Waterfront East LRT: June 2021 Update

Various projects for transit in the waterfront are working their way through a Waterfront Reset process. On July 7, 2021, there will be an update to Toronto’s Executive Committee on the status of transit projects including the Waterfront East LRT. Staff hope to take an updated Business Case based on the preliminary design to Council in Fall 2021.

The City of Toronto, Waterfront Toronto and the TTC held an online update and consultation session for the Waterfront East project on June 21, 2021. This covered several points and included significant changes in scope and design.

  • The new Union Station Loop will be fully built in one stage rather than a half-now, half-later approach. The full capacity of the new loop will be required to serve development underway and planned in the waterfront.
  • The new Queens Quay Station will include connections (some provisional) to adjacent buildings and to a tunnel under Queens Quay to the Ferry Docks.
  • The eastern portal location will be west of Yonge Street in front of the Harbour Castle Hotel. The hotel’s entrance will be relocated to the eastern face of the building at a new entryway to be constructed by extending Yonge Street southwards over what is now the Yonge Street Slip.
  • The western portal will receive an architectural treatment that will echo the new east portal.
  • The work will be staged so that through streetcar service could operate to the eastern waterfront from existing trackage on Queens Quay West while the Bay Street tunnel is closed for reconstruction of the stations.
  • Queens Quay East will continue a street design similar to that on the portion west of Bay with modifications to better clarify the pedestrian and cycling areas.
  • As previously planned, the Parliament Slip will be partly filled to allow extension of Queens Quay directly east to meet a realigned Cherry Street. This design is no longer entangled with plans advanced by Sidewalk Labs.
  • The first phase of streetcar service will extend east to Cherry and south to a new loop at Polson Street.
  • There are four options for the connection north via Cherry to Distillery Loop one of which would require relocation of the existing (but inactive) Cherry Street Tower in the rail corridor which is now immediately south of the loop. The most likely of these is a new portal for the streetcars east of the tower.
  • Following construction work on Bay Street, the surface level will be redesigned to improve its appearance and provide more room for pedestrians and cyclists.

The City’s presentation deck is arranged slightly differently from the sequence in this article because they focused on design exercises for each segment of the line. Here I have tried to pull some related matters together.

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Waterfront LRT Public Consultation: June 21, 2021

The City of Toronto, TTC and Waterfront Toronto will be holding an online consultation to bring interested parties up to date on plans for the Waterfront East LRT. Links to register for and join the meeting online are available at the City’s Waterfront Transit page.

This round will cover the following topics according to the City’s announcement:

  • Initial design work for the extension of Queens Quay from Parliament Street to the Distillery Loop, including options for getting under the rail corridor
  • Design updates for the surface section on the LRT and Queens Quay East streetscape, including an update on the Yonge Street Slip
  • Progress update on the design of the underground section of the LRT from Union Loop to the proposed portal locations on Queens Quay East, and a new design concept plan for Bay Street following completion of underground works
  • An update on project phasing and implementation
  • An overview of the upcoming Transit Project Assessment Process (TPAP) for the project
  • An update and a summary of feedback from the February consultations

Materials from past consultations are available on the City’s page linked above.

TTC Transit Expansion Update

At its February 10, 2021 meeting, the TTC Board receive a long report entitled Transit Network Expansion.

The raison-d’être for the report is to obtain the authorization to increase staffing by 34 positions that would be funded by Metrolinx, but would be part of the TTC’s stucture. Many aspects of projects underway by Metrolinx depend on TTC input and acceptance because they affect lines the TTC will operate and, at least partly, maintain. A new Transit Expansion Assurance Department within Engineering & Construction. The authorization include provision for temporary expansion beyond 34 should this be required.

This move is intriguing because it implies Metrolinx has accepted that it cannot build new lines completely on their own without TTC input, especially when they will operate as part of the TTC network.

The report also requests authorization for:

[…] the Chief Executive Officer, in consultation with the City Manager, City of Toronto where applicable, to negotiate a Master Agreement and/or other applicable Agreements with the Province and/or any other relevant provincial agency for the purposes of the planning, procurement, construction, operations, and maintenance of the Subway Program, in accordance with Board and City Council direction, and to report back to the Board on the results of such negotiations. [pp. 2-3]

There is a great deal more involved in building and operating transit projects than holding a press conference with little more than a nice map. Now comes the hard part of actually doing the work. Whether Metrolinx will negotiate in good faith remains to be seen, but the TTC and Toronto appear to be less willing to hide Metrolinx’ faults in light of the Presto screwups.

