SmartTrack Update: More Questions Than Answers (October 13 Update)

For the coming three evenings, October 10-12, the City of Toronto, Metrolinx and the TTC will host open houses to present and discuss plans for six new SmartTrack and two new GO Transit stations. Although material for all stations will be part of each event, stations “local” to each site will receive more emphasis than others.

Each meeting will run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., with a presentation at 7 p.m.

  • Tuesday, October 10, Scarborough Civic Centre, 150 Borough Dr.
  • Wednesday, October 11, Riverdale Collegiate Institute, 1094 Gerrard St. E.
  • Thursday, October 12, New Horizons Tower, 1140 Bloor St. W. (new location)

Note: The location of the Oct. 12 meeting has been changed and it is now across the street from the originally announced site (which was Bloor Collegiate).

Updated October 11 at 10:30 pm: There continues to be confusion about just what “SmartTrack” service will look like, and this is not helped by the City’s presentation. Details can be found in the June 2016 Metrolinx report. For further info, see the update at the end of this article.

Updated October 13 at noon: Metrolinx has confirmed that the Barrie corridor trains will operate through to Union Station, not terminate at Spadina/Bathurst Station as I had originally thought. However, the operational details have not yet been worked out. For further discussion, scroll down to the section on the Spadina/Bathurst Station.

I attended a media briefing that covered the materials to be presented and the following article is based on that briefing which was conducted by City of Toronto staff. Illustrations here are taken from the deck for the media briefing which is available on the City of Toronto’s site. Resolution of some images is constrained by the quality of data in the deck.

[In the interest of full disclosure: A “Stakeholder Advisory Committee” (or SAC) has already been meeting on this, and I was invited to participate, but declined given my concern with a potential conflict between “advisory” and “journalist/commentator” roles. It is no secret that I believe SmartTrack is a deeply flawed concept. Its implementation is compromised by fitting a poorly-conceived election promise into a workable, operational scheme for the commuter rail network. Any “debate” is skewed by the need to pretend that this is anything beyond campaign literature.]

The intent of these three meetings is to conduct the first detailed conversation about these stations with the general public. Early designs appeared in the “Initial Business Case” for the stations, but these have been revised both for technical and for philosophical reasons. Specifically:

  • The City does not want to build traditional GO stations dominated by parking.
  • The interface between the new stations and the transit network (both rapid transit and surface routes) should be optimized.
  • Strong pedestrian and cycling connections are required.
  • Stations should be close to main streets.
  • Stations should support other City objectives such as the West Toronto Railpath and parallel projects such as the St. Clair/Weston study now in progress.
  • Transit-oriented development should be possible at stations.

This is a list that to a typical GO Transit proposal in the 905 would be unrecognizable. GO Transit’s plan ever since its creation has been to serve auto-based commuting first and foremost with ever larger parking structures that poison the land around stations. Local transit was something GO, and later Metrolinx, simply “didn’t do”, and the idea that Queen’s Park might fund strong local transit as a feeder to GO services has been limited to co-fare arrangements.

The situation within Toronto is very different, and there are connecting routes on the TTC that individually carry a substantial proportion of the daily ridership of the entire GO network. Moreover, if GO (or SmartTrack, whatever it is called) will be a real benefit to TTC riders, then the process of getting people to and from stations must not depend on parking lots that are full before the morning peak is even completed.

The new stations will go into existing built-up areas, not into fields with sites determined primarily by which well-connected developer owns nearby property. Residents will be consulted about how these stations will fit their neighbourhoods, how they will be accessed, and what might eventually become of the community and future development.

A big problem facing those who would present “SmartTrack” to the public beyond City Hall insiders and neighbourhood activists is that almost nobody knows what SmartTrack actually is. This is a direct result of Mayor Tory running on a design that could not be achieved, and which has evolved a great deal since he announced it in May 2014. In brief, it is three GO corridors (Stouffville, Lake Shore East and Kitchener) plus an Eglinton West LRT extension, but this differs greatly from what was promised in the election.

Service levels for SmartTrack are described as every 6-10 minutes peak, with off-peak trains every 15, but this does not necessarily match Metrolinx’ announced service plans for their GO RER network onto which SmartTrack is overlaid. The idea that there would be extra SmartTrack trains added to the GO service was killed off in 2016 in the evaluation of possible operating modes for the corridor.

Fares on “SmartTrack” are supposed to be “TTC fares”, but this is a moving target. Voters understood the term to mean free transfer onto and off of SmartTrack trains as part of their TTC fare, but with all the talk of regional fare integration, it is far from clear just what a “TTC fare” will be by the time SmartTrack is operating.

Even that date appears to be a moving target. City Staff referred to 2025 when GO RER would be fully up and running as the target date for “integration”, but Mayor Tory still speaks of being able to ride SmartTrack by 2021 while he is presumably still in office to cut the ribbon.

