When Premier Doug Ford announced his new transit plan in April as part of his first budget, there was plenty of hype about provincial transit investment, but few details about what would be built or how far design had progressed beyond doodles on bar napkins. Four projects comprise the Ford plan:
- The “Ontario Line” from the Science Centre at Don Mills & Eglinton to Ontario Place replacing Toronto plans for the Relief Line
- The Richmond Hill extension of Line 1 Yonge
- The Scarborough Line 2 Danforth extension to Sheppard & McCowan with at least three stops rather than the one in the current Toronto plan
- A modified plan for the Eglinton West LRT extension with underground construction for part of the route east of Martin Grove
- Extension of the Sheppard subway east to McCowan to meet the northern end of Line 2
Information about these proposals came more from rumours than from specifics, notably from Metrolinx, the agency charged with planning and delivery of the scheme.
Staff from the City of Toronto and the TTC have been meeting with their provincial counterparts, and details begin to emerge in a staff report to Toronto’s Executive Committee.
The Ontario Line concept proposed by the Province is at an early stage of design. [p 5]
This is not a “shovel ready” project, nor is the revised Scarborough subway, in spite of claims that the Ontario line can be open by 2027. That is very much a political date based on the need to have relief capacity in place before new demand is added to the Line 1 Yonge route from the Richmond Hill extension. The government, knowing the votes available in York Region, needs to show progress on that extension, but actually operating it would totally overload the subway system without substantial diversion of ridership to a relief line.
Previous studies by Metrolinx foresaw a drop in ridership at the Bloor/Yonge choke point provided that a new line went at least to Eglinton rather than stopping at Danforth. This is not news, but the political change lies in recognition that a line to Eglinton is not some future, “Phase 2” option, but an essential part of reducing demand on Line 1. Whether the construction timing and possible opening dates for the Ontario and Richmond Hill lines can be achieved is quite another matter. In a political context, the important date is 2022, the next Provincial election. By that time, visible “progress” will be needed to shore up support for the government, but the target dates will be far enough off that the inevitable slippage will not yet be evident.
In parallel with the technical work on provincial plans, the City of Toronto has launched a public participation campaign about the shift in responsibilities for transit between the municipal and provincial governments. This is all a bit vague at present because the details of what Queen’s Park actually intends remain rather vague. The government has given itself the power to take over projects completely or in part, and to seize Toronto assets with or without compensation. However, the financial details are murky including the problem of expected contribution to capital projects by other governments and the as-yet unaddressed question of cost sharing for day-to-day transit operations which includes a substantial component of running maintenance, not just driving the trains.
The City will bring a wider range of issues than a few new lines before the public for comment. Four public meetings are planned over the coming month:
Thursday, June 13, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Father Serra Catholic School
111 Sun Row Drive, Etobicoke
Thursday, June 20, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
North York Memorial Community Hall
5110 Yonge Street, North York
Saturday, June 22, 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Scarborough Civic Centre
150 Borough Drive, Scarborough
Thursday, June 27, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
City Hall, Council Chamber
100 Queen Street West, Toronto
Although one might despair that the Ford government cares about or will listen to concerns by Toronto citizens, this consultation will be important if only to gauge overall public feeling. The challenge will be to conduct real consultation without having sessions hijacked by Ford Nation supporters.
The “Expert Panel”
The City has struck a panel of experts to advise on the many issues involved in changing responsibilities for Toronto’s transit system. The panel includes many familiar faces, but to save readers from having to ask, no, I am not on it nor was I asked. My role here is as a journalist and advocate.
The panel is co-ordinated through the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto. To its credit, the panel has a diverse background in fields related to transit and cities, and is not solely a group of subway boosters ignoring the much more complex challenges facing transit overall in Toronto and the GTHA.
Exactly how this panel will operate and how public its deliberations will be are, at this point, unknown.
The Ontario Line
The Ministry of Transportation’s map of the Ontario Line suffers from a few geographical problems, but that is nothing compared to the want of details for this route when it was announced.
From the City’s report, we know somewhat more now:
The Central Section is, effectively, the Relief Line as it was known although the alignment will change between Gerrard and East Harbour Stations to make use of the rail corridor. How this will be fitted into an already-crowded right-of-way where GO expansion will take available space is unclear. The Don River crossing at East Harbour will be above grade, but this will be challenging given other existing and planned structures in the area.
The Northern Section follows what has always been the most logical route from Pape & Danforth to Eglinton (in spite of a cat’s cradle of alternatives that were proposed as part of the aborted northern section study). The Don Valley crossing north of O’Connor will be on a bridge, but the big change is a proposed elevated structure through Thorncliffe Park and thence to Eglinton. The specific alignment and how the structure would thread through existing neighbourhoods is unknown.
A maintenance facility for the line would be built somewhere in Thorncliffe Park, probably north of Overlea which is the industrial part of that neighbourhood.
