Metrolinx Spins Their Tale on the Ontario Line’s Alignment

In a recent article, I reacted to a Metrolinx blog post about the Ontario Line’s design with a series of questions hoping that as the project has now advanced to the Request for Information stage, there would be more details available. Metrolinx chose not to answer, an odd decision for a route about which they are so proud.

Another article has appeared extolling the Ontario Line’s virtues and its benefits for overall capacity on the rapid transit network (all this, of course, with pre-covid assumptions).

The claims in this article clearly were not conjured out of the air, but are based on detailed modelling of the future network. With Metrolinx’ non-response, I will not bother asking question of them, but will simply address their article head on.

Without question, the Ontario Line will provide rapid transit to areas that do not have it today, notably to the northeast in Thorncliffe and Flemingdon Parks and to the major redevelopment node at Don Mills and Eglinton. However, Metrolinx writes as if this was conceived as part of the Ontario Line when the Relief Line North project was already underway under their direction. That planning process was dragging along through an evaluation of alternative alignments most of which made no sense at all, and some of which did not hit these major nodes.

On an historical note, a proposed Queen/Don Mills subway from the 1960s would have gone through these areas. The idea is hardly new.

One might almost think that Metrolinx wanted this process to bumble along as a way to delay the project. Magically, by the time Premier Ford announced the Ontario Line, the always-obvious destination and route had been selected.

As for the west end of the line, yes, it will serve the south end of Liberty Village, but at a considerable walking distance from many buildings in a neighbourhood that has grown north to Queen Street. The problem with east-west service to this area is the capacity of streetcar service provided especially on Queen.

The Ontario Line will begin at the Ontario Science Centre where a new transit hub will connect it to the Crosstown LRT. With LRT trains and TTC buses delivering riders to this station, the Ontario Line will divert more people away from Line 1 than the earlier Relief Line South plan, which would have started near Danforth Avenue at Pape Station.

In fact, Metrolinx projects that the new plan will reduce crowding on Line 1 at Eglinton station by 15 per cent, compared to only 3 for Relief Line South.

In a strange editorial choice, the article illustrates “high-density neighbourhoods that need better transit” with a photo of a small residential street in Riverdale (the corner of Paisley Avenue and Booth Street, near Dundas and Logan) which is roughly midway between proposed stops at Queen and Gerrard Streets.

There is also a photo looking south from Queen Street East on McGee Street, a likely location for the Leslieville Station. Metrolinx does not mention the physical intrusion that expansion of the rail corridor and construction of a station here would produce, only that it makes a connection to the Queen streetcar. Directly behind the photographer is the Jimmie Simpson recreation centre and park which are both threatened by the line. These are conveniently ignored in the article.

Metrolinx is big on connections and travel time savings, but neglects that a rider who is already on the Queen or Kingston Road cars at this location can reach downtown directly simply by staying on board rather than transferring to the Ontario Line.

There is no question that the proposed Relief Line station on Eastern Avenue near Broadview would not make a convenient connection to the GO corridor being well north of the line and very deep so that the tunnel can go under the Don River. That said, this connection was never a principal function of the station, but rather it would serve the East Harbour development site immediately south of the station, and the proposed Broadview streetcar extension through the development would have linked to the Waterfront East streetcar line.

Metrolinx’ true aim both here and at Exhibition Station is quite clear: they need to offload demand from Union Station and hope to do so by diverting riders to the Ontario Line. To make this work, the link between the two routes needs to be as simple as possible, and Metrolinx often refers to the across-the-platform transfers between GO and the OL at East Harbour. That direct transfer is only possible with a surface, not an underground alignment.

However, this assumes a rider is actually destined for the north end of the core business area which, if anything, is moving south from King and across the rail corridor, not north to Queen. GO riders bound for the core area would be better off staying on GO trains, not transferring. There is real irony that Metrolinx trumpets a direct, transfer-free ride to downtown from Don Mills at the same time as they hope to shift GO riders away from Union Station with an extra transfer in their journeys.

This easy connection at East Harbour will give GO Train commuters an option to connect to the subway without going through Union Station – a big part of the reason why this plan will reduce crowding there by 13 per cent.

