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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A Rainbow of Rapid Transit

In Toronto’s never-ending fascination with new transit maps, the City Planning department has released a vision for our rapid transit network as it will be in 15 years.

201602_15YrPlan

Despite much talk of “evidence-based” planning, this is a very political map, and I cannot help remembering then-Premier David Peterson’s announcement of 1990 (not long before he lost an election and Bob Rae wound up as his much-surprised replacement) that amounted to a chicken-in-every-pot map.

There is nothing wrong with network-based planning, and indeed I have been beating a well-worn drum on that subject for years. But let us also remember that the Scarborough Subway exists because of the political clout of Brad Duguid, a former City Councillor, now Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development. Mayor John Tory, in Toronto Life, cites Duguid as saying that “if anyone tries to cancel the [Scarborough] subway, they’ll do it over his dead body”. “Evidence” apparently includes having a large cudgel to keep wandering pols in line.

The map also includes the Mayor’s pet project, SmartTrack, and it’s no wonder that he steers clear of the Minister’s position given the need for a provincial agency, Metrolinx, to accommodate SmartTrack on their network.

All of this is part of the “Motherlode” of public consultation sessions now running in various places around the City, and through Metrolinx in the wider GTHA. Background information and links to related material are available at Toronto’s TransitTO web site.

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SmartTrack: Now You See It, Now You Don’t!

Oliver Moore in the Globe and Mail reports that there have been major changes to the SmartTrack plan, to wit:

  • The western branch of the service to the Airport district will be provided by the western extension of the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT as originally proposed.
  • “SmartTrack” per se will operate as a heavy rail service overlaid on GO Transit with the initial phase running from Mount Dennis to Kennedy Stations.
  • The northern extension of “SmartTrack” to Markham will be a separate phase of the project.

The map from the Globe & Mail is reproduced below.

GlobeSTLRTMap_20160114

According to Moore, the cost of adding SmartTrack to GO under this configuration would be much, much less than the originally quoted figure for the entire line. In turn, this would free up substantial capital spending headroom in City plans for other projects.

SmartTrack service at 15 minutes (the level proposed in Tory’s campaign) is far too infrequent to attract much riding, and especially to make a dent in demand on the existing subway interchange at Bloor-Yonge. We saw this in the June 2015 Metrolinx demand projections that were far more favourable to a Relief Line operating north to Sheppard and Don Mills. However, getting SmartTrack service down to as close a headway as every 5 minutes will be challenging for Metrolinx and for the corridors through which this would operate. There are no details yet on how this would be achieved.

The Eglinton West LRT has always been the superior way of serving this corridor compared to the heavy rail SmartTrack scheme. ST foundered on major problems with constructibility and neighbourhood effects, issues that were dismissed in a stunning display of cavalier “expert” knowledge during the campaign. Planning by Google Maps from an office in the UK has its limitations, but Tory’s campaign relied on this “expertise”. One shameless professor even rated ST with an “A+” in the CBC Metro Morning interview.

Keeping the first phase of ST confined south of Eglinton on both branches limits the operating costs the City must bear if this to be truly a “Toronto” project with “Toronto” fares, and it avoids the complexities of building into the 905.

Indeed, SmartTrack began as a real estate development scheme to make commercial property near the Airport and in Markham more accessible from downtown in a series of studies that actually claimed the market for downtown office space was static and falling. Yet another expert should be eating crow pie from his perch on the Metrolinx board. It was never clear why Toronto should shell out billions to improve property values in the 905, and this task now falls clearly to Metrolinx where it belongs.

The eastern leg of SmartTrack, north from Kennedy, obviously competes with the Scarborough Subway Extension, and there is no need for two routes serving the same demand, especially when GO already plans substantially improved service in the rail corridor. The long-standing issue of SSE demand may be clarified by the absence of SmartTrack as a competing service.

It is no secret that my own position would be to revert to the LRT plan in Scarborough, but that train has probably left the station, especially if the City can “save” a small fortune by scaling back on SmartTrack.