The Western Section would continue from Osgoode Station to Spadina and then veer southwest to King and Bathurst. This is something of a challenge given developments already in place along the way. From King to Ontario Place, the route and number of stations is still quite vague. The existing Exhibition GO Station, an obvious connection point to the regional network and to a future Waterfront West LRT, not to mention the large population of Liberty Village, is remote from Ontario Place which would need its own station to provide convenient year-round access.
There is no information about the Ontario Line technology, although the province has stated that the line would have a potential capacity 30% greater than the existing subway. That would, in effect, get the Ontario Line to the same level as the subway can achieve once the Automatic Train Control project is finished. However, the type of equipment is more likely to resemble SkyTrain operations in Vancouver with frequent smaller automated trains to reduce the cost of tunnels and elevated guideways.
The Ontario Line has implications for other transit proposals, notably expansion of service on the GO Lake Shore West corridor and the Waterfront West LRT. In both cases, the Ontario Line would provide a distribution function for riders without their having to pass through Union Station. At its northern terminus, the line would provide an important link to Line 5 Crosstown diverting riders who might otherwise travel west to Line 1 Yonge to an alternate path into the core.
Although the Ontario Line will reduce demand at the Bloor-Yonge interchange, it will not eliminate congestion problems there, merely prevent them from becoming substantially worse. The TTC and City have plans to add a new eastbound platform on Line 2 Bloor-Danforth, as well as new circulation space to spread out the transfer traffic between Lines 1 and 2.
Plans for additional trains, line capacity, yards and signalling on both Lines 1 and 2 must also be reviewed including the need for new signalling, fleet and yard on Line 2. All of this represents major capital projects separate from the Ontario Line itself, and yet funding announcements so far concentrate only on the provincial segment of the plan.
Those are the details known to date, and this is a far cry from a fully worked out plan.
The Scarborough Subway Extension
The Scarborough extension of Line 2 Bloor-Danforth takes yet another twist with the provincial plan to revert to a three-stop (at least) line and a return to Sheppard as the northern terminus. According to the City report:
A station at Eglinton Avenue East and Brimley Road is being considered either as an alternative to a Lawrence station, or as a potential fourth station, which is one of the considerations to be addressed in the further assessment of this Provincial project. [p 13]
Among the issues under consideration are:
- Whether all service would operate through to Sheppard or if a turnback would be implemented at Kennedy Station similar to the Line 1 arrangement where half of the AM peak service only operates north to Glencairn Station.
- Storage for additional trains somewhere on the extension to handle the overflow from Greenwood Yard. That is affected, of course, by a decision on through or turnback service.
There is no discussion of a future Line 2 yard at Kipling, the implications of future capacity improvements beyond the existing service level of the implementation of Automatic Train Control. These options were deferred in the TTC’s capital plans by management with no discussion of the implications for future service by the TTC Board. These matters should be included in the overall review.
The terminal at Sheppard will be designed as a future interchange and with the provision for northerly extension. However, this design depends in part on the future of an eastern extension of the Sheppard Subway and/or a Sheppard East LRT.
With the shift of the terminus to Sheppard, the massive bus terminal at Scarborough Town Centre will not be required, although many routes will continue to focus on that location as their transfer point to the subway.
The station at Lawrence East is problematic not just because it will be challenging to build (Highland Creek crosses just north of Lawrence & McCowan), but because it threatens the viability of a Lawrence East Smart Track station. This has been part of the gerrymandering of Scarborough Transit plans for years with SmartTrack and the subway extension competing for the same passengers. The further north the subway goes, and the more stations it has, the less credible SmartTrack becomes as an alternative route to downtown especially with the comparatively infrequent service (4 trains/hour) planned by Metrolinx for “local” stations.
If a station is added at Eglinton & Brimley, this will affect the design of the Eglinton East LRT to UTSC. A through connection to Kennedy Station is essential to give the LRT access to the Crosstown line and thence to the maintenance facility at Mount Dennis, but some of the transfer moves between the subway and LRT might shift further east.
Eglinton West and Sheppard East
There is no further information on plans for either the Eglinton West extension of the Crosstown line, nor of provincial intentions regarding the Sheppard LRT although Premier Ford’s plan to extend the Sheppard subway would leave only a fragment of what was originally to be a longer LRT line (and network) in northern Scarborough.
Any discussion of SmartTrack must recall that this began as a campaign tactic in John Tory’s 2014 mayoral bid, and that what was originally discussed was far different from what is now on the table. SmartTrack was to be a surface subway providing frequent service from Eglinton West to Markham via the Weston corridor, Union Station, Lake Shore East and the Stouffville line. Designers and proponents of ST did not take into account a number of physical limitations to their plan, and pieces have been falling off of the map over the five years since it was announced.