At the briefing, many questions arose from the media, and the answer to almost all of them was “we don’t know yet”. It is clear that the Mayor’s plan has not proceeded beyond the half-baked stage, and many important details remain to be sorted out.

  • What is the status of Lawrence East Station and how does it fit with the recently announced review of this (and Kirby) stations by the Auditor General?
  • How will an expanded GO/ST presence at Lawrence East co-exist with the SRT which will operate until at least 2025, if not beyond to whenever the Scarborough Subway opens?
  • What are the arrangements for City/Province cost sharing on the stations, especially since Lawrence East was originally to be a GO station, but its future as such is unknown?
  • What will be the cost of the new stations once design reaches a level where the numbers are credible? The range of $700 million to $1.1 billion has not been updated since the matter was before Council.
  • Will all stations on the SmartTrack corridor honour ST fare arrangements regardless of whether this is a city-built station under the ST banner?
  • Why should GO riders who are not on the SmartTrack corridor pay regular GO fares, while those using the ST route have a “TTC fare” for their journey? The most obvious contrast in this case is between the existing Exhibition Station on the Lake Shore corridor and the proposed Liberty Village Station on the ST/Kitchener corridor, but there are many others.
  • What service levels will be provided, and how will they affect projected demand at the stations? Were previously published estimates based on more ST service than Metrolinx actually plans to  operate? How will constraints at Union affect the ability to through-route service between the Stouffville to the Weston/Kitchener corridors?
  • If the City wants more service than Metrolinx plans (assuming it would even fit on the available trackage), how much would Toronto have to pay Metrolinx to operate it?
  • Where are the residents and jobs that are expected to generate ST demand, and how convenient will access to the service actually be considering walking time, station geometry (stairs, tunnels, bridges, etc) and service frequency?

The stations under consideration are shown on the map below. A common question for all of these locations will be that of available capacity on the GO trains that will originate further out in the corridor. Without knowing the planned service design for “GO” trains and “SmartTrack” trains, it is unclear how often, if at all, there will be short-haul ST trains originating within Toronto as opposed to longer-haul GO trains from the 905. The availability of space on trains could affect the perceived service frequency if people cannot board at stations near Union (just as long-suffering riders of the King car complain about full streetcars).

Updated October 10, 2017 at 10:30 pm

After I posted this article, I realized that there was an important part missing, a commentary on the “consultation” process  itself.

A big problem with many attempts to seek public input is that the wrong question is posed, and factors are taken as given when they should be challenged. In the case of SmartTrack, the basic question is “why do we have SmartTrack at all”.

The original scheme was essentially a real estate ploy to make property in Markham and south of the Airport more valuable by linking both areas with a frequent rail service to downtown. Reverse commuters were a big potential market for this service. In the course of becoming part of the Tory election campaign, the focus turned inward, and SmartTrack became the line that would solve every transit problem. The claims about service frequency, fares and integration with other local and regional service were complete fantasies, but they gave the impression that Tory “had a plan” as distinct from the bumbling proposals of his opponent, Doug Ford, and the lackluster efforts of Olivia Chow. Tory even got professionals to declare his scheme a great idea, one giving it an “A+” on CBC’s Metro Morning, but this was for a version of SmartTrack that was unbuildable.

Now, over three years later, we are still faced with the myth that SmartTrack is a real plan, that it is anything more than what GO Transit would have done in the fullness of time. We are, in effect, being asked about the colour of tiles in stations when we should be asking whether the stations should even be built at all. There is no guarantee that service can be overlaid on GO’s existing plans to provide anywhere near what was promised in the campaign – a “surface subway”. Metrolinx has been quite firm on the subject, and going to the frequencies assumed by ST advocates would be well beyond the infrastructure we are likely to see on GO corridors.

The City will conduct its consultations, but the hard question – Why SmartTrack? – will never be asked.

For the October 11 update, please scroll to the end of the article.

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Honesty in Subway Planning

Toronto Council recently approved further study on both the “Relief” subway line, and the Yonge Subway Extension north to Richmond Hill. This approval came with several caveats about the timing of projects and the sharing of both capital and operating costs for the YSE.

Meanwhile riders who attempt to use the system as it is are expected to take hope from the fact that “Relief” might appear in only 15 years.

The entire debate about subway capacity in Toronto has, for many years, taken place in among incomplete information, policy directions that looked outward from the core to the suburbs, and in some cases blatant misrepresentation of the complexity of problems the City of Toronto faces.

A major issue throughout the debates has been that individual projects, or even components of projects, are discussed as if they are free-standing “solutions” to the problem when they are only one of many necessary components. Costs are low-balled by omission of critical parts of an overall plan, and the pressures on capital spending are understated by artificially planning major projects beyond the 10-year funding window used for City budgets. This gives the impression that money is “available” for other projects within the City’s financial capacity by stealing headroom in future plans to pay for things that, strictly speaking, should have a lower priority.