These changes could also foreshadow a revised schedule for the LRT projects at a time when “shovel ready” projects are in demand to soak up new federal spending. Eglinton West’s LRT extension is relatively easy to build, and it could be started soon enough to complete concurrently with the main Crosstown route. There is also the matter of the Sheppard East LRT including its proposed service linking to UofT Scarborough campus.

Coming weeks may bring many sputtering denials, or possibly, much improved clarity and acceptance of an – at last – realistic plan.

 

 

A Smarter SmartTrack

The SmartTrack scheme was born of an election campaign, but it was John Tory’s signature project, one he is loathe to relinquish despite its shortcomings.

What’s that you say? I am just being one of those “downers” who cannot see our manifest destiny? What’s that line about patriotism and scoundrels?

At the recent Executive Committee meeting, Tory actually had the gall to say that during the campaign, he didn’t have access to a squad of experts and had to make do with the people he had. Funny that. This is the crowd that estimated construction costs on the back of an envelope, who “surveyed” the line using out of date Google images, who ignored basics of railway engineering and capacity planning to make outrageous claims for their scheme.

When the dust settled and John Tory became Mayor Tory, I thought, ok, he will adapt his plan. Indeed, it didn’t take long for a reversal on TTC bus service and the recognition that Rob Ford had stripped the cupboard bare and then started to burn the lumber at the TTC. A campaign attack on Olivia Chow’s (far too meagre) bus plan changed into championing the restoration of TTC service to the days of the “Ridership Growth Strategy” and beyond. Good on the Mayor, I thought, he can actually change his mind.

SmartTrack is another matter, and what Tory, what Toronto desperately needs is a fresh look at what GO, SmartTrack and the TTC could be if only the fiefdoms and the pettiness of clinging to individual schemes could be unlocked. That would take some leadership. I wonder who has any?

Inevitably comments like this bring out the trolls who say “so what would YOU do” (that’s the polite version). Here’s my response as a scheme that bears at least as much importance as a way of looking at our transit network as the competing visions in the Mayor’s Office, Metrolinx, City Planning and the TTC.

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Finch West LRT Soon, Sheppard East Not So (Updated)

Updated April 28, 2015 at 8:20 am:

The decision to push construction of the Sheppard LRT out to the 2020s was taken quite recently as shown by two separate reports.

In today’s Globe & Mail, Oliver Moore reports:

According to Mr. Del Duca, the delay on Sheppard was because of the difficulty of trying to do too many big projects at once. “The plan right now is to have the procurement begin for the Sheppard East LRT after we complete the Finch West LRT,” he said.

There was no firm timeline available for the Sheppard line. If it starts on its new schedule and takes about as long as Finch to build, it should be ready some time after 2025.

This timeline is sharply at odds with the information given to a reporter in the provincial budget lock-up on Thursday. The government’s position then – given on background and not for attribution, under the rules of the lock-up – was that the Sheppard line would open about a year after Finch. Mr. Del Duca’s spokesman did not return a message Monday seeking clarification of what had changed.

On April 27, over an hour after the LRT announcement, one of my readers, seeking clarification from Metrolinx received the following email:

From: Metrolinx Customer Relations <customerrelations@metrolinx.com>
Date: April 27, 2015 at 10:43:26 AM EDT

Dear [x]

Thank you for contacting us about the status of the Sheppard East LRT.

The Sheppard East LRT is fully funded and approved. The Sheppard East LRT underpass construction at Agincourt GO Station has been completed.

Preliminary design and engineering work will be happening over the next few years. Construction is expected to begin in 2017 and be completed by 2021.

I appreciate you taking the time to contact us.

Sincerely,

[x] Customer Service Representative
GO Transit, A Division of Metrolinx

One wonders just what triggered a change so last-minute that it was not communicated to Metrolinx’ own “communications” team. The Minister claims that the delay is because there is only so much construction work that can be undertaken concurrently, but this seems to have more to do with avoiding a politically difficult decision.

A much more honest position would be to say simply that “we’re waiting for the results of various studies now underway on transit for Scarborough”, but leadership, or even a bit of common sense on anything transit-related in that part of town seems to escape the Liberals at Queen’s Park.

