Ontario Line Environmental Assessment Open Houses: Part I – General Thoughts

After the publication of the monumental draft Ontario Line Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIAR), Metrolinx organized four online “open houses” to present an overview of the report and to address questions. These took place in late February and early March during a 30-day period for public comment that ends on March 9. Those of you with a desire to spend many unproductive hours hours waiting for occasional pearls of wisdom to emerge can do so through the Metrolinx Engage website:

  • North segment: February 22 and 24
  • South segment: March 1 and 3

In two separate articles, I will summarize the major questions from each pair of sessions. However, there are general issues raised by the draft EIAR and the process for public input that deserve their own debate.

Politicians and managers who never read beyond the glossy brochures, or, maybe, the Executive Summary, might mistake sheer volume as a measure of transparency, an heroic effort to inform and involve affected communities.

Back in the days of real telephone directories, the size of the phone book was, among other things, a measure of how grand a community might be. Big thick book equals lots of phones and lots of people, a matter of pride even if the type got smaller and smaller as years wore on. But for all its heft, the directory had a basic organizing principle: if you knew how to spell someone’s name, or even made a reasonable guess, you could find their address and phone number.

The many thousands of pages in the EIAR and its sundry appendices, not to mention equally large reports that preceded it, are bricks in a wall of obfuscation, not revealing windows into our future. Nobody (no, not even I) has read every page if only because there is only so much time to devote to the subject, and there is a lot of badly organized, repetitive information. Key topics one might expect based on past projects (including the Relief Line South study) are missing because these details will not be worked out until after the design/construction contracts are awarded, and the opportunity for public comment only a distant memory.

If the desire were to construct a project that would frustrate public participation, it is hard to imagine how Metrolinx could have “improved” on what they achieved. An exercise in going through the motions. A triumph of superficiality disguised by the sheer volume of reports.

Managed Participation

As we have all learned over two years, Zoom is no substitute for public gatherings. Yes, there can be better access to information, to experts, but this depends on how any session is managed. Metrolinx believes strongly in the “we talk, you listen” model.

This style was evident even pre-pandemic when the more traditional public meeting was replaced with loosely organized meet-and-greets where interactions were managed and attendees generally had little sense of what each was told, or how Metrolinx might have responded to challenges.

Public meetings can be hijacked by those with an axe to grind, the “squeaky wheels”, the microphone hogs. But, there is loss of balance when staff and consultants are insulated from the “torches and pitchforks” style of town halls where they can be challenged and the community can make common cause.

Now the style is “divide and conquer”. Hold as much consultation as possible, but in small groups, and gaslight your critics. It’s the “everybody but you supports transit” model of participation.

This is compounded by Metrolinx staff who are supposed to know their projects giving answers that miss the point, or deliberately misrepresent the question, or, even worse, reveal that staff know less about the topics than the audience.

At times, Metrolinx scores “own goals” with half-baked answers to questions that undermine confidence in their grasp of an issue. Even worse, they can sow well-deserved distrust in their audience who assume that threadbare responses are a mark of dissembling, of avoiding details and hard questions.

Document and Information Format

Some of the documents contain vast catalogues of buildings, or wildlife, or vegetation that show an immense amount of work simply to assemble the information. But they omit two important factors:

  • An easily accessed index
  • Detailed explanations and drawings of the “before” and “after” conditions

There are maps, yes, many maps that are variations on the same theme, but they are organized by map topic, not by location, and the accompanying text is separate from the maps. Where there is an inventory, such as affected properties or buildings, this is not sorted by location, but by the index number within the project catalog. Don’t expect to find your house or business quickly, let alone all of the potential effects it might encounter.

Doing this requires that hapless readers download all of the documents (over 300MB), do their own searches and cross-reference the material. This is the very definition of a “needle in a haystack” problem, and it assumes that the average “interested party” has the technology and time to devote to this.

I am quite sure Metrolinx would quail if they were asked to better organize their information for easy access, but the problem is that the reports were never designed to make this possible in the first place. A simple request such as “tell me everything about Queen and Spadina” cannot be done without combing through hundreds of pages, at least.

The material screams out for a searchable database with a map-based front end, but instead we have several “telephone books” without a basic A-Z scheme. Yes, the pdfs are searchable, provided you know what you’re looking for, and provided that you take the time to collate information from multiple maps and tables.

The situation is compounded by the fact that information about “Transit Oriented Communities”, that is to say the redevelopment of station sites, is in a completely separate agency, Infrastructure Ontario, with its own website. Ironically, some of the IO drawings show more details of stations than Metrolinx has deigned to release. Public consultation involves a lot of “not my job” answers where questions about the developments are not Metrolinx’ responsibility, and questions about the Ontario Line bring responses from IO planners revealing a profound ignorance of the project.

The Lack of Detailed Designs and Plans

A common request of any major infrastructure proposal is “what will this look like”, but Metrolinx has produced almost nothing on that account. The only station for which a detailed cutaway exists is Queen, and that was needed as part of the pitch to City Council about the details of an extended road closure. Some general details of the vertical access are available from IO for King/Bathurst, Queen/Spadina and Corktown stations, and there are fairly detailed renderings of the future Exhibition Station.