Another recommendation has a hint that all is not well with consultations, as that should be any surprise to those who deal regularly with Metrolinx.

Request Metrolinx to conduct meaningful engagement with the TTC’s Advisory Committee on Accessible Transit (ACAT) as part of the Project Specific Output Specification (PSOS) review and design review for all projects within the provincial programs. [p. 3]

The operative word here is “meaningful”. ACAT has already complained of difficulties with Metrolinx including such basics as poorly designed elevators on the Eglinton Crosstown line that cannot be “fixed” because they have already been ordered.

Right from the outset, the TTC claims to have a significant role, a very different situation from the days when Metrolinx claimed it would be easy for them to take over the subway system.

The TTC continues to play a key role in the planning, technical review, and implementation of all major transit expansion projects in Toronto and the region. These include the Toronto Light Rail Transit Program and the provincial priority subway projects, referred to collectively as the “Subways Program”: the Ontario Line; the Scarborough Subway Extension; the Yonge North Subway Extension; and the Eglinton Crosstown West Extension. [p. 1]

In support of the staffing request, the report goes into great detail on many projects:

Two projects are not listed among the group above, but there is a description buried in the section on Bloor-Yonge expansion.

  • Overall subway system capacity and service expansion
  • Any discussion of the Line 2 renewal project

There is no discussion at all about renewal and expansion of surface service. This is just as important as new lines, but it is not seen as “expansion” with the political interest and funding that brings. Yes, this is a “rapid transit” report, but the core network of subway lines dies without the surface feeder routes, and many trips do not lie conveniently along rapid transit corridors.

The map below shows the location of most of the projects, but there are some odd inclusions and omissions.

  • The RapidTO bus corridors are not included.
  • City-funded GO stations at St. Clair/Old Weston, Lansdowne, King/Liberty, East Harbour and Finch/Kennedy are shown.
  • GO funded stations at Woodbine Racetrack, Mount Dennis, Caledonia and Park Lawn are shown.
  • The planned improvement at between TTC’s Dundas West and GO’s Bloor station is not shown, nor is any potential link between Main and Danforth stations.
  • SmartTrack stations are shown, but there is no discussion of how GO or ST service would fit into the overall network.

The following two maps have attracted a lot of attention, although they do not tell the full story. Much as I am a streetcar/LRT advocate, the presence of the entire streetcar network here is misleading, especially in the absence of the RapidTO proposals. Some of the streetcar lines run in reserved lanes, although thanks to overly generous scheduling some of them are no faster than the mixed-traffic operations they replaced (notably St. Clair). However, most of these routes rank equivalently to the bus network in terms of transit priority. If we are going to show the streetcar lines, why not the 10-minute network of key bus route?

The map is also distorted by having different and uneven scales in both directions. The size of downtown is exaggerated while other areas are compressed.

For example, the distance from Queen to Bloor is, in reality, half that of Bloor to Eglinton and one quarter of Eglinton to Finch. It is also one quarter of the distance from Yonge west to Jane or east to Victoria Park. For comparison, the TTC System Map is to scale, and it shows the city in its actual rectangular form.

This map gives an impression of coverage, but masks the size of the gaps between routes as one moves away from the core. Bus riders know all about those gaps.

By 2031, the network is hoped to look something like this. No BRT proposals are shown, but we do see the waterfront extensions west to Dufferin, and east to Broadview (East Harbour). Also missing are the GO corridors which, by 2031, should have frequent service and (maybe) attractive fares. They are (or should be) as much a part of “Future Rapid Transit” as the TTC routes.

This map is trying to do too much and too little at the same time. It also reveals a quite selective view of “regional” transit.

I am not trying to argue for a map that shows every detail, but it should exist (a) in scale and (b) in formats with overlays showing major parts of the network and how they relate to the overall plan. When people concentrate on the pretty coloured lines, they tend to forget the other equally important parts of the network.

