not be any parking lots at the Smart Track stations. A kiss and ride or pickup lot is fine, but those do not occupy large amount of space. If we remove 50 parking slots, a few bus bays can be put there.”

    Although I whole-heartedly agree with the central premise of improving bus access to the Smart Track stations, your idea of eliminating parking altogether is flawed. The employment related commute is central to Smart Track, and parking is essential to making the service attractive to professionals. Having biked through Toronto winters to get to work I can honestly say that the vast majority of self respecting professionals will not use your bike plan.

    To use Lawrence East station as an example, shifting the station slightly to the south would allow ample parking to be built in the hydro corridor similar to what exists at Finch station at Yonge, an increase in parking there can offset the parking needs at other stations where it is more appropriate to prioritize bus bays.

    Steve: For the volumes of riders claimed for SmartTrack, any “commuter” parking will be consumed very early in the day. That is the fallacy of autos+parking for the “last mile” of a journey — it does not scale up, although GO does try with its enormous suburban lots that chew up huge amounts of space.

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  8. L. Wall says “That Gerrard SmartTrack station looks mighty expensive. A $250 million station a few hundred metres down the line from a $120 million East Harbour station looks like a colossal waste. Mind you one of the supposed benefits of shifting the relief line over to Carlaw at $100 million, $200 million, at least according to the City, is for a better integration with the gold plated SmartTrack station which may or may not be built.”

    Whether it is expensive or not depends what they intend to do with the area. If they design the area to become the Toronto version of London’s Canary Wharf then I would say that they are getting a real bargain.

    Steve: The land east of Gerrard station will be redeveloped. It is now a mall and ripe for more density. As for East Harbour, the potential there is huge, and now that funding for the Don Mouth Regeneration project has been announced, this is no longer a pipedream.

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  9. Steve says “…although GO does try with its enormous suburban lots that chew up huge amounts of space.”

    There is plenty of affordable space that cannot reasonably be used for many other purposes at the adjacent hydro corridor to the Lawrence Smart Track station. Although it cannot accommodate all riders it can accommodate those riders that would not use the service otherwise.

    Steve: I might be a tad more sympathetic if it weren’t for the proposed link to the remaining bus service which will no longer loop right into the station, but stop on the summit of the bridge above. Just imagine making that connection during a snowstorm at night. And Metrolinx talks about “Mobility Hubs”. Idiots!

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  10. Whether it is expensive or not depends what they intend to do with the area. If they design the area to become the Toronto version of London’s Canary Wharf then I would say that they are getting a real bargain.

    For the East Harbour site at $120 million for the rail station and the same amount for a subway station, I agree but the site around Gerrard is very small and boxed in on all sides by low rise residential and commercial which will restrict what the city will do. The two potential rail stations and two IMO redundant rail-subway interchanges are far too close to each other and if I had to pick one, it’s East Harbour with the upshot of much higher potential and far far lower cost.

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  11. Bob, parking lots are fine if the user is willing to pay for it. If someone wants to pay $20 a day to park, no one should stop them. GO parking lots are free, which means someone is subsidizing for it. Lawrence Ave E is already full of cars in the morning. Adding a 200 car lot to the station will mean a minimum of 200 extra cars travelling on that street. It has the effect of slowing down the 54 bus unless more lanes are added.

    Rapid transit stations inside Toronto should succeed based on walk in and bus in crowds. Even if there are 1000 car parking, it will only carry a fraction of the projected demand. Cycling will not solve all the problems, but it is low cost. Painting bike lanes only cost a few $100000 at most. If someone cycles 5km to a station, that will only take 20 minutes in the worst case scenario. Cycling 15km/h is pretty leisurely and certainly far from Tour de France speeds. Parking 1000 bikes is a lot easier space wise.

    GO stations should spur developments like Port Credit GO. There is a small town feel and lots of density near that station. If that station has a Bixi like program, it should work out well. Instead of walking 20 minutes to the condos by the lake, a 5 minute bike ride is more efficient. One does not want it become something like Appleby GO. Even that parking lot station has a bus loop inside.

    If a bus loop cannot be built at Smart Track Lawrence East, there should be elevators and stairs. I have hiked the stairs between Langstaff GO and Richmond Hill Center Station. Not something I want to do, but it can be done. It is about the same height from the ground to the bridge on Lawrence.

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  12. Steve says ”I might be a tad more sympathetic if it weren’t for the proposed link to the remaining bus service which will no longer loop right into the station, but stop on the summit of the bridge above. Just imagine making that connection during a snowstorm at night.”

    I think that we are agreed on the underlying premise of making the service more attractive and accessible to a wider range of transit users. Frankly, within the context of Lawrence East I think there are a lot of synergies to be found by combining both of our ideas.

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  13. L. Wall says “For the East Harbour site at $120 million for the rail station and the same amount for a subway station, I agree but the site around Gerrard is very small and boxed in on all sides by low rise residential and commercial which will restrict what the city will do. The two potential rail stations and two IMO redundant rail-subway interchanges are far too close to each other and if I had to pick one, it’s East Harbour with the upshot of much higher potential and far far lower cost.”

    I cannot argue with your logic because I agree with you. But consider if the Queen St. subway is build and all three levels of government agree to systematically lower the cost of doing business in the area. To build a Canary Wharf equivalent (more than 10 million sq ft) of office space in the area would produce economic activity that will dwarf any upfront costs associated with either Smart Track station construction or construction related to the Queen Street subway.

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  14. We are paying millions of dollars to build a Lawrence East station which gives less frequent service, may charge an extra fee to use it and is designed with such an awkward transfer that adds another 10 minutes. Does anyone understand the waste of money and failure to provide public transit?

    The big picture is so absurd.

    We are spending $3.3 billion to build a subway under the flat urban sprawl of Scarborough.

    We have a crisis at Yonge/Bloor and we wish to add more passengers through the SSE (Scarborough Subway Extension).

    Toronto’s rapid transit axis is basically two lines crossing with no grid structure to relieve the downtown core pressure yet big projects like the SSE are not part of any “Master Plan” solution.

    Metrolinx has totally failed at urban transport in Scarborough. Both the Lawrence Ave East station and the Crosstown LRT are total screw ups. Metrolinx spends billions of dollars and yet, never works with the residents of Scarborough, to construct appropriate solutions. I strongly dislike the taint political interference in its decision making which makes things worse for passengers.

    The City Planning Department lacks the understanding of public transit demand flows and the TTC, which does understand demand flows, does not have sufficient standing in the planning process to “propose” alternatives or at best point out – openly, the failings of the Planning Department’s plans.

    The politicians have no experience in public transit and are also a real part of the problem.

    Tory was misled on what SmartTrack could deliver (the “experts” did not understand the GO network at all) and lacks the moral courage to build the SSE properly or kill it. On these two issues he fails the muster of executive acumen.

    I would like to see an open discussion on the following two ideas.

    Introduce a Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Scarborough. Mapleson has commented that the road network in Scarborough can provide dedicated bus lanes. This seems very promising to me. Rather than spending money digging a tunnel, I think addressing more surface routes for buses would address a lot of Scarborough’s needs. Combined with the Sheppard and Eglinton LRTs we could get way more bang for the buck.

    The Stouffville line is the perfect backbone for Scarborough and with the 4th track on the Lakeshore line, it could be a grid solution for Toronto. EMU technology with ATC signaling can provide subway like service. Platforms would have to be raised and EMU cars have many doors to reduce station dwell time. I think TTC bus stations should be built into these Stouffville stations rather than parking lots. I see this line joining the UPX line (currently DMU with raised platforms) with some sort of EMU crosstown line, underground, elevated or surface. If surface we remove cars and use either King or Queen. EMU’s address the urban needs of Scarborough but to address regular GO service for GTA needs, how about the following. Where possible install third tracks, they can even [be] overhead bypasses. ATC can co-ordinate these fancy train maneuvers.

    I see failures in the City Planning Department and Metrolinx.

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  15. Benny Cheung says “Rapid transit stations inside Toronto should succeed based on walk in and bus in crowds. Even if there are 1000 car parking, it will only carry a fraction of the projected demand. Cycling will not solve all the problems, but it is low cost. Painting bike lanes only cost a few $100000 at most. If someone cycles 5km to a station, that will only take 20 minutes in the worst case scenario. Cycling 15km/h is pretty leisurely and certainly far from Tour de France speeds. Parking 1000 bikes is a lot easier space wise.”