But that’s it. There is no diagram showing the interchange at Pape Station which is integral to the “relief” function of the new line, or at Osgoode Station with the University Line. Very little information has been released about other locations notably the elevated guideway from Thorncliffe Park to Eglinton.

This finally snuck out into view not as part of the EA documents, but in the recently released illustrations of noise levels.

Here is a view between existing buildings at 8 and 10 Overlea Boulevard showing the proposed noise barrier along the guideway. Note that there is a sound barrier, although the Noise & Vibration study within the EIAR claimed that no mitigation would be required on this segment of the line.

The structure here appears to be much closer to the ground than the one shown two images below (upper right, background).

Here is a view looking east from the front of the Ontario Science Centre.

The view below looks north from Minton Place just west of the portal to the new bridge over the Don Valley. The ghostly tree in the image is one that will be removed for construction. Visible in the distance is the elevated structure above Overlea Boulevard.

Were it not for the illustrations in the sound demo (only very recently released), we would know little about what Metrolinx actually proposes, and there are still no drawings for stations, only site diagrams.

Something that often happens with proposed elevated structures is that drawings rarely consider the underside. At least Metrolinx did include, back in January, a photo from the SkyTrain in Vancouver giving some sense of the street level view.

Exactly how this stucture will relate to existing and future buildings along the north end of the line remains to be seen.

Noise & Vibration

Noise and vibration have been big issues along the route, but with varying degrees of emphasis by location. The issues vary from one place to another because of alignment (under or above ground), existing land use (low rise residential to office tower), and the technical savvy of groups along the route to understand just what is planned for their neighbourhoods.

Metrolinx talks a lot about “mitigation” – how to reduce or at least mask the Ontario Line’s effects – but a disproportionate amount of time has been spent on operational effects once the trains are running.

Recordings of existing noise levels and simulations of future conditions are available online.

Noise and vibration can be controlled at the source by technical choices, notably in the track structure which can either isolate vibration at the source, or transmit it into the ground. Metrolinx always mentions floating slab construction (mechanical isolation of the trackbed from the tunnel with rubber pads) as if they invented it yesterday, although the technique was first used in Toronto on the Spadina Subway which opened in 1978, and more recently on the Vaughan extension.

Missing are comparative examples with the existing subway, notably Line 2 Bloor-Danforth which rumbles through many residential neighbourhoods and which many use as a point of reference.

For areas where the line runs above ground, the issue is much more the noise of passing trains, primarily from wheel-rail interaction and from onboard systems. This can be addressed by right-of-way treatments up to and including noise barriers, although they bring their own visual issues and do little for noise radiated upward into taller buildings.

In their presentations Metrolinx gives the impression that noise controls, notably floating slab construction, will be installed everywhere.

However, as shown in the EIAR, they intend to install mitigation only where their modelling projects an unacceptable rise in noise and vibration over existing levels, and then only to the degree needed to bring effects within the standards. [See section 7.4, pp 13-147 of the Noise & Vibration Report for details.]

Moreover, their projections do not take into account future land use changes. What today might be a mid-20th century low rise office or industrial building, or even just a parking lot, might tomorrow be a new residential community.

Construction effects get a lot less attention. Although it might be short-lived for activities like tunneling, the potential for building damage is greater. This is reflected in varying distances – the “Zone Of Influence” – depending on the type of structure. A 19th century brick building is a very different animal from a 21st century condo.

One of the major sources of noise and vibration will be from tunnelling. The situation is different on three segments of the route:

  • From east of Exhibition Station to Corktown Station, the tunnel will be dug in bedrock about 30m below street level using tunnel boring machines.
  • East from Corktown, the tunnel will be mined through bedrock and then soil as it rises to the portal west of the Don River.
  • North from Gerrard, the tunnel will be deep, like the downtown segment, but will go through soil because bedrock is much further down.

The Ontario Line uses twin tunnels, and the two tunnel boring machines (TBMs) will pass 2-3 months apart. There will also be ground borne noise from the mining railway used to move the spoil from the advancing TBMs back to the launch sites at Corktown for the south segment, and at Gerrard for the north segment.

Station construction will bring its own issues depending on whether the station is cut-and-cover (Queen, Moss Park, Corktown), mined (King/Bathurst, Queen/Spadina, Osgoode, Pape, Cosburn) or at grade.

An important distinction is that audible noise is not necessarily damaging noise, and this depends on both the frequency spectrum (low/high) and intensity. Note in the table above that the distance from a vibration source to the limit of human perception is much larger than the distances for buildings and utilities.

Metrolinx did not discuss mitigation for tunnelling noise in their open houses, although this is covered in the EIAR. A suggested approach changes equipment on the TBMs and/or reduces pressure at the cutting head. This would reduce vibrations, but would slow progress. Whether Metrolinx has contemplated this as part of the tunelling contract is unknown, and there could be a “catch 22” if the contract values quick progress over minimal disruption.