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Waterfront East LRT Virtual Public Meeting

Updated February 16, 2021 at 10:00 pm: The discussion of the new design for Union Station has been updated with additional info from the Waterfront Transit Team describing the smoke control design of the station as well as a clarifying of the change in elevation of the tracks. Thanks to them for these details.

Updated February 18, 2021 at 6:00 pm: Additional and revised drawings from the public presentation on February 17 have been added to this article.

Waterfront Toronto, the City of Toronto and the TTC will hold an online public meeting on Wednesday, February 17, 2021 from 7:00 to 8:30 pm with updates on design work for the eastern leg of the Waterfront LRT to Cherry Street and associated changes to Queens Quay East.

The presentation deck for this meeting is online, and there are introductory videos by Nigel Tahair, the program manager in City Planning, available from the project’s website. All drawings in this article are taken from that presentation, or from the condensed version used at the public meeting.

[Full disclosure: I have participated in Advisory Committee meetings for this project, but have not published info from these discussions as they were works in progress.]

This project has been in the works for a very long time. When the Cherry Street service began in June 2016 (itself the subject of a long design process for the West Don Lands), the intent was always to continue south and link up with a line on Queens Quay East. Design work for that branch of the LRT is finally underway. Along the way it has been diverted by issues such as appropriate method of linking Union Station to the waterfront, development options in the Cherry/Queens Quay neighbourhood and the role of the proposed Ontario Line.

The current work arises from a motion at Executive Committee on December 10, 2020:

City Council direct the Chief Planner and Executive Director, City Planning and the Executive Director, Transit Expansion Office to report back on the recommended schedule and funding requirements for the Union Station to Queens Quay Link and the East Bayfront Light Rail Transit section of the Waterfront Transit Network, including phasing options and an updated business case, as part of an update on Waterfront Transit Network priorities prior to the 2022 Budget process.”

Project Scope

The study covers three segments of the line:

  • Area 1: The existing Bay Street tunnel and the future junction at Bay & Queens Quay.
  • Area 2A: The original scope of the surface section extending to just east of Parliament Street.
  • Area 2B: The extended surface section from east of Parliament and north to Distillery Loop on Cherry Street.

Note that in the map below, the alignment of Cherry Street is the “new” street that will be built as part of new Port Lands across what will become Villiers Island. The new street jogs west south of the Gardiner Expressway rather than east.

Because expertise in underground construction lies with the TTC, they are designing Area 1. Waterfront Toronto is responsible for Area 2.

The study is also looking at staging options that could extend the scope south and east into the Port Lands.

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Eglinton East & Waterfront LRT Updates

Toronto’s Executive Committee considered a report on the current status of the Eglinton East LRT and Waterfront East LRT projects at its meeting on December 10, 2020.

The primary function of this report is to authorize continued study, not to set priorities nor to discuss funding schemes. As such, its recommendations passed easily because it preserves the convenient fiction of progress without actual commitment. The real battles come when there are $30 billion worth of transit projects and less than $10 billion to pay for them.

In a beautifully ironic touch, the same morning brought news from the Toronto Star’s Jennifer Pagliaro that the Scarborough RT would not last long enough to avoid a shutdown well before the Scarborough Subway could be completed. That announcement raises a raft of questions about Toronto’s transit future that go well beyond Scarborough itself, and I will turn to those issues in a separate article.

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TTC Board Meeting June 17, 2020

The TTC Board met on June 17, 2020 with several items on their agenda. Chief among these was recovery plan for the transit system as the effects of the Covid-19 lockdown recede and transit demand builds.

Updated June 18, 2020 at 1:30 pm: Charts from the service recovery presentation that were originally taken as screen captures from the meeting video have been replaced with higher resolution versions.

CEO’s Report

Many of the usual metrics for system performance are meaningless in the Covid-19 era because service and ridership are completely different from original budget forecasts. Even the “on time” statistics fail because the TTC reports this relative to scheduled times, not as a measure of service reliability. Detailed ridership tracking was reported separately under the Covid recovery report (below).

CEO Rick Leary reported that modifications to the operator’s area on buses are in development including extension of the plastic barrier forward to the windshield and altering airflow within the cab to be a “positive pressure” area where air is always pushing out rather than being drawn in from the main passenger area.