The scheme remains alive in the City’s transportation plans only as a set of additional GO stations, and even these have not reached the point of final approval for construction because the cost estimates and “stage gate” report to proceed have yet to come before Council. The situation is also clouded by dubious demand estimates and business cases for new GO stations generally during the previous provincial regime.
As noted above, the Scarborough extension competes directly with the Lawrence East ST station. It also would affect the Finch ST station and GO’s Agincourt station by providing an alternative terminus for trips from northeastern Scarborough to the subway. The Finch ST station has also run into strong opposition from the neighbourhood in which it would be located.
The Gerrard ST station already is in direct competition with the Relief/Ontario Line station at the same location, but with the opening date for the Ontario line moved forward, this competition could occur sooner than originally expected. Equally important is the question of just how many locations deserve closely-spaced GO stations providing much less frequent service than the subway.
The East Harbour station is a major development node where subway (Relief Line), GO and streetcar (the Broadview extension to the Waterfront East LRT) connections have been planned for some time. This station would remain as both a GO and Relief/Ontario line station because of its importance as an anchor to development in the eastern waterfront.
The Liberty Village ST station would be located north of King Street in an area where the rail corridor is crowded. Its cost has been rumoured to be very high, although there is nothing officially public yet. The Ontario Line station would be located near Exhibition GO station south of Liberty Village and would provide much more frequent service than would be available on the GO corridor.
Overall, we may be seeing the demise of SmartTrack simply because too little of it remains as a credible alternative to local TTC services.
The City report is silent on the question of financing the capital construction, let alone of future operating and maintenance costs.
After announcing $28 billion in new rapid transit lines, the province now calls on municipal governments (Toronto and York Region) to shoulder one third of the cost for lines in their respective territories, and on the federal government for another third. This runs headlong into two major problems.
At the federal level, the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund (PTIF) only allocates about $4 billion to Toronto, and some of that is already earmarked for other projects. By asking for over $7 billion, the province takes its funding request well beyond what Ottawa was prepared to pay. There is an added irony that if the Liberals were to lose the fall 2019 election, a new Conservative regime in Ottawa is even less likely to dole out billions for transit construction in Toronto.
The Canada Infrastructure Bank recently announced a $2 billion investment in the GO commuter rail expansion project, but this is completely separate from the TTC subway expansion plan. Moreover, this is an investment, not outright funding, and its effect is to lower the amount of investment that would be required by the private sector consortium that will be chosen to build and operate the expanded GO network.
At the municipal level, Toronto would be saddled with a large capital cost for lines that supposedly Queen’s Park is taking off the city’s hands. The government argues that this shift in control is needed because better financing arrangements are available to Ontario than to Toronto. However, Toronto would still be carrying an equal burden to the province and the timeframe for the overall scheme, especially the Ontario Line, would push new borrowing onto the City’s books just at a time when their overall capital planning is tightly constrained by the accumulation of debt for other projects.
This could be partly offset by eliminating some or all of the SmartTrack station program which was to be funded by the City, although such a move would reopen the issue of the City’s contribution to GO’s expansion plans.
Nobody has talked about operating costs for all of the system expansion, and that includes lines already under construction on Eglinton and Finch. There is no indication of how much Toronto will have to pay Metrolinx for the portion of operating costs that will be due to their contracted provider of maintenance for the fleet and infrastructure.
The City report is quite clear about the need to fully understand the implications of the proposed network including its demand and the potential effects of development in new station areas with projections out to 2061. This also includes many considerations for connectivity to the surface network and potential expansion of the rapid transit network.
- Consider connection for bus and streetcar ridership that is delivered through excellent passenger connections;
- Build in enough capacity, on the line and at stations, to be fit for purpose and meet projected ridership for many decades after opening date;
- Be a flexible and adaptable system that can be increased in capacity in order to meet increased demand; and
- Provide capacity on the line and at the stations that considers the effects of increased ridership from likely extensions of the Ontario Line north to Line 4 and west and north to Line 2. [p 15]
Other needed work includes:
- An agreement on technology for both projects;
- An assessment of potential service concepts based on travel demand modelling and fleet requirements and constraints;
- An assessment of market capability to deliver the projects;
- An assessment of the impacts of the projects on broader City interests and opportunities for city-building;
- An assessment of the costs and schedules associated with the projects;
- Agreement on an approach to public engagement on the projects;
- A work plan to design two additional subway stations and other required project planning for the L2EE project; and
- A risk assessment of extending the service life of Line 3 to 2029-30. [p 16]
To all of this I would add a burning need to understand the future role of GO Transit as a local and/or regional service provider, and a definition of the transit markets which each tier of the transit network will serve. A related and vital question is that of regional fare integration, the pricing of “local” and “regional” services and the effects of fare policy on travel demand and subsidy requirements.
The City’s requirements are much broader than the superficial planning we usually see from the province, at least in public documents, and they imply a much more solid understanding of the network than simply a rough sketch on a map unsupported by technical studies.