Ontario Announces Toronto Subway Plan

On April 10, 2019, Premier Doug Ford announced his government’s intentions to expand transit in Toronto. The plan includes:

  • The “Ontario Line”, a rebranded and extended version of the Relief Line, will run from Don Mills and Eglinton to Ontario Place.
  • The Yonge North Extension from Finch Station to Richmond Hill Centre
  • The three-stop version of the Scarborough Subway Extension from Kennedy Station to Sheppard with stops at Lawrence East and Scarborough Town Centre
  • Extension of the Sheppard Subway east from Don Mills Station to connect with the SSE at McCowan and Sheppard
  • Extension of the Eglinton Crosstown west from Mount Dennis to Pearson Airport

Continue reading

Toronto’s Omnibus Transit Report: Part II

On April 9, Toronto’s Executive Committee will consider a massive set of reports on the many transit projects at various stages of design and construction in Toronto.

In Part I of this series, I reviewed the financing scheme for four major projects as well as details of the Scarborough Subway Extension, aka the Line 2 East Extension. In this article, I will review the Relief Line, SmartTrack and the Bloor-Yonge Station Expansion project.

The reports applicable to this article are:

  • Main Report: Toronto’s Transit Expansion Program – Update and Next Steps
  • Attachment 1: A status update on all projects

There are related reports about signalling and capacity expansion of Line 1 Yonge-University-Spadina in the TTC Board’s agenda for their April 11 meeting. I will deal with these in a separate article.

After decades in which the focus of transit planning looked outward to the 905 beyond the bounds of Toronto, there is now a political realization that capacity into the core is a major issue for the region’s economy. Politicians and planners may show optimistic studies of suburban centres and growth, but the development industry, a bastion of free enterprise thinking, persists in building downtown because that’s where they can sell at the greatest profit.

The Relief Line, SmartTrack, Automatic Train Control, subway station expansions and even surface transit projects like the King Street Pilot all attempt to address the demand for travel to and through the core area. Looking beyond the city boundaries, there are subway and GO Transit extensions and service improvements. Some of these schemes are more successful than others, and some have very long lead times before any benefit will be seen. Political attention has shifted from the fights over which one project will be built each decade to the recognition that many projects must occur in parallel so that capacity can catch up with latent and growing demand.

Continue reading

Premier Doug Plays With Toronto’s Train Set

In the continuing circus which is the Ford Family Transit Plan, the provincial government has advised Toronto and the TTC of its priorities for rapid transit construction. The Province is quite firm that since it will be paying for these lines, it will call the shots.

This information broke in two letters dated March 22 and 26, 2019 from Michael Lindsay, Special Advisor to the Cabinet – Transit Upload, and Shelley Tapp, Deputy Minister of Transportation, together with a report from the Toronto City Manager, Chris Murray, dated March 26.

The Province has four priority projects, although some of the information about them is vague:

  • A three-stop Scarborough Subway Extension [SSE]
  • A Downtown Relief Line [DRL] of indefinite scope
  • The Richmond Hill Extension of the Yonge Subway [YNE]
  • Construction of the Eglinton West Crosstown LRT primarily underground rather than at grade

These are the only projects mentioned in the letters. By implication anything else is off of the table as far as provincial funding is concerned except for whatever the subway “upload” still under discussion might entail. More about that later.

The Province refers to “incongruencies between the province and city/TTC with respect to the design and delivery of priority projects”. Most of this should be no surprise given previous statements both by Doug Ford as a candidate, and rumblings from his supporters.

The March 22 letter arose from a March 8 meeting between Provincial, City and TTC representatives. Two things are clear:

  • The Province was not paying attention to, or chose to ignore, information it received or should have been able to access easily through public channels.
  • The City/TTC should have had some idea of what was coming down the pipe over two weeks ago, but there was no public hint of what was in store even with the subway upload on the Executive Committee and Council agendas. This is a classic case of “who knew what and when”, and a troubling question of whether the direction of provincial plans was withheld from public view for political expediency.