As reported elsewhere, the TTC is taking advantage of lower demand to accelerate capital and maintenance programs. The northern part of the Yonge subway (Line 1) will be closed for various periods during coming weeks including:

  • Sat/Sun June 20/21 all day: Sheppard-Yonge to St. Clair for Metrolinx construction at Eglinton and track repairs elsewhere.
  • Thu/Fri June 25/26 all day: Finch to Sheppard-Yonge for maintenance including ATC installation.
  • Sat/Sun June 27/28 all day: Finch to Lawrence for maintenance including asbestos removal and ATC installation.

The TTC has not announced whether completion dates for the ATC project will be moved forward thanks to the extra work.

The rebuild of streetcars to correct welding problems and other retrofits will also be accelerated with 19 more streetcars available for maintenance. This will allow the entire fleet to come up to standard 18 months sooner than originally planned.

Reliability of the streetcar fleet continues to improve. There are two measures of this with one based on contractual requirements (failures due to manufacturing issues) and one based on operational behaviour (including all failures). The contractual measure is running at over 70,000 km mean distance to failure on a monthly basis with the 12-month average sitting just over 40,000 and growing. The operational measure is running just under the 35,000 km target.

In the subway, vehicle reliability is mixed. On Line 2 BD, the T1 fleet is running far above the target level with MDBF values in the millions of vehicle kilometres compared to a target of 300,000. On Lines 1 and 4, the TR fleet is not faring as well. The 12-month rolling average is above the 600,000 target for this fleet (which is younger and therefore is expected to perform better), but numbers for both February and April 2020 were below the target, particularly in April.

The reliability of the electric bus fleet is improving although it is not yet at the 24,000 km MDBF target. The BYD fleet was still not in revenue service within the period of the report, and so no reliability stats for these vehicles are available.

The hybrid bus fleet is running at or above 30,000 km MDBF while the diesel bus fleet is at or above 20,000. It is not clear how much of the improvement is due to inherent reliability as opposed to the sidelining of problem vehicles in the fleet.

Covid Recovery / Bus Priority Lanes

Please see my previous article TTC Preps For Covid Recovery for a review of the main part of this report.

The Board considered this report together with a notice of motion regarding proposals for five bus transit priority corridors. Please see my article Transit Priority Lanes Can Help, But They Are No Panacea and other related articles for background analyses of the potential benefits and limitations of priority lanes as a way to improve bus service.

Covid Recovery

New information was added to the original report showing how demand is building across the TTC network.

Bus riding has been growing from its nadir in mid-April. Although 70,000 more boardings per day may not be much on the usual scale of TTC operations, it is a very large growth on a base of 288,000 (blue line in the chart below). Across the bus network, the TTC is now carrying on average 30% of its former load, a key point in the recovery where capacity and distancing requirements vie with each other. There is a growing problem with overcrowding relative to the current standard with 12% of trips now running about 15 passengers per standard sized bus, and 1.5% above 25 per bus. The system cannot handle more growth without a combination of additional service and social practices, mainly masking, that will improve safety on more crowded vehicles.

More service on Jane today than in Feb

The map below shows where the “hot spots” were in the bus network in mid-May when total boardings were at 25% of normal, and 7.6% of trips exceeded the 15/bus loading standard.

By June, this had evolved with over capacity conditions on several major routes. Many extra buses built into the May schedules were dispatched to supplement regular service, and on the key routes shown below, the scheduled service will be improved effective June 22. The TTC plans to have more service on 35 Jane in late June than it did in February, although this claim does not take into account the 935 Jane Express buses in the “before” service.

Eventually, the TTC will return to “100% service”, but this will be based on the count of vehicles, not simply a return to original schedules. Some routes still have weaker demand, and buses formerly assigned to them will be used to add service on the busy lines. The express bus routes serving the core where demand is weakest will remain suspended.

The TTC’s plan does not address the issue of using its considerable pool of spare buses to push service beyond the 100% level, nor of the degree to which the streetcar network can be fully operated with that mode once various construction projects are out of the way.

Although TTC management did not say this explicitly in the discussion, the move back to 100% service appears to be contingent on funding from the provincial or federal government that will insulate the City from the extra cost.

Bus Priority Lanes

According to TTