The Toronto Board of Trade Shills for the Ontario Line

Over on Facebook, I was challenged for simply slagging the opinion piece The Ontario Line: Give the future a chance. Originally, I wasn’t going to comment, but there are enough half-truths in the article that it’s worth writing about them. This is a consolidation of the Twitter version of my reply with slight modifications.

This article is credited to Jan De Silva as a “Contributor”. She is identified as the President and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade at the very end of the article. I would be very surprised if this article were not the product of Metrolinx itself. Too many of the arguments are stock Metrolinx boilerplate, including assumptions about the nature of criticism of their project.

Associations matter, especially when they aren’t acknowledged in the byline. If an article was by a policy wonk from the Manning Institute, for example, you would read it with a different media filter. If you read something from me, you put on the SwanBoatSteve filter. Identification of the author, of the voice, up front is important.

“billions of city dollars can be freed up for maintenance”

These are billions the city has yet to allocate in any budget. They are net new spending which will crowd other works. The only money we actually have is the accumulated revenue from the Scarborough Subway Tax and that’s less than $200 million in the bank. Moreover, everybody seems to be earmarking these $$$ for new projects like the Eglinton East extension.

Why is TO paying for an extension to a Metrolinx line? Ditto for the four surviving SmartTrack stations.

“some critics still fear using new technology for the Ontario Line”

This is a red herring used to cast aspersions against critics. We don’t know which technology might be used because in all probability the P3 proponent will come with their own technology partner just like the Canada Line in Vancouver. Other SkyTrain lines must use the Bombardier technology because they are part of a network, but the Canada Line was deliberately made separate to break Bombardier’s stranglehold as a vendor.

Unfortunately, the spec for that line was cocked up and the builder was able to cheap out on station size and train length. These are contract design/management issues, not technology issues.

“Some critics”, yes, but many critics have much more substantial objections.

“critics who claim that the Ontario Line is “drawn on the back of an envelope.” Even if that was true – and it never was – the Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario teams behind the initial proposal have been working with the TTC to refine their plans.”

Either it was a plan that needed TTC’s refinement, or it was a rough sketch enough to work for Doug Ford’s announcement. It was not a finished plan. The City’s own report states that it is at a very low level of engineering detail with wide potential variation in the cost estimate.

“Planning for this line incorporates greater use of above-ground rights-of-way”

There is a reason we put lines underground, sometimes needlessly, and it has a lot to do with neighbourhood effects and the political will to get transit out of the way of cars. These are separate effects depending on the location. Eglinton’s central section is underground because it won’t fit on the street.

Some people claim that surface operation elsewhere (including the extensions) shows socioeconomic bias against the affected areas. Cue the “poor Scarborough” theme. That story doesn’t work so well in Etobicoke.

“changes to how tunnels are bored”

The TTC was already looking at single bore tunnels for some projects. These work in some areas, not so well in others especially if the larger diameter triggers problems with the available space, utilities, groundwater and bedrock.

“lighter trains to facilitate easier river and overpass crossings”

True, assuming that the lighter trains are capable of providing the capacity required. More importantly, lighter and smaller trains affect the structure size be it elevated or underground.

“more standardization of stations above and below ground to build quickly and affordably”

Tell this to the politicians who want architectural grandeur as a mark of their importance. Some variation in stations is inevitable because of location, demand, etc.

We probably would not have to look very hard to find the TRBOT gushing over the designs for the TYSSE stations when they were proposed.

“Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario are merely proposing to use the same tools cities like Madrid, Barcelona and Paris use to build dozens of kilometers of new subways at speeds we’ve only dreamed of before.”

The important thing those cities have is (or was) money and commitment. They had senior governments (including the EU) willing to pay, and a political climate where plans were not rejigged every few years to suit someone’s ego. And they had plans that ensured a continuous program of construction rather than the stop-start situation we have in Toronto thanks to political meddling and competition to “build MY subway now”.

“Subway systems in all three of these world class city transit cities have multiple car sets on their tracks, and even used different gauges as technologies developed.”

This is another red herring. Toronto has had multiple car sets on its streetcar and subway tracks since the 19th century. Old heavy red “G” trains, larger lighter “H” and “T” trains, 2 car sets and 6 car sets, wooden streetcars, steel, PCCs, CLRVs and now Flexitys.

Gauge is a question mainly of history and system age. Suburban lines in Toronto were standard gauge until they were incorporated into the “city” system e.g. Long Branch.

“critics insist Metrolinx may not hit its 2027 target date for the Relief Line … And even if this solution took until 2029 – the target date for the earlier Relief Line – this route should be more effective at providing relief than originally planned, too.”

The fundamental problem with the analysis of the Ontario Line vs the Relief Line is that the RL South is the basis of comparison, and so of course a longer RL has a greater benefit. The fact that the RL North study was being run by the Province and was stalled is not mentioned at all.

“The Ontario Line also creates a true subway network, with connections to the Yonge University Line, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT and the GO system at Exhibition Station,  so riders on the shoulders of our inner suburbs can shift commutes to avoid other chokepoints from several directions.”

The reference to offloading GO is key and it applies also at East Harbour (although that station does not exist yet). The OL is as much a relief line for GO at Union as it is for the TTC subway. This is a valid goal, but it should be acknowledged so that everyone is aware how much future capacity will be dedicated to GO relief rather than subway relief.

The article is completely silent on neighbourhood effects along the way which are not trivial. This is not just two tracks for an updated version of the SRT, but a six-track corridor for GO and the OL. Yes, SRT trains are not as noisy as GO trains, and the latter might even be toned down when, if ever, they electrify. I am not holding my breath on that as it costs a lot of capital that Metrolinx does not have and does not want to spend.