The situation is not helped one bit by the lack of strategic planning at the TTC and City where serving the political philosophy of the day often takes precedence over taking a wider view. Indeed the TTC Board, at times, almost prefers to be ignorant of the details because this would force a re-examination of cherished political stances. At Council, although Toronto now has its “Feeling Congested” study and an attempt at prioritization of projects, efforts continue to advance schemes near and dear to individual Councillors who simply will not accept that their wards are not the centre of the known universe.

What Toronto desperately needs is a thorough review of its rapid transit plans and the funding needed to achieve them. This must take into account, and modify where needed, the historical reasons we are in the current situation, and examine what can be done for the future, when this can be achieved and at what cost. The cost question must come second, in the sense that determining what the City needs is an essential first step. Only then can we examine possible alternative ways to address the issues, the cost this will bring and the funding mechanisms that might be used.

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Inching Ahead on Subway Plans

Toronto’s Executive Committee will consider a report from the City Manager at its meeting of May 15, 2017 regarding the preferred alignment for the southern end of the “Relief Line” subway, as well as the current status of the Yonge Subway Extension to Richmond Hill.

This report has taken on a more political context with Mayor Tory’s recent statements that unless Queen’s Park coughs up financial support for the RL, he will block any further work on the YSE. Needless to say, this stance did not play well in York Region or at Queen’s Park.

The two lines, as they currently are proposed, look like this:

One might cast a though back only a few years to Tory’s election campaign in which he claimed that SmartTrack would eliminate the need for a Relief Line, that it would have frequent service with many new stops, that it would operate with TTC fares, and that it would be self-financing. Most of these claims were demonstrably false or impossible at the time, and the project scope has changed dramatically. Even the question of a “TTC fare” is tangled up in the Metrolinx Fare Integration study which could well bring higher rapid transit fares to the TTC as a way of “integrating” them with regional systems.

Tory’s convoluted evolution into a Relief Line supporter undermines his credibility on many issues not the least of which is an understanding of when money he demands might actually be spent. There is no point in getting a “commitment” from Queen’s Park when the government will be unrecognizable by the time the bills come due. Toronto has far more pressing demands in the short and medium term, and meanwhile there is $150 million of provincial money going into design work for the RL.

As for the YSE, it has been on York Region’s wish list for years, and is more advanced than the Scarborough Subway which is mired in debates about the alignment and number of stations. The problem for Toronto is that there is no capacity for additional riders from an extension on the Yonge line, and indeed it is already over capacity according to a CBC interview with TTC Deputy CEO Chris Upfold on May 10.

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A Contrary View of Ontario’s 2017 Budget

With the release of Ontario’s budget for 2017, City Hall launched into predictable hand-wringing about all the things Toronto didn’t get with the two big-ticket portfolios, transit and housing, taking centre stage. Claims and counterclaims echo between Queen Street and Queen’s Park, and the situation is not helped by the provincial trick of constantly re-announcing money from past budgets while adding comparatively little with new ones.

There was a time when budgets came with projections of three to five years into the future, the life of one government plus some promise of the next mandate, but over time the amounts included within that period simply were not enough to be impressive. Moreover, in a constrained financial environment, much new spending (or at least promises) lies in the “out years” where “commitment” is a difficult thing to pin down, especially if there is a change in government.

Toronto has “out year” problems, but it has even more pressing concerns right now, today and for the next few years. Very little in the provincial budget addresses this beyond the authority to levy a hotel tax, and a gradual doubling of gas tax grants for transit over the next five years. These add tens, not hundreds, of millions to a City budget that runs at $12 billion.

The transit tax credit for seniors will cover eligible public transit costs beginning in July 2017 with a refundable benefit of 15 percent. Whether all seniors actually deserve this credit is a matter for debate, but an important difference from the soon-to-disappear federal credit is that Ontario’s is “refundable”. This means that even if someone does not have enough income to pay tax, they can still receive the credit. The devil is in the details, however, and the degree to which this will be available to casual, as opposed to regular transit users remains to be seen. The term “eligible costs” is key. (The federal credit includes restrictions on eligibility.) In any event, a tax credit does nothing for transit budgets because it adds no revenue either directly to the transit agency or to the City which provides operating subsidies.

There are two major problems with both Ontario’s support for transit and Toronto’s politically-motivated budgets:

  • In both cases, the focus is on capital projects, building and buying infrastructure, with little regard for the cost of operating new and existing assets.
  • Past decisions on transportation spending have locked billions of dollars into a few projects for short-term political benefit at the expense of long-term flexibility.

Toronto perennially assumes that there will be new money somewhere to backfill the shortage in its capital budget. The Trudeau economic stimulus plan was the most recent magical relief Toronto expected, but it came with dual constraints: Toronto gets a fixed amount over the life of the program, and Ottawa will not contribute more than 40% to any individual project. Toronto had hoped that Ontario would chip in, possibly at the 30% or even 40% level, leaving the City with a manageable, if challenging, task of finding money to pay its share for the backlog of projects. The Ontario budget is quite clear – Toronto is already getting lots of provincial money and at least for now, there’s nothing new to spend.