That’s 13 percent of all riders at Union Station including those arriving on other corridors – Barrie, Kitchener, Stouffville, Richmond Hill – and so this claim represents a very large shift of riders between GO trains and the Ontario Line. This is not credible, especially for outbound connections where the “easy transfer” includes waiting for a GO train running much less frequently than the Ontario Line. (There are also operational issues with the assignment of tracks to services in the shared Lake Shore East corridor, and I don’t think Metrolinx has thought this through.)

When Metrolinx cites the catchment area of stations, they use a distance of 500 metres (a circle one kilometre across). This might work well for a suburban GO station, but in an urban areas, the transit network is more finely grained and a rider could well have a surface route closer-by than a rapid transit station. Access and transfer times consume proportionately more of a trip than in-vehicle times.

The travel time saving brought by the Ontario Line is illustrated in this chart from the project’s website. This chart assumes that access time to an Ontario Line station is the same as the time needed to reach a bus stop, but this is true only for people living very close to the station. At the trip destination, the time from Queen (City Hall Station on the OL) to King & Bay shows the effect of a transfer between rapid transit lines. This almost certainly understates the time penalty. One might well argue that simply walking from the west end of City Hall Station south via Bay to King or via the PATH network (to which the station would connect) would be faster.

This is not to argue against the obvious time and convenience savings of a direct trip, but proportionately the access and transfer times will contribute more than this chart shows for riders who are further from stations at their origin or destination. Metrolinx presents a best case scenario here.

In another recent article, Metrolinx talks about public consultation and the feedback they received from open houses along the route. The overwhelming concern of participants was with the route’s alignment and community effects.

“The Metrolinx team tasked with undertaking the Ontario Line is attuned to the sensitivities of preparing to build in such a vibrant city,” said Franca Di Giovanni, Metrolinx director of community relations for Toronto region. “We take people’s comments very seriously, and making this report public is part of an open and ongoing dialogue around Ontario Line planning.”

However, it is quite clear that Metrolinx is wedded to their alignment and will only “consult” on comparatively minor issues such as station design. Their intransigence to discussions of alternatives is a long-standing problem undermining the credibility of their public participation process.

All of this is slightly surreal in an era when the future of office space and demand to the core is under question. Personally, I prefer optimism that we will get back to something like “normal” eventually, but this will not happen tomorrow. Meanwhile, there will be a huge problem with travel demand outside of the core and on the road network where transit has little hope of competing.

Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario have issued an RFI to gauge interest from potential bidders on the Ontario Line project. This process was already delayed due to pushback from industry on the degree of risk transfer the government wanted its “partners” to undertake, and the covid crisis has added to the delay. However, there is a big push to reach a contract signing before the 2022 election. Whether this is practical, and whether any meaningful consultation will actually take place, are open questions.

8 thoughts on “Metrolinx Spins Their Tale on the Ontario Line’s Alignment

  1. Steve writes: All of this is slightly surreal

    Metrolinx Blog states: Story by Mike Winterburn, Metrolinx Senior Advisor.

    Not credited but obviously a huge influence on the story teller is Baron Münchhausen. This is beyond surreal. It’s bizarre.

    Hamish linked this [the RCCAO report] in the prior post.

    I’ve only had the time to read the first section, it is excellent reading.

    Steve: I have not commented on the RCCAO report because I reviewed a pre-release version for the author.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Indeed, Steve is mentioned and quoted on page 62 of the RCCAO report.

    That report is a pretty good summary of the construction cost ills that plague Toronto. The comparison with previous projects is particularly thorough.

    It’s weakest area is treatment of P3s, in a number of aspects. One of the disadvantages that should be well understood in Ontario now is the risk introduced by P3s with operation and maintenance components. The City of Ottawa’s new Confederation Line is stuck with a consortium that can’t properly operate its line, and has begun the process of getting out of its DBFOM.

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  3. I went to the open house. Given a city catchment of 3 million people, I did not see the ‘overwhelming pushback’ you speak of. There were a few naysayers, but surely the goal here is. It to please everyone. The east shared tracks are being doubled 3 to 6) and will steal a little land from the leslieville park. To get the project going, I say so what! To a guy like me, transferring at Union to Subway, I will be transferring to Ontario Line. This line permits huge development at Ontario place and beyond. Harbour East will be terrific. Again l, this line may not please you, but I’m a glass half full guy. Let’s get the shovels in the ground. We have enough John Sewells in this city.

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  4. Do people on this site read the news or not? I don’t mean to insult anyone but how can you folks be so uninformed that you speak of constructing a hugely expensive new line (the Downtown Relief Line a.k.a. the Ontario Line) when there is not even enough money to run the existing lines? There is talk of shutting down the Sheppard subway and the Scarborough RT and reducing service on the YUS and BD lines by half but you want to build new lines? I am a huge supporter of the Scarborough subway but I know that no new lines are going to be constructed in the next two decades or so until we recover from the COVID. The Eglinton Crosstown and the Finch West LRT are the only new lines that we will see in the next two decades as those have already begun construction. Social distancing is not possible with mass transit which is why there will be a permanent shift away from mass transit to driving, ride sharing, and personal transit which will provide trips from source to destination something that mass transit can never do.

    Steve: Metrolinx seems to think that new lines like Ontario and Scarborough will be built, and they will press forward until they hit a wall. There is a lot of political pressure to “build stuff” because infrastructure projects create jobs. However, there are more effective ways to boost employment in the short to medium term. Indeed, the construction industry as a whole faces severe challenges if there is reduced demand for new buildings, never mind subways. Toronto boasts of having the most high rise construction of any North American city, but the forces that drove this could be evaporating.

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  5. William – you are aware that Ontario Place is a 10 minute walk from Exhibition station, right?

    Steve: The more attractive lands for development are further north in the CNE grounds. With the declining relevance of this type of “Exhibition” the question is whether that land would be developed as a result of a new rapid transit station before Ontario Place itself. Another problem, of course, is that the ten minute walk to Ontario Place is disrupted a few times each year by events that take over the park, notably the CNE itself and the Molson Indy.

    It was a great tragedy that the streetcar loop was moved north under the Gardiner years ago putting it as far away from Ontario Place as possible, although now it is better located for development that has happened north of Exhibition Place than it would have been further south. Ontario Place didn’t want to give up its parking lot for a transit terminal, and nobody wanted to pay for an underground terminal at the trade centre which sits on the old Exhibition Loop site.

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  6. Re: building transit and COVID

    1) Until most people who use public transit return to public transit, there isn’t enough capacity to move people around the city. Yes, some people will work from home permanently from now on, lowering demand, but not enough to offset significantly lower ridership.

    2) If anything, the fact we’re so far behind in constructing higher-order transit, and behind in purchasing sufficient rolling stock to meet demand, makes the situation worse. In order to allow people to have more distance, we need a heck of lot more rolling stock.

    3) These projects will be completed well after COVID is no longer much of a factor.

    4) Already, I see few people keeping 2m in grocery stores. I suspect that we’ll see people gradually returning to transit until the next pandemic wave.

    However, should we have a Greater Depression as Roubini suggests, then all bets are off, because all our governments will be insolvent in a few years. Even so, we would have 5 to 8 more years before Ontario hits a debt wall, and no one is going to stop these projects on speculation that we’re facing a worst case scenario.

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  7. No, we have not had enough John Sewells in this city. None of these transit topics would be a problem IN THE THIRD DECADE OF THIS CENTURY. They would have been solved long ago.

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  8. Great to have comments; thanks again Steve. And I’m still favouring a Keep It Substantially Surface approach, with a keen eye for new, sub-regional and largely surface corridors, with two rough/large/long corridors in east-of-Yonge eg. Don Valley leading to Thorncliffe and Eglinton, and Gatineau hydro corridor going ALL the way through Scarborough at a faster diagonal. We kinda need a triage approach, as well as a squeezing of the billions, which may be very needed soon, and yes, deflation in housing could equal Depression, and to some extent that is Good. As for slagging Mr. Sewell, he wasn’t hardly born maybe for that 1957 plan that gave a notion of oh, 20kms of high-order transit along most of Queen, up maybe Donlands, and then at Eglinton, to the NE. We kinda need that function not necessarily a megaproject in a decade.

    Steve: John Sewell was born in 1940 but he had no hand in the 1957 plan. He became politically active in the mid-1960s along with so many others in the city.

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