    To start there needs to be proper matching between what the transit service offers and the underlying dynamics of the community it serves. Most of the communities in question are post world war two automobile based communities. A portion of these communities can be transitioned to become transit only, however a vast proportion can not be transitioned and will suffer a declining quality of life as a result of your proposal.

    Benny Cheung says, “If that station has a Bixi like program, it should work out well. Instead of walking 20 minutes to the condos by the lake, a 5 minute bike ride is more efficient.”

    As an avid bike rider I can say that I appreciate the bike program. But having ridden in all weather conditions I can say with certainty that no self respecting attorney would every do what you are saying in the depth of a Canadian winter or the sleet or rain. To be successful the service must be flexible enough to satisfy all conditions and many different travel demands of the community, not only those based on ideological bias.

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  16. Bob Jay, no one is advocating bike based transport all the time. Most bike riders put away their bike when rain or snow falls. I am not an avid bike rider by any means, so I have no ideology to spread here. But anything to get a car off the road near a transit stop is better. I have seen metro stations in Bangkok. People drive their cars to the station because of poor connectivity. The station is so packed that people have to leave their car in neutral with the parking brakes off. This way, station staff and push the cars around to fit more in a given space. Closer to home, reading the “You Me Ride This Crazy Train” site, it is probably not a good idea to drive a station parking lot unless one wants to know their insurance adjuster well.

    I have a bicycle, a kick scooter and a car at my disposal. Depending on the location where I need to go, I choose what is the most appropriate. For example, if I want to purchase a few cases of soda, a car is more useful. However, if I am getting a carton of milk because I forgot, I would choose my bicycle. If my destination requires a 10 minute walk from the bus stop, I will take my kick scooter.

    The city’s official plan calls for intensification for major avenues. For Smart Track Lawrence East to succeed, it has to be compatible with that vision. One cannot have free parking lots when the plan calls for medium density along the street. I like driving a car probably more than most people. The thought of driving a cleanly detailed car on the Loyalist Parkway is quite attractive. I know that when I am in Toronto, I should seriously think about using public transit from beginning to end.

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  17. The City Planning Department lacks the understanding of public transit demand flows and the TTC, which does understand demand flows, does not have sufficient standing in the planning process to “propose” alternatives or at best point out – openly, the failings of the Planning Department’s plans.

    As a part of the dog and pony show in Scarborough the TTC handed control over locating future lines to the planning department. The excuse was that it didn’t make sense to have the Planning drawing up district and avenue plans without also having control over the public transportation. At one level it makes sense but I don’t trust anyone in the planning office, not the chief or anyone below her.

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  18. Benny Cheung says “But anything to get a car off the road near a transit stop is better.”

    The problem with your approach, as I stated earlier, is that it violates historic precedents that people have trusted and invested in. Although I agree with you that future population growth should be accommodated with transit. I strongly believe that those existing residents that cannot reasonably be expected to transition to a car free life style must be accommodated with parking in a reasonable way. In the case of the Lawrence East Smart Track station there is ample affordable space to build an appropriate amount of parking in the hydro corridor. There are local precedents (Finch station) that show that the parking model is reasonable and effective. There is also reason to believe that shifting the parking to the south of the station will free up much needed space for a bus loop, kiss and ride, bicycle parking and other means for transit users to better access the service. What I have put forward has a very strong case to be made for it and deserves to be properly studied.

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  19. Steve said: With total costs much higher than in the original evaluations, the business cases for these stations are even weaker than have been stated.

    Which is the original evaluation? The city’s at $1.2B or Metrolinx at $560M? The statement only makes sense if the cost rose, but the way the article is written, it seems otherwise, as if the $560M value is a recent update from Metrolinx.

    This matter of new stations is such a mess. GO/Metrolinx can’t build a decent transfer station to save anyone’s life, and they show no intention of ever changing. There are examples in most other cities of how to do this well, it isn’t a difficult concept to grasp, but Metrolinx is outright and thoroughly incompetent.

    Steve: For clarity, the Metrolinx estimates came first, then the later City numbers. There is no explanation of why there is such a huge difference beyond, I suspect, very shoddy work by the consultants who did the original versions.

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  20. Caught!

    “Metrolinx will undertake a “thorough and comprehensive” review of two proposed new GO Transit stations, after a Star investigation revealed that the provincial transportation ministry pressured the arm’s-length agency into approving the stops.”

    From the Star.

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