Changing the Alignment

Some aspects of the line, notably the alignment, simply cannot be changed because these were cast in stone years ago. Any attempted alteration runs into a brick wall because so much political capital, and now detailed planning, has been expended on the official route. Changes occur only when it suits Metrolinx or when they discover that they missed important considerations. Two examples:

  • When announced, the designs for Exhibition and East Harbour stations featured an across-the-platform transfer arrangement to greatly simplify GO-to-OL transfers with the hope of offloading Union Station. This raised two problems: physical complexity and cost, and the fact that the OL platforms connected with only two of the four GO tracks. Metrolinx changed the design to put both OL tracks and their platform on the north side of the rail corridor.
  • The physical design of the joint corridor in Riverside was annoying enough to the locals, but literally on the day of a public meeting, Metrolink discovered (or revealed) that their illustrations of the height of the corridor would have to change to accommodate new underpass clearance standards at cross-streets. “Bait and switch” is a tactic that does not inspire trust and confidence.

Metrolinx is solidly married to its design, and criticism of that is simply not part of the process. The transit “assessment” scheme begins with a map drawn in secret and announced as a sacred political act.

Private Meetings

From comments in the regular public sessions and scattered though the immense correspondence record, it is clear that there have been many sessions with community groups, businesses and other interested parties. These have included presentation decks and, probably, summaries of what was discussed. Almost none of this material is in the public record although it obviously forms part of the consultation process. There are plenty of short emails inviting people to participate in groups and meetings, but no record of what they might have discussed or whether they feel that Metrolinx addressed their concerns.

Without that record, these are events that “tick the box” showing that Metrolinx “consulted”, but not whether they actually “listened” and acted on concerns.

Moreover, it is clear in some of the background studies and correspondence that Metrolinx has been meeting with various agencies such as City Planning for at least two years, probably longer, but there is little sense of how this might have shaped the project. After all, it was announced by the Premier as, more or less, a done deal three years ago, with a demand (and legislation to back it up) that Metrolinx just get on with building his vision for Toronto’s transit.

Coming Soon

In the next article, I will turn to meetings for the northern segment of the route.

4 thoughts on “Ontario Line Environmental Assessment Open Houses: Part I – General Thoughts

  1. I hate the use of one of the 50 shades of grey used for the elevated sections (and buildings in general) for the Ontario Line.

    Steve: Metrolinx made a half-hearted attempt at “design excellence” when Marianne McKenna (the architect of Koerner Hall, among many other buildings) was on their board. They still mention it in some of their puff pieces, but what they actually produce is sterile.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A common request of any major infrastructure proposal is “what will this look like”, but Metrolinx has produced almost nothing on that account.

    Imagine a 50 foot high concrete wall that’s about 400+ feet in length and that’s probably what the station sites along the elevated corridor will look like. Something along the lines of the Hudson Bay store at Yonge and Bloor. That’s probably the reason why we haven’t seen any material on it.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Metrolinx’s (Mx) EA report does not coherently outline the environmental implications of the Ontario Line. The purpose of the Ontario Environmental Assessment Act is to provide for

    “the betterment to the people of … Ontario by providing for the protection … of the environment”

    where air is defined as a component of the environment. The Appendix Noise and Vibration does not highlight the air quality issue raised on page 393:

    Chapter 3.3 Impact Assessment and Results

    “existing day and night-time noise levels are shown to be greater than the MOEE/GO and MOEE/TTC minimum limits of 55 dBA Leq,16h during the daytime and 50 dBA Leq,8h during the night time”

    The mitigations suggested in the report do not reduce the noise levels to MOEE (Ministry of Environment) standards. Metrolinx failed to properly consult to address this issue. An alternate tunnel route was proposed but never considered by Mx. An alternate mitigation is to reduce the grade of the Lakeshore East track. Consideration of these alternatives are required steps in the EA process.

    Noise is a contaminant that is part of air quality. The noise level in the Ontario Line corridor exceeds the MOEE and thus harms people’s health. Let the record show that when this EA gets approved both the Ministries of Transportation and Environment failed the people of Ontario.

    Steve: The key word there is “existing”. The noise levels are already above standards, and it is not the Ontario Line’s job to correct this problem, only to avoid making it worse. Those are the rules Metrolinx plays by.

    Like

  4. Our EA ‘processes’ are pretty suspect in a few ways, like truly thinking and exploring the options available vs. any type of subway as long as it’s here. Another very significant ‘miss’ is the environmental impacts of massive concrete usage, which has GHG impacts about 2x what the energy usage is, and globally, c. 7% of GHG emissions as they’re roughly counted. Nobody really wants to include concrete’s GHG assessments as it might be more pesky facts to hinder ‘progress’ eh? The City of Toronto also Fails in this regard as our city is so very green, we don’t use any of that horrible stuff, anywhere. Thankfully, some snowdrops are up and in bloom, but in a garden, not concrete….

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s