Ontario is hardly innocent in this whole exercise having meddled for years with Toronto’s transit plans, most notoriously in Scarborough where the whole subway extension debate was twisted to suit political aims. After leading Toronto down the garden path on the SSE, Ontario has capped its project funding leaving Toronto to handle the cost of its ever-changing plans.

Queen’s Park loves to tell Toronto how much provincial money is already spent for Toronto, if not in Toronto, and the distinction gets blurry. GO Transit improvements, for example, will bring more service into Toronto benefiting the core area business district, but they will also improve commuting options for people outside of the City itself.

Before the fiscal crash of 2008, when Ontario was running surpluses, the typical way to handle project funding was to hive off surplus funds at year end into a trust account. That is how the provincial share of the TYSSE was handled. By contrast, Ottawa operates on the pay-as-you-play basis, and only turns over subsidies after work has been done. Each approach suits the spending and accounting goals of the respective governments. In a surplus situation, one wants the money “off the books” right away, but in a deficit, the spending is delayed as long as possible. Further accounting legerdemain arises by making the assets provincial to offset the debt raised to pay for them.

To put all of this into context, here is a review of projects proposed or underway in Toronto.

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Has John Tory Discovered Life After SmartTrack?

With all the flurry of transit funding and construction announcements lately, Mayor John Tory added his own contribution with a media statement at that busiest of stations, Bloor-Yonge. What prompted such a high-profile event? Rumour has it that Queen’s Park plans to fund the Richmond Hill subway extension in its coming budget, and Tory wants to be sure he defends the existing downtown system against overloading from the north.

(See coverage in The Star and The Globe & Mail)

Specifically, Tory wants to ensure that funding will be available for:

Building new transit lines including the Eglinton East LRT, waterfront transit and the downtown relief line

This is brave stuff, our Mayor rallying his city to the barricades [cue inspirational and very-hummable anthem here] were it not that Tory himself is responsible for much of the confusion and misdirection in transit plans today. His election campaign promoted “SmartTrack”, a single city-wide project that would solve every problem and magically be funded through taxes on new development the line would bring. A “surface subway” would speed riders from Markham to Mississauga via downtown with frequent service at TTC fares. Nothing else (except for a politically unavoidable subway in Scarborough) was needed, certainly not better bus and streetcar service to fill all those spaces in between major routes.

Things didn’t quite work out as planned. SmartTrack has dwindled to a handful of new GO stations to be built on the City’s dime, some of which Metrolinx might have built anyhow, and a few in locations of dubious merit beyond their soothing effect on local politicians. With the demise of a scheme to run GO trains along Eglinton from Mount Dennis to the Airport district, the Eglinton West LRT extension is also on the table, but it stops short of its necessary end, the airport, because Toronto lopped off the outside-416 segment to reduce the cost. Whether Mississauga and/or the airport authority itself will contribute to the LRT remains to be seen.

Tory discovered that surface routes suffered under his predecessor, and vowed more money for buses. Toronto bought the buses, but money to actually operate many of them is harder to come by. The only thing that saved the TTC from widespread service cuts in 2017 was a last minute City budget fiddle to bump the expected revenue from Land Transfer Tax.

Meanwhile in Scarborough, SmartTrack and the Scarborough Subway Extension vie for the same pool of riders, and it is only the comparatively infrequent GO service that preserves any credibility for the subway extension. Planners who once argued that an east-west line through the Town Centre precinct would better serve future development now compliantly endorse the supposed benefit of a single new north-south station between McCowan and the shopping mall.

Mayor Tory might now think of both ST and the SSE as “done deals”, although there’s a lot of ground to cover before the final cost projections and approvals by Council. Those extra GO stations and the express subway might still cost more than the preliminary estimates shown to Council, but there’s no more money coming from Queen’s Park. Indeed, the two governments cannot agree on how to calculate inflation in the provincial “commitment”, and Toronto thinks more money is on the table than is likely to be available. After all, Tory is in no position to tell a funding government how much they will pay out. Even those numbers are subject to change if the Liberals lose control of Queen’s Park to the Tories, as seems very likely in 2018.

Then there’s Ottawa and Trudeau’s huge infrastructure program, just the thing a politician who is desperate to make everything seem affordable could wish for. Except, of course, that the infrastructure pot isn’t bottomless. Once it is divvied up across the country, Toronto’s share is well below the level John Tory hoped to spend with his shiny new Liberal red credit card. Holding press conferences about the need for projects won’t change the amount of money available, and the federal program requires that municipalities, even big irresponsible ones, must set priorities. Tory’s plans also require Queen’s Park to come in with funding equal to the Fed’s contribution at a time when provincial budgets are tapped out, and Toronto’s ongoing game of holding down taxes rather than pay for its own services and infrastructure plays poorly beyond the 416.

