The ink was barely dry on the TTC’s recent proposal that service on the SRT end in mid-2023 when the inevitable question was posed: what should be done with the infrastructure and right-of-way afterwards?
A scheme floated several years ago would have converted the elevated structure between McCowan and Midland Stations to something like the High Line park in New York City. That is certainly an option once the line is no longer needed to carry transit vehicles.
At the City Council meeting of February 3-5, 2021, Councillors Josh Matlow and Paul Ainslie, never fans of the Scarborough Subway, proposed the following motion. Council ran out of time and debate was deferred to a future meeting. However, the issues here deserve attention now, specifically at the TTC Board meeting planned for February 10, 2021.
Councillor Josh Matlow, seconded by Councillor Paul Ainslie, recommends that:
1. City Council request the City Manager to report to the June 1, 2021 meeting of Executive Committee on options for Scarborough transit that includes a:
a. technical assessment of moving forward with the Scarborough Light Rail Transit, including length of construction time and new platform location at Kennedy Station;
b. feasibility study and cost estimate of converting the elevated Scarborough Rapid Transit structure to an above-grade Bus Rapid Transit; and
c. feasibility study and cost estimate of removing the elevated Scarborough Rapid Transit structure and operating a Bus Rapid Transit at-grade.
2. City Council request the Toronto Transit Commission Board to release the “Integrity Assessment for Life Extension/Continued Operation” report by Bombardier, in partnership with WSP Canada Inc. and CH2MH, referenced in the Fleet Life Extension – Line 3 Scarborough report to the Toronto Transit Commission Board on May 8, 2018 to City of Toronto residents as a public attachment to the aforementioned item on the Toronto Transit Commission’s website.
The likelihood that Council would approve another study of the LRT option for this corridor is dim, at best. This is an extremely contentious issue debated many times under clouds of conflicting information about various technologies. While I have always supported the LRT option going right back to its origin fifty years ago, I have no illusions that we are about to see it emerge soon, if ever as a contender.
Doug Ford’s government took control of the Scarborough Subway Extension project and will bull through with it no matter what. According to the most recent Infrastructure Ontario update, the contract for tunneling will be awarded in spring 2021, and it is hard to think of anything that will derail this. Cost overruns and delays may be in the future, but far too much political ego is on the line to change course today barring a financial catastrophe that prevents the SSE (and many other projects) from going ahead.
At this point, a review of the work involved to reactivate the LRT proposal would be a diversion. That ship has sailed. Also, to be quite blunt, in the current political climate it is likely than any LRT study would be tweaked to present a worst case scenario.
However, the BRT proposal is worth study, and this should begin immediately to inform the plans for a bus replacement service. Conditions on segments of the line differ, and this should not be seen as an “all or nothing” situation.
Kennedy Stn to Lawrence East Stn
The southern portion of the SRT runs in a fairly open area bounded on the east by GO Transit’s Stouffville corridor and on the west by a wide Hydro corridor and park.
Here is a satellite view of Kennedy Station. If there were a BRT corridor from the north, buses could access the station without any traffic conflicts on Eglinton Avenue. This is important not just to avoid the turns to and from Eglinton, but to bypass the effect of subway construction east of the rail corridor.
The area east of Kennedy Station will be used as a tunnel boring launch site and for removal of spoil as the project digs east and north. Eglinton will be reduced and will not be conducive to frequent, fast bus service. This issue has already been raised in the context of the Eglinton BRT project which ends short of Kennedy Station in anticipation of subway work. The extent of the disruption is clear in the map below.
Cut-and-cover work will occupy Eglinton to east of Midland Avenue making an eastern approach for a Scarborough BRT fraught with congestion and disruption as conditions change. Anyone who has watched the Eglinton Crosstown project knows that this is not the environment for reliable bus service.
An important question is whether a BRT roadway would fit in the corridor where the SRT is today. Here is the line midway between Eglinton and Lawrence.
On the east side of the corridor is GO Transit’s right-of-way where double-tracking will add to the capacity for Stouffville service. On the west is the SRT.
The SRT itself occupies roughly 7 metres. By contrast, the York University bus roadway, a model for a BRT here, is roughly 11 metres wide. Buses are wider than the SRT trains (2.4m vs 2.1m) and they are not tethered to a track requiring more room for dynamic clearance and safe passing of opposing traffic. A bus roadway in this corridor will require more space than the SRT occupies today, but at least there is some elbow room.
Here is the view north from the pedestrian/cycling bridge at Tara Avenue showing that there is room for a wider structure than the existing track slab.
South from the bridge, however, there is a row of mature trees, a planting that was added as a sound barrier between the SRT and the housing west of the Hydro corridor. An important design issue will be retention of these trees.
At Lawrence East Station, a connection to the road network could be made using the existing bus loop. A direct link right at the station is not possible because the street crosses the rail corridor on an overpass, nor is one to the east because this would require crossing the GO corridor.
Running buses through Lawrence East (and any other SRT station) would be complicated by two factors: the buses and their lanes are wider than the space taken for the SRT, and the roadway would have to be raised for buses to align with the platform.
Lawrence East Stn to Ellesmere Stn
This is a difficult segment of the SRT to convert to a busway because the SRT is constrained between the rail corridor and the industrial properties to the west. Moreover, there is a grade difference to the west with a retaining wall hard by the SRT right-of-way.
Ellesmere and Midland Stations
This portion of the line includes the turn east into a corridor running parallel to Highland Creek and behind industrial properties to the south.
Road access to the corridor from Ellesmere is possible using the existing roadway link west of the station, but the problem of the narrow right-of-way south of Ellesmere remains.
To the north, the RT crosses under the GO corridor in a tunnel which is almost certainly too small for buses. An alternative route one might think of looking at the map would be to continue north to Progress Avenue. However, GO Transit plans to build a grade separation here as part of their corridor upgrade, and what would be a simple connection today becomes complex, if not impossible, with Progress at a different grade from the rail corridor and any bus roadway.
Midland Stn to McCowan Stn
There are several problems with using the elevated structure between the GO corridor and McCowan Station.
First is the extra space needed for buses and their dynamic clearance. The SRT cars are narrower, and they fill the structure in which they run. The guideway is actually a pair of U-shaped concrete “lanes” for the SRT track, and could not be used “as is” for buses.
Second, the station at Midland is integrated with the bridge, and could not be easily modified. (This problem came up during consideration of other modes on the corridor including a subway.)
Third, access to and from the elevated would require ramps just like the Gardiner Expressway, and these would increase the structure’s footprint at ground level.
Fourth, operationally it would be much simpler for buses to serve Scarborough Town Centre at grade than to run via the elevated (leaving aside other problems) because they would not be constrained by access points to and from the structure.
If this segment were to be used for BRT, the existing elevated structure would have to be demolished and a new roadway built at ground level. There would still be problems at Ellesmere Station and the narrow right-of-way south from there.
The SRT corridor is seductively “available” for recycling using another mode, but the change is not straightforward or even physically possible in some locations.
Without waiting for a Council motion, the TTC should undertake a review of what could be done with a focus on the southern segment from Lawrence to Eglinton. This would give a traffic-free access to Kennedy Station, a location that is likely to be the most difficult in any BRT replacement for the SRT.
There will be a challenging interval between the start of SSE construction and the shutdown/reconstruction of the SRT for BRT and this cannot be avoided.
So much of the planning for whatever might happen is constrained by the effects of years of delay and the elimination of any flexibility that might have existed for project timelines. The problem now is to make the best of a very bad situation.