Original article from April 27 at 12:11 pm:

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Metrolinx Board Meeting June 26, 2014 (Corrected)

Correction July 1, 2014: In the original version of this article, I attributed a comment to Metrolinx Chair Rob Prichard regarding the sharing of information between bidders on rapid transit projects, and expresssed my surprise that this did not match the process I was familiar with from my own public sector experience. In fact, the remark was with regard to sharing information about questions to Metrolinx from candidates in the municipal election.

The procurement process does include sharing of information via addenda to Requests for Information issued to all bidders as mentioned in the Rapid Transit Quarterly Report. I regret this error and frankly cannot understand how I scrambled two very different topics together.

However, the process for dealing with candidate questions at Metrolinx is completely different from that followed by the City of Toronto. Where Metrolinx preserves confidentiality about questions a campaign might ask, the City posts responses to any query online so that no candidate has the advantage of professional advice not available to others. The basic premise is that the staff works for Council, not for an individual member or candidate.

As a public agency, Metrolinx should be providing information to everyone. The discussion (which starts at about 21:10 of the meeting video) emphasizes that Metrolinx has no part in the election, and yet the confidentiality of information exchanges could offer an advantage to a campaign that is unknown to other candidates.

Original Article  from June 29, 2014:

The Metrolinx Board met on Thursday, June 26 in a quite celebratory air. With the provincial election out of the way and the return of a pro-transit Liberal majority to Queen’s Park, Metrolinx sees a rosy future for transit expansion. They wasted no time telling anyone who would listen about the great work now at hand.

Among the items of interest were reports on:

Another burning question about the recently announced funding is just how much money is on the table, especially how much is new money as opposed to funds earmarked for specific projects like RER or previously announced/expected for projects in the “Next Wave” of Metrolinx undertakings. It didn’t take the assembled media long to notice that the GO RER scheme would gobble up much of the $15b earmarked for transit in the GTHA. I will return to this in a separate article.

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Neptis Reviews Metrolinx: A Critique (I)

In December 2013, the Neptis Foundation published a review of the Metrolinx Big Move plan authored by Michael Schabas. This review received prominent attention in the Toronto Star and is regularly cited in their coverage of transportation issues. Some elements also appear in recent comments by Transportation Minister Glen Murray, and it is reasonable to assume that his view of Metrolinx priorities has been influenced by the Neptis paper.

Since its publication, I have resisted writing a detailed critique in part because of the sheer size of the document and my disappointment with many claims made in it, and a hope that it would quietly fade from view. Recent Ministerial musings suggest that this will not happen.

The stated goals of the report arose from four basic questions posed shortly after The Big Move was released in 2008:

  • What evidence suggests that the projects in the Big Move will double the number of transit riders and significantly reduce congestion in the region, as promised by Metrolinx?
  • Does each project offer good value for money?
  • Do all the projects add up to a substantial regional transit network or is the Big Move just an amalgam of projects put forward by diverse sponsors?
  • How do the projects in the Big Move relate to the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe, its land use equivalent? [Page 2]

The report itself addresses a somewhat different set of questions and notably omits the land use component.

  • Will the Big Move projects achieve the Metrolinx objective of doubling transit ridership?
  • Are these projects consistent with Metrolinx’s own “guiding principles”?
  • Are they well-designed, consistent with international best practice, and integrated with other transport infrastructure?
  • Will they support a shift of inter-regional travel onto transit?
  • Are there alternative, more effective schemes that should be considered?
  • What changes would help Metrolinx produce better results? [Page 14]

Schabas’ work is frustrating because on some points he is cogent, right on the mark.

Metrolinx has bumbled through its existence protected from significant criticism, swaddled in a cocoon of “good news” and the presumed excellence of its work. To be fair, the agency operates in a political environment where independent thought, especially in public, is rare, and years of planning can be overturned by governmental whim and the need to win votes.

That said, Metrolinx is a frustrating, secretive organization conducting much of its business in private, and tightly scripting public events. Schabas rightly exposes inconsistencies in Metrolinx work, although his own analysis and alternatives are, in places, flawed and blinkered.

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Neptis Reviews Metrolinx: A Critique (III)

This article is the third section of my critique of the December 2013 review of the Metrolinx Big Move Plan written by Michael Schabas for the Neptis Foundation. It should be read in conjunction with Part I and Part II.

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Where Will the Scarborough Subway Go?

The Toronto Star reports that Queen’s Park is contemplating an alternative route to Toronto’s proposed Scarborough subway extension via Eglinton and McCowan to Sheppard East.

The key paragraphs in the article are:

“In the next couple of weeks we should have an announcement on what the routing will be, what the design will be and what the cost will be,” he told reporters on the way into a cabinet meeting Wednesday.

Queen’s Park wants to have the subway run on a similar route to the light rail transit plan to “maximize the impact of this line and get it connected to as many people (as possible),” said [Transportation Minister] Murray.

Murray seeks to find out how much could be built with the $1.4b already committed to a subway project.  Using an existing corridor could reduce the cost compared to the McCowan alignment.

This raises questions debated in other threads here of how the subway would be extended via the existing SRT alignment including the configuration of Kennedy Station and whether a route from Ellesmere Station eastward would be elevated or underground.

Recycling some or all of the existing corridor will require a period of shutdown for the RT with parallel bus service, an issue that weighed heavily against the LRT scheme in recent debates.  Will the promise of a subway quell objections to this shutdown?

Murray will meet with Lisa Raitt, the federal Minister of Transport, to discuss funding, but he is already throwing cold water on hopes for assistance from Ottawa for a  “416” project.  Even if the feds bring money to the table, the next questions will be whether the original McCowan scheme or an SRT alignment for the subway are the best use of available cash, and how either subway would fit into a larger network.

The debate comes back to Toronto Council in October preceded by Murray’s announcement likely in mid-September.  Backers of the subway like TTC Chair Karen Stintz and recently-elected MPP “Subway Champion” Mitzie Hunter have stressed that their support for a Sheppard LRT was for a different line in different circumstances.  A Scarborough subway, wherever it goes, will leave large parts of eastern Toronto far from rapid transit.

The LRT debate is not over.  Will Stintz and Hunter become “LRT champions” for other parts of the network?

Memo to Glen Murray & Karen Stintz: Are You Really Serious About Transit in Scarborough?

With all the upheaval of transit plans for Scarborough, politicians fall over each other to tell Scarborough residents how downtrodden and ignored they have been, how they always get the short end of the transit stick.  How will we fix this?  Build them a subway!

Mind you, that subway won’t open for 10 years, and riders on the Scarborough RT will have to endure more cold winters and overcrowded service, not to mention bus routes that run occasionally and unreliably.

We should remember what Scarborough was originally promised with the Transit City scheme announced years ago by then-Mayor Miller and now-Candidate Adam Giambrone:

  • An LRT line from an underground station at Don Mills & Sheppard with a direct connection to the Sheppard subway running east to Morningside and beyond.
  • An LRT line from Kennedy Station east and north via Eglinton, Kingston Road and Morningside to Sheppard serving the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC).
  • An upgraded and extended Scarborough RT using LRT to reach east and north to Malvern Centre.

The Sheppard LRT is “funded” by Queen’s Park, but actual construction is a moving target with completion now planned for 2021.

The Eglinton/Morningside line (aka “Scarborough-Malvern”) drifts in limbo not even a part of the Metrolinx “Next Wave” implying completion at best by the late 2020s.

The Scarborough LRT has been replaced by the Scarborough Subway.  Although Council attached many conditions to the financing for that line, you can bet that no politician in Toronto is willing to pull the plug, to return to the LRT scheme, with provincial and municipal election fortunes in play.  One way or another, even by the simple expedient of giving Ottawa more time to pony up “their fair share” (whatever that means), the subway scheme will stay alive, and the Scarborough LRT will start to resemble Monty Python’s “dead parrot”.  It will be “sleeping” only in the minds of its most ardent advocates.

Politicians love to tell us how much they support better transit in Scarborough, and they could start by talking about something more than the subway.

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