What does the Mayor do? John Tory, the man who had a one-line plan to solve everything, now looks to a world beyond SmartTrack.

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SmartTrack’s Next Steps

After a day-long debate, Toronto Council has approved continuing along the path set by Mayor John Tory to study and possibly to build the transit lines branded as “SmartTrack”. Although this proposal is now much different from the scheme that was Tory’s campaign centrepiece, the idea of SmartTrack continues to receive broad support among Councillors.

The debate covered a lot of ground with two related threads: how would Toronto actually pay for SmartTrack, and how much of the larger transit network many hope to see will actually be built.

Council has yet to consider a long-term financing strategy and possible “revenue tools” (new taxes in plain English) to deal with the combined capital and operating budget demands of the would-be network. Although there was much talk of the lost decades of underinvestment in transit, Council has yet to show that it really is ready to spend Toronto dollars (as opposed to  money from any other source) at the level that will be needed. City staff will present a report on financing options in a few weeks, and the reaction to this will be telling.

What Did Council Approve?

Below is a consolidation of the staff recommendations and amendments adopted by Council arranged to keep related issues together. For full information, please refer to the detailed record of the item.

Note that in all cases where approvals relate to “SmartTrack” this includes both the six new GO stations and the Eglinton West LRT extension unless otherwise noted.

Process:

  • (1) Adopt the “Summary Term Sheet and Stage Gate Process” which includes details of the many parts of the proposed agreements and (2) authorize the City Manager to negotiate and execute agreements with the province to implement this.
  • (3) Request staff to report at Stage Gate 5 for final approval of full funding for SmartTrack. A report on more definitive costing and the financing funding strategy has been requested for an earlier step in this process. See (18) below.
  • (4) Approve the confidential staff recommendation regarding settlement of the Georgetown corridor funding issue. See also recommendation 15.

Technical and Planning:

  • (5) Proceed with planning and design for the six SmartTrack GO stations, report back to Council, and launch the Transit Project Assessment Process (TPAP). This was amended by two further requests that the work include improvement of:
    • the placement and access points of the Liberty Village Smart Track Station to maximize connectivity, and
    • pedestrian connections to the existing Exhibition Place Station for both Liberty Village and Exhibition Place.
  • (6) Confirmation of city support for transit supportive land use plans for areas around the SmartTrack and GO RER stations. Amendments related to this included:
    • Amending the development strategy for public lands at stations, including air rights, to create ongoing operating revenue streams from development resulting from that strategy.
    • Directing the Chief Planner to report in January 2017 with options to develop a comprehensive plan for managing development and growth related to transit expansion.
    • Confirming that the Official Plan as well as other plans, bylaws and policies, are not changed by this decision on this item. The intent of this is to forestall any claim for additional density by would-be developers in advance of the passing of updated plans for area affected by transit projects.
  • (7) Proceed with planning and analysis of the Eglinton West LRT extension up to Stage Gate 3 including finalization of stops and grade separations, provide a scope for this project up to the Renforth Gateway, and provide a class 4/5 estimate of the project’s cost, and conduct the TPAP. Note that this is a more restrictive approval seeking more detail than in the case of the ST/GO stations in (5) above.
  • (8) Request a financial contribution from Mississauga and Pearson Airport to the outside-416 portion of the Eglinton West extension.
  • (9) Ensure that the proposed new station design at St. Clair and Keele includes improved road operations and is co-ordinated with the St. Clair West Transportation Master Plan. A significant part of this would be the widening of the underpass east of Keele Street to remove the existing choke point.
  • (10) Request Metrolinx to consider grade separations at Progress and at Danforth on the Stouffville corridor, with the proviso that any option closing existing roads would not be considered. This was amended at Council to add requests for grade separations at Passmore, McNicoll, Huntingwood and Havendale.

At Council, there was an attempt to have items (7) and (8) deferred until after the Waterfront Transit Reset report is considered by Council in 2Q17, effectively putting both of the proposed Etobicoke LRT proposals on the same approval timeframe. The deferral motions did not pass.

Finance:

  • (13) Approve $71m for preliminary planning and design on SmartTrack (the 6 new stations plus the Eglinton West LRT)
  • (14) Include $2b in net capital requirements for SmartTrack (stations plus LRT) in the city’s 10 year capital projections.
  • (15) Approve $95m for settlement of the Georgetown South issue with the province.
  • (16) Approve $62m for Toronto’s share of 5 grade separation projects.
  • (17) Approve $60m for GO capital expansion (2 stations at Bloor/Lansdowne and at Spadina on the Barrie corridor). This was amended to ask that staff work with Metrolinx on including the study and design of the Railpath along the Barrie line between Bloor and Dundas West.
  • (18) Request staff to develop the financing and funding strategy, and report back when a class 3 cost estimate is available for a definitive Council commitment to the SmartTrack project.

Two additional amendments ask for:

  • strong TTC in developing procurement options, and
  • negotiations with the province for resumption of operating subsidies.

Commitment to the full cost of the new stations and the Eglinton West LRT will not occur until much more detailed cost estimates come back to Council over the next year (or possibly more). In the event that Council opts not to proceed with any component for which Metrolinx has spent money on development prior to the point of final approval, Council will be responsible to reimburse Metrolinx for its costs.

With respect to the additional grade separation studies requested for the Stouffville line, it is unclear how work on this would be funded, although one might expect Metrolinx to respond with a request for some up-front payment and guaranteed participation in funding if any of these goes ahead.

The Status of Other Major Transit Proposals and Projects

Planning and building any part of SmartTrack should be seen in the wider context of other transit needs and schemes, let alone wider demands on the city’s operating and capital budgets.

  • The Spadina Subway extension to Vaughan (TYSSE) is scheduled to open at the end of 2017, although startup costs will affect the TTC’s operating budget before any passengers are carried. For 2018, the current estimate of the annual operating cost to Toronto is $30 million including whatever marginal fare revenue the extension will bring in. This line’s capital was covered roughly one third by each level of government, with about 60% of the municipal share falling to Toronto based on the proportion of the route within its boundaries.
  • The Scarborough Subway from Kennedy Station to Scarborough Town Centre remains the subject of much debate. Although its capital cost is already covered by money from all three levels of government, the proportions are unequal, and any increase to the overall Scarborough transit scheme will be on the city’s tab. The extension will be part of the TTC’s operation along with the net new operating cost, an unknown amount at this time. A critical issue will be whether the cost estimate overall will hold or increase before final project approval, and how this will affect what actually gets built.
  • The Eglinton Crosstown LRT is now under construction by Metrolinx between Kennedy Station and Mount Dennis (at Weston Road) with a planned 2021 opening, subject to issues about vehicle delivery. This project’s capital cost is funded totally by Ontario, but operating costs will be billed back to Toronto at an anticipated annual net amount of about $40 million in then-current dollars.
  • The Eglinton East LRT extension from Kennedy Station to University of Toronto Scarborough College is part of the Scarborough package approved with much fanfare earlier in 2016. The capital cost is part of the same “pot” as the Scarborough Subway extension, but how much will actually be available after that extension’s scope and price are firmed up remains to be seen. This will be an early test for Council. Does it really believe in a “network”, are councillors willing to accept the extra cost as part of building our city, or is the argument still dominated by an outlook claiming that tax restraint must take precedence. An updated Scarborough report is expected in coming months.
  • The Eglinton West LRT extension from Mount Dennis to the Renforth Gateway (at the western city boundary) and then north to Pearson Airport is part of the SmartTrack package. Funding for the line is still uncertain because city plans depend on contributions from Ottawa (likely as part of the Liberal’s infrastructure program), from Mississauga and the airport authority (GTAA) for the portion outside of Toronto. This extension is now the more expensive portion of “SmartTrack”, and ironically appears to survive mainly because of that branding despite opposition from some Etobicoke councillors.
  • Like the central part of the Crosstown, the two extensions would be operated at the city’s expense even though the lines would be owned by Metrolinx.
  • The Metrolinx GO RER program is provincially funded, although the matter of the municipal contribution to GO’s capital remains a sore point between Queen’s Park and the GTHA. Toronto will pay for six new stations as part of SmartTrack and will also contribute to two stations on the Barrie corridor (Bloor/Lansdowne and Spadina). GO RER’s net operating costs will all be a provincial responsibility, and the amount of service that will actually operate depends on future subsidy levels for Metrolinx. Similarly, the full build-out of RER fleets, electrification and service levels will depend on future provincial budget decisions.
  • The Relief Line remains under study thanks to a provincial infusion of $150 million, and both city and TTC staff emphasize that it is a necessary part of Toronto’s future network. While some relief to Yonge line crowding will come from GO RER and the new SmartTrack stations, this will only blunt but not stop the growth in subway demand. A big problem, as readers have discussed here at length, is the project’s scope and the perception that it is intended for a comparatively small part of the system’s ridership, downtowners. The further north the eastern RL branch goes beyond Danforth (to Eglinton or even to Sheppard), the more it performs a service for the city as a whole, but this benefit is routinely underplayed relative to the cost of a new north-south subway. Major capital spending for the Relief Line would not begin until the mid 2020s, but this will still compete with other city priorities.
  • Waterfront LRT to the west is popular with councillors from southern Etobicoke and has begun to overshadow the shorter eastern LRT line in debates. Both parts of a future waterfront network are under review with the “Reset” study now in progress that has only progressed to the point of developing a moderately long list of options. The strategy appears to be to keep this list as open as possible as long as possible so that political fights over the details are held off at least until there is a better understanding of what will work and what the options might cost. Like the RL, waterfront transit has suffered from being perceived as a “downtown” project despite the scale of development it will have to serve.
  • The Finch West LRT is still on the books, and Metrolinx hopes to begin work in this in 2017. There remains some opposition to the line, and it will be a test of the Wynne government’s resolve to see whether actual work is pushed back beyond the 2018 election.
  • The Sheppard East LRT is also still on the books, although it is no secret that many politicians at City Hall and Queen’s Park would love to see this sacrificed for a Sheppard Subway extension. The LRT would be a provincial project with some federal money. There has not yet been any cost sharing commitment to a subway replacement from any government in part because the cost is unknown. It will almost certainly be greater than the LRT line, and like the extension north from Kennedy, will serve a considerably smaller part of Scarborough than the LRT would have. Any decision on this point is likely to fall to the next provincial government, although it will likely be part of the electioneering to reinforce the “subway champion” brand by all parties if this scheme gains traction at Council.
  • The Richmond Hill extension of the Yonge Subway is a project long-sought by York Region, but the idea is tangled up with network relief from GO RER, the Relief Line and other capacity improvements still pending for the existing subway. Some of these, such as added operating cost for more trains on Line 1 YUS, and capital cost for station capacity impeovements, will fall to Toronto. Whether any of the funding pools now thought to be available for transit projects generally will still be available by the time a decision on Richmond Hill faces council, indeed whether this decision will even be in Toronto Council’s hands, are questions for a future beyond any of the existing governments.
  • Not to be forgotten for its demand on city funding is the surface transit system including the bus and streetcar network. While billions in new projects preoccupy debates, a long-standing problem faces Toronto with population growth, much of it “downtown”, that has not been matched by additional transit. Indeed, transit service today is little changed from twenty years ago largely because the TTC streetcar fleet sits roughly at late 1990s levels, and traffic congestion has been responsible for service cuts to stretch the available fleet. Current operating budget plans at the TTC foresee a major shortfall in 2017 that appears unlikely to be addressed by a supposedly pro-transit council and mayor, and this will almost certainly continue into the 2018 election year. On the capital side, the TTC requires an additional batch of streetcars beyond the 204 now on order from Bombardier. Both the financing and supply of this fleet expansion are on shaky ground. As for the bus fleet, TTC management seems more preoccupied with simply replacing its existing fleet of hybrid buses with diesels rather than actually expanding the level of bus service to Toronto.

In this context, the SmartTrack decision is only a small part, and Council has yet to be presented with a comprehensive view of the effect building a real transit network, rather than a few lines, will have on its budget and future financing requirements.

 

Council Approves Tory Transit Plan, Attempts Pet Project Revivals

Toronto Council has approved the transit plan for Toronto featuring Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack line and the Scarborough Subway after a long debate on July 14, 2016. Notwithstanding severe problems with financial pressures and the blind faith needed to expect that the entire package can actually be funded, Council added a few pet projects that never quite fade from view thanks to the efforts of individual members.

LRT proposals for Eglinton East and West survived the vote largely because they are part of larger packages – SmartTrack in the west, and the Scarborough Subway Extension in the east. The subway debate has so polarized camps that “LRT” is synonymous with third class transit simply because it was the heart of the “non subway” option. Without the bitterness of the SSE that required subway advocates to paint LRT in the worst possible light, its potential role in Toronto’s future network might not have been so poisoned while other cities embrace this mode.

Staff recommendations in the report were amended in some respects, and a few new clauses were added, notably one asking for City staff to pursue a co-fare arrangement with GO Transit.

The Waterfront Transit Reset report is a separate agenda item and, at the time of writing, Council has not yet dealt with it.

The Finch West and Eglinton Crosstown LRT projects are under Metrolinx, and they are already underway to varying degrees.

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The Dwindling Capacity of the Yonge Subway

Yesterday’s launch by York Region of their Yonge Subway Now website brought to the fore the question of just how much room remains on the Yonge Subway for additional riders. Over many years, claims about capabilities of new subway technologies together with changing projections for future demand have left Toronto in a position where its subway is badly overloaded with little relief in sight.

This article traces the evolution of those claims and the reality of what can actually be provided to show that building a Relief Line is not a project for a future decade but one that must begin now.

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Toronto’s Network Plan 2031: Part IV, Relief Line

This is the fourth part of my review of the reports on the agendas of Toronto’s Executive Committee and the Metrolinx Board. The full list is in the first article.

This report reviewed here is the Relief Line Initial Business Case.

Following a series of public meetings and background reports over past months, the Relief Line study has settled on a proposed alignment from Pape Station south to Eastern Avenue, then west to the Don River (passing beside the Unilever/Great Gulf development site), jogging north back to Queen Street west of the river, and thence to University Avenue. This is referred to as Option 3. The other options were:

  • 1: Surface transit improvements on Queen and King, but no Relief subway line
  • 2: Relief line from Pape Station to downtown via Queen
  • 2A: Relief line from Pape Station to downtown running diagonally from Gerrard to Queen via the GO rail corridor.

Future extensions to the north and west are also contemplated, but this “Business Case” report deals only with the first phase.

As the route selection process evolved, so did the scoring system used to rank the options. For example, the employment benefits of the Unilever site were not considered in earlier schemes where a Queen Street alignment all the way from Pape to University ranked highest. By the time we get to the “final” ranking, the Pape/Eastern/Queen alignment clearly wins out. Some of the change is due to the use of the City’s “Feeling Congested” evaluation matrix that has been brought to many of the recent studies. The priorities of these evaluations are more weighted toward social and city building benefits, and less to raw travel-time saving.

 

ReliefLine_Alignments

Relief to the Bloor-Yonge interchange is projected, although the larger benefits occur when the line is extended north to Sheppard & Don Mills.

The first phase of the Relief Line is anticipated to provide a net reduction of 3,400 to 5,900 riders on Line 1 (Yonge) south of Bloor during the AM peak period. The subsequent extension of the Relief Line north to Sheppard Avenue is projected to provide even greater relief, with a net reduction of 6,500 to 9,900 riders relative to the Base Case in 2041. [p 3]

The future second phase is shown in this map:

ReliefLine_Phase2

The detailed ridership estimates have not been published, but the presumed network elements that would exist for the modelling are:

• Eglinton Crosstown LRT from Mt Dennis to Kennedy Station (currently under construction);
• Toronto-York- Spadina Subway Extension (currently under construction);
• Sheppard Avenue East LRT (funded);
• Scarborough Subway Extension (3 stop) (funded); and
• Connections to new subway stations from existing local bus and streetcar routes [p 16]

Notable by their absence are SmartTrack and the Crosstown East LRT to UTSC, and the Scarborough Subway is presumed to be the 3-stop version to Sheppard Avenue. Considering that the configuration of the “optimized” Scarborough network changed some months ago, the use of an out-of-date model is surprising.

The projected cost of the Relief Line has been widely reported as almost doubling. This is misleading because it contrasts current 2016 dollar estimates ($4.1 to $4.4 billion) with projected spending when the project is actually constructed sometime in the late 2020s or beyond. Earlier estimates have been quoted in older dollars at correspondingly lower projected total cost.

Of the increase, $300-400 million is due to the selection of the Pape/Eastern alignment which makes for a longer route. Roughly $2 billion is due to inflation between the 2016 estimates and the likely period of construction.

An interesting observation in the report is that the benefits case methodology confers a substantial value to reduction of travel time. However, the RL’s primary effect is not intended to speed riders from the outer suburbs to downtown, but to improve flows through the network, especially on the initial downtown-to-Pape phase. Therefore, a significant component of some “benefit” estimates – travel time savings – is not available to the Relief Line despite the major contribution it brings to network behaviour and the expansion potential it creates.

It is important to note that the focus in the Metrolinx business case guidance is on travel time savings benefits and benefits associated with reduction in auto-use. As a result, there are several key benefits associated with local transit and city building objectives that are not monetized in this economic evaluation. Further work is required in the development of the business case tool to ensure the economic evaluation includes the monetization of the types of benefits expected from transit expansion projects which provide a more local service. [p 33]

This begs the question of whether the traditional “benefit analysis” which does contain a travel time saving component truly presents the “value” of new transit lines, or if it is skewed to reward projects serving longer commuter-type trips and the infrastructure they require.

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A Cat’s Cradle of Transit Plans (Updated)

Updated June 6, 2016 at 11:30 pm: The chart of the demand profile for the Eglinton East LRT has been updated by City Planning to correct an error in labelling where inbound and outblound values were reversed. The new chart has been placed into this post, and the link to the source pdf has been updated below.

Public consultation sessions are coming to an end on the “motherlode” of transit projects (as they were described earlier this year by Toronto’s Chief Planner, Jennifer Keesmaat). This process will soon bring a consolidated set of reports and recommendations for Council. So far, the presentations have been subdivided between various projects.

A major challenge for politicians, the media and the general public is to sort out all of these schemes and to understand how they all fit together. This is not just a question of how we will finance all of the projects, but of how each project and the choices made for it will affect everything else. Where typical studies in Toronto might have wrestled with whether a new line should go under street “A” or “B”, and where the stations might be located, today’s work requires understanding of how the network will evolve over time and how it will work as a whole in a few decades.

The process is complicated further by having municipal (City Planning & TTC) and provincial (Metrolinx) components, and the secretive nature of Metrolinx studies means that some vital information about its projects is not yet public. The Metrolinx reports are expected to appear on their Board’s agenda for June 28, and this implies public availability sometime in the preceding week.

The consolidated City reports should be available on June 21 when a briefing session is to occur at City Hall a week before the June 28 Executive Committee meeting.

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