The March 22 letter makes statements that were revised on March 26, and which have provoked considerable comment as this story broke. Most astounding among these was:

Per our meeting of March 8, we were informed that the City’s preliminary cost estimates for both the Relief Line South and the Scarborough Subway Extension have significantly increased to nearly double or greater the figures released publicly.

On March 26, the Province wrote:

We acknowledge, in light of the helpful clarification you provided at our Steering Committee meeting [of March 25], that the city’s/TTC’s revised project cost estimates for the Relief Line South and Scarborough Subway Extension projects represent estimates in anticipation of formal work that will reflect greater specificity in design. We accept that the actual budget figures remain to be determined …

This bizarre pair of statements suggests that either:

  • the Province was not really paying attention in the meeting of March 8 which led to the March 22 letter, or
  • they really were, but that their first statement was guaranteed to blow every transit plan to smithereens if it were not retracted.

On March 26, they do not say they were wrong, merely that they were dealing with preliminary estimates.

That is a strange position considering that the SSE is on the verge of reaching a firm design number and budget to be reported in early April to Toronto Executive Committee and Council. The agenda publication date is April 2, and it is hard to believe that a firm estimate for the SSE does not already exist. As for the DRL South, that is in a more preliminary state, but if anything the numbers already published have been rather high.

The Scarborough Subway Extension

For the SSE, there are two conflicting proposals:

  • City: One stop extension terminating at Scarborough Town Centre
  • Province: Three stop extension “with the same terminus point”.

There is no reference to any potential connection with a Sheppard Subway extension. However, the March 26 letter contains this statement:

… we recognize that the city/TTC and province share the intention for a station to be located at Scarborough Centre. However, under the province’s preferred three-stop extension of Line 2, the project would proceed northward from the station at Scarborough Centre.

Given that the TTC’s alignment for STC station is itself on a north-south axis, it is unclear just what this remark refers to especially if STC is to be the terminus of the provincial project.

As I wrote recently in another article, there is an issue of equipment and storage required to allow the SSE to open with full service to STC. One potential source of “additional” cost could well be that works such as a new Line 2 yard at Kipling plus the rebuilding and/or replacement/expansion of the fleet are now counted as part of the overall project cost. This is precisely the sort of hidden cost I warned the Province would face when they started to understand the full scope of the TTC’s infrastructure requirements.

Whether this is the case remains to be seen, but with the Province taking responsibility for delivery of this project and planning to assume the cost of maintenance and expansion of the existing subway, they (or anyone else looking at funding the SSE) will be facing these costs as “add ons”.

One other concern is that there is no mention of capacity expansion for Line 2 either by way of station expansion at critical junction points nor of fleet expansion to allow more service once the line has Automatic Train Control [ATC].

Crosstown LRT Westward Extension

  • City: A substantially at-grade extension from Mount Dennis westward, although there are references from recent public participation to the possibility of some grade separations.
  • Province: A “significant portion of this extension” would be underground, an option “which has not been considered in a material way” as part of the current design.

The March 26 letter revised the characterization of the City’s work to date:

… we recognize that tunnelling options for the project have been considered as part of previous assessment, but that these options are not preferred by the city/TTC.

Again, one must wonder just what the province was doing at the March 8 meeting to have so botched their understanding of the work to date. The work already done is documented on the project’s website. I cannot help wondering how much the original provincial position was a product of political posturing by Etobicoke politicians. Such a gaffe does no credit to Michael Lindsay and his team.

It is no secret that there is strong political pressure from politicians in Etobicoke for the LRT line to be buried as much as possible, and it is no surprise that the Province would embrace this.

Missing, however, is any reference to the portion of the line west of the Toronto-Mississauga boundary and specifically the link into Pearson Airport. Will this be part of the Provincial project?

Relief Line South

The text in this section has provoked speculation in various fora, both the mainstream and social media.

Planning work undertaken by the TTC contemplates utilizing existing technology … the province would propose … a truly unique transit artery spanning the city that is not beholden to the requirements of the technologically-outdated Line 2.

On March 26, the Province changed their tune, a bit:

… we recognize that the city/TTC is contemplating a different technology for the project than that currently deployed for Line 2.

It is hilarious to see Line 2 described as “technologically outdated” when it is this line that the Province plans to extend to STC. At the risk of peering into a murky crystal ball, I will venture an interpretation of what is being said here.

The “outdated technology” is the current fleet of T1 trains which do not have ATC installed. Moreover, TTC plans would not see ATC operation on Line 2 for at least a decade unless the existing fleet is retrofitted.

The TTC has always intended that the DRL would use modern technology, and again I cannot help wonder whether the Provincial reps were paying attention at their March 8 meeting with the TTC. This information is not difficult to obtain. They could even read my blog if they don’t want to spend time wading through official documents, but possibly it is simpler just to slag the municipal agency in a time-honoured Queen’s Park tradition.

The Province wants the DRL to be completely free-standing in that it would not depend on Line 2 and the existing yard at Greenwood, but would be built completely separate from the existing subway network. Moreover, “alternate delivery methods” would be used for this project, a clear indication that this would be a privately designed, built, financed and operated line much as the Crosstown was intended to be before a deal was worked out to let the TTC drive the trains, at least for a time.

The reference to a “transit artery spanning the city” implies something much more extensive than the DRL South from Pape to Osgoode Station, but what exactly this might be is anyone’s guess. It could be a truly different technology, something like Skytrain in Vancouver (which itself has two separate technologies). The construction technique could be changed from the proposed double bore to a single bore line, especially if the vehicle cross-section were smaller. The alignment and station locations could be changed. Any of these and more is possible, but we don’t know. As this is to be an AFP project, a blanket of confidentiality hides everything.

Yonge Northern Extension to Richmond Hill

The primary provincial interest here is in getting the line built as quickly as possible with planning and design work for the YNE and DRL to progress in parallel so that “the in-service date for the extension is fast tracked to the greatest extent possible”.

There is no mention of capacity issues on the existing Line 1 including the need for more trains, nor of the expansion needed at key stations to handle larger volumes of passengers.

Jumping the Gun on Uploading?

The March 26 letter clearly attempts to correct misapprehensions from the March 22 missive. These were presumably communicated privately at or before the March 25 meeting.

The Province is supposed to be engaged, in good faith, in discussions with the City and TTC about how or if it would take control of subway assets and what that control, and associated responsibility for ongoing costs, would entail. One might easily read the March 22 letter as showing that the Province has made up their mind, and all that remains is to “drop the other shoe” with respect to everything beyond the “priority projects”.

On March 26, the Province talks at length about “our priority transit expansion projects”. This has always been the political red meat in that new lines translate into votes, or so the Ford faction hopes. The myriad of details in looking after the existing system do not lend themselves to coverage in a two-page letter, let alone simplistic posturings by politicians eager to show the wisdom of their plans.

The March 26 letter does not discuss any aspect of the existing system including asset transfers or financial commitments. That’s not to say the Province has not considered this, but no details are public yet. That will be a critical issue for Toronto because the degree to which the Province actually plans to pay for the existing subway system will affect future City budgets.

There is a myth that fare revenues will cover off the City’s share, but we don’t actually know which aspects of subway “maintenance” will remain in the City/TTC hands. There are two separate budgets, capital and operating, but there has been no statement of how these will be divided. Although there could be a one-time payment for the capital value of the system, this begs two questions. First, who benefits from appreciation of property value as subway lands are repurposed/redeveloped. Second, what does the City do when the nest egg from selling the subway, assuming they even have anything left over after discharging subway-related debt, is used up.

Another issue to be decided is how the split in ownership and financial responsibility will affect gas tax funding that now flows from both the Provincial and Federal governments, over $300 million in 2018. How much of this will Toronto lose, and what will be offset by costs the Province will assume?

Further System Expansion

The correspondence from the Province is silent on many projects including:

  • Eglinton East LRT
  • Waterfront LRT
  • Finch LRT extension to Pearson Airport
  • Sheppard Subway extension to STC
  • SmartTrack and GO Transit Service Expansion

Eglinton East and Waterfront would, assuming a City/Province divide on surface/subway projects, lie clearly in the City’s court, while any extension of Line 4 Sheppard would be a Provincial project. Oddly, Eglinton East would be a “City” extension of a provincially-owned line, the Crosstown.

The Finch LRT occupies an odd place as a surface line that for historical reasons is being delivered by the Province. Moreover, an airport extension would lie partly outside of Toronto. Who knows what the fate of this will be.

To Be Continued …

The provincial letters have dropped into the Council meeting planned for March 27, and we can expect a great deal of debate, if not clarity, in coming days.

At a minimum, the Province owes Toronto a better explanation of just what they intend with their view of projects. This information should not be “confidential” because we are simply asking “what exactly do you want to do”. This is particularly critical for the Downtown Relief Line whatever the “unique transit artery” it might become.

SmartTrack and GO are important components because they will add to the “local” network within Toronto and could be part of the “relief” efforts that will span multiple projects. SmartTrack is a City project, and we are about to learn just how much it will cost Toronto to put a handful of John Tory branded stations on GO’s Kitchener and Stouffville corridors. SmartTrack also takes us into the tangled net of fare “integration” and the degree to which Toronto riders will pay more so that riders from beyond the City can have cheaper fares.

Finally, there is the question of operating costs. The Ford mythology includes a claim that subways break even, and in the uploading schemes mooted to date, there is an assumption that Toronto will still operate the subway network and pay for its day-to-day costs out of farebox revenue. Even if that were true today, much of the proposed network expansion will not gain revenue to cover its operating cost, and Toronto will face increased outlay. There is still no proposal, let alone an agreement, about the operating costs of the Crosstown and Finch LRT lines from which we might guess at how the combination of three new lines/extensions will affect the subsidy call against Toronto’s tax base.

With clear errors in the March 22 letter, the Province showed that it cannot be trusted to propose policy based on fair and accurate characterization of Toronto’s transit system. One would hope that a “Special Advisor” backed by the boffins at Metrolinx and the Ministry of Transportation might be able to avoid screw-ups. When the Province puts forward a scheme to take over part of the TTC, their rationale should be based on transparent and accurate information. Alas, recent experience in other portfolios shows that this will not happen, and dogma will trump common sense.

$33 Billion and Counting

A political tremour ran through the transit world in Toronto recently with the TTC’s release of a 15-year projection of capital spending requirements at $33.5 billion. This does not include funding for most system expansion projects beyond the already-approved Scarborough Subway.

That number is big, but it’s no surprise to those who have been following TTC budgets for years. A major issue has been that “unfunded” or “below the line” projects don’t get the attention they deserve and are deliberately kept off of the books to reduce the apparent size of the City’s financial problems. Common tactics included omitting projects from the overall budget, or projecting their spending in a period just beyond the rolling ten-year horizon of capital planning.

Transit planning in Toronto and at Queen’s Park is reckless when it downplays the backlog of spending and associated subsidies facing public agencies. New spending and the inevitable photo ops for grinning, back-patting politicians are easier to fit into plans when you can ignore the transit system crumbling in the background.

Several budget reports will be before the TTC Board (and later at City Council) at its next meeting on January 24, 2019.

There is far too much material here to review in a single article, and so I will break this up over multiple posts. Some of the details behind individual projects will not be available until I obtain the full version of the Capital Budget known as the “Blue Books” which expand the line items from the “Blue Pages” into project descriptions and schedules.

A vital part of the new reports is a shift to a longer time frame (15 years) and the inclusion of all projects in the Capital Plan whether they have funding or not. The extent of the problem is quite evident in the following chart. The purple hatched area shows the requirements for coming years while the sold areas show known funding amounts in the medium term and hoped-for income thereafter.

The big drop in the City’s funding share in the early 2020s arises from the lack of borrowing headroom in the overall City budget. A big problem here is the crowding by major projects such as the Scarborough Subway Extension and the Gardiner Expressway rebuild within the overall borrowing plan. Current City policy dictates that the average debt servicing cost should not exceed 15% of City tax revenue over a ten year period. Planned spending in the next few years will eliminate the headroom for additional borrowing. This exactly coincides with the bulge in TTC capital requirements beginning in 2022. To put it another way, if funding continued at 2019 levels across the chart, there would still be a shortfall, but against a much higher base.

Even this chart does not tell the full story because the Capital Plan continues to push major projects beyond the ten-year line, and the financial pressures from system expansion are not fully accounted for here. As things stand today, less than 30% of the ten-year program is funded. Beyond 2028, the level of assumed funding is still well below historical levels.

($ billion) 2019-2028 2029-2033 Total 2019-2033
Funded $6.4 $3.4 $9.8
Unfunded $17.5 $6.2 $23.7
Total $23.9 $9.6 $33.5

System expansion projects will add a further $3.8 billion over the first ten years of the plan:

  • Line 2 Extension (formerly known as the SSE): $3.4 billion (subject to revision when an updated cost report is presented to Council in April 2019).
    • “While the 10-Year Capital Plan includes $3.360 billion in funding for this project (between 2019 to 2028), this project has an overall budget of $3.560 billion. This estimate, which includes $132 million to extend the life of the SRT until the Line 2 East Extension commences operation and a further $123 million to decommission and demolish the SRT, was based on 0% design. The project budget and schedule will be re-baselined in Stage Gate 3 report to City Council in April 2019, factoring in delivery strategy and schedule risk analysis.”
  • Relief Line South: $385 million will be spent in 2019-20 to support early works on this project. Some of this is already funded, but $325 million is being advanced into the current ten-year budget. Of this, the City proposes to provide half and looks to other levels of government for a contribution. The actual RL construction project is a separate entity which is not yet in the budget.
    • “The 10-Year Capital Plan includes funding of $385 million to complete current work only, which includes completing the preliminary design and engineering to between 15% and 30% complete, including developing a project budget and schedule.”
  • Waterfront Transit: The ten-year budget includes only $27 million in 2019-21 for design work on the planned extension from Exhibition Loop to the Dufferin Gate. Design work on any other Waterfront projects, let alone any construction, remains beyond the ten-year window.
  • Spadina Vaughan extension: Outstanding work on this project including close-out costs amount to $60 million in 2019, but this will be funded within the existing project.

[Quotations above are from the 15 Year Capital Investment Plan and 2019-2028 Budget, pp 12-13.]

The Relief Line work includes tasks such as property acquisition, utility relocation and design for the tunnel boring equipment. Now that the line has political support, spending sooner rather than later is on the agenda, and about two years can be shaved from the original project schedule by doing the preliminary work now. This is a major change from the position taken by Mayor Tory during the election campaign, and the need to “do something” as soon as possible is now evident.

Continue reading

Relief Line South Station and Alignment Plans

Detailed study of the southern portion of the proposed Relief Subway Line from Pape & Danforth to Osgoode Station is now underway including public consultation sessions on the design. Two of these have already occurred as I write this on April 29, but one session does remain:

Monday, April 30, 2018, 6:30 to 8:30 pm at Morse Street Junior Public School, 180 Carlaw Ave (south of Queen)

The first session was held near Pape & Danforth on April 23, and it was a packed house because construction of this line will have a major effect on properties along the route through Riverdale. Much of the detailed information is not available online because of the size of the files. This article contains snapshots of station and alignment plans along the route at a resolution sufficient to see the details while staying within reason for online viewing. (All of the illustrations are clickable to see a larger version. Some of them have artifacts of viewing large files at a reduced scale, notably the partial graying-out of some text.)

Commentary on the designs is my own except as noted.

Thanks to the City of Toronto Planning Department for provision of the electronic versions of the plans from which the illustrations here are taken.

For further information, please see the Relief Line South website.

Continue reading

PTIF Phase 2: The Lottery Win Is Not As Big As It Seems (Updated)

Updated March 16, 2018 at 5:15 pm: The Fire Ventillation Project which includes second exits from several stations was omitted from the list of major projects in the original version of this post. It has been added.

Updated March 16, 2018 at 3:25 pm: The Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure has clarified that the Ontario funding for the Scarborough Subway is separate from the $4 billion in matching dollars shown in the table below.

On March 14, 2018, the Federal and Provincial governments announced the scale of the second phase of the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund (PTIF) to be spent over the next decade. Some of the details are in a backgrounder.

Funding allocations for the Toronto area are summarized in the table below. The amounts are based on transit ridership, not on population, and so Toronto gets by far the largest share of the pie.

Source: Infrastructure Canada Backgrounder

If one believed the ecstatic response of politicians and some media, one might think that all our transit prayers have been answered.

Not quite.

An additional $9 billion is not exactly small change, but Toronto has a huge appetite for transit spending and a daunting project backlog. The new money will help, but with it comes the requirement that Toronto pony up about $3 billion for projects that are not in the city’s long-term budget.

Capital planning for many years understated the infrastructure deficit by hiding projects “below the line” outside of the budget, and even more by leaving important work off of the list completely. The infrastructure deficit is much larger than the TTC reports and city financial plans indicate.

That, in turn, affects the city’s financial planning, subject of a recent report from the City Manager. Despite assurances from city staff that all known TTC costs have been included in their projections, there is a long history of the TTC leaving significant projects out of funding lists to keep their total “ask” down to a politically acceptable number.

Much needed work is not the sexy, photo-op rich stuff of subway extensions, but the mundane business of buying new equipment to replace old cars and buses, and to increase system capacity.

The new plan is to run for ten years. The money will not all land in Toronto’s hands this year, but will be parceled out as projects are approved and actual spending occurs. There is no guarantee that a future government will stick to any commitments especially if the “funded” projects are not the subject of a binding agreement. Toronto has its share of cancelled projects including the Sheppard Subway, cut back to Don Mills, and the Eglinton West Subway (both victims of Mike Harris), not to mention Transit City and the pliable attitude of various governments to the worth of a subway in Scarborough.

Updated March 16, 2018 at 3:25 pm:

Before we even start into the possible projects to be funded, some money is lopped off the top based on a past commitment.

  • Ottawa will provide “up to $660 million for the Scarborough Subway extension project, pending submission and approval”.
  • It is unclear how much of the provincial commitment to the SSE of nearly $2 billion is included in the $4 billion under the new program.

This brings the available federal funding down to about $4.237 billion.

Whether the total available from Queen’s Park is $6 billion ($4b new plus $2b for the Scarborough Subway), we do no know. I have a question in to the Ontario Ministry of Infrastructure to clarify this. They have acknowledged the question, but have not replied as of 11:45 am, March 16.

Update: The Ministry of Infrastructure has clarified how the previous SSE funding fits with the newly announced program:

Ontario is committed to cost-matching federal funding for municipal projects at 33 percent. This equates to $4 billion from the province to match the City of Toronto’s $4.9 billion federal allocation. No previously committed funding for Toronto projects is included in this allocation.

Ontario’s commitment to match this new federal funding at a 33 per cent share is separate from and above the province’s previous commitment of $1.48 billion in 2010 to the Scarborough Subway. [Email from Alex Benac, Press Secretary to the Minister]

Continue reading

Toronto’s Transit Capacity Crisis

In recent days, Mayor Tory has announced, twice, a ten point program to address crowding on the TTC. The effectiveness of this program is limited by years of bad political decisions, and the hole Toronto has dug itself into is not one from which it will quickly escape.

This article is a compendium of information about the three major portions of the “conventional” (non-Wheel-Trans) system: subway, bus and streetcar. Some of this material has appeared in other articles, but the intent here is to pull current information for the entire system together.

Amendment February 15, 2018 at 5:30 pm: This article has been modified in respect to SmartTrack costs to reflect the fact that over half of the cost shown as “SmartTrack” in the City Manager’s budget presentation is actually due to the Eglinton West LRT extension which replaced the proposed ST service to the commercial district south of the airport. A report on SmartTrack station costs will come to City Council in April 2018. Eglinton LRT costs will take a bit longer because Council has asked staff to look at other options for this route, notably undergrounding some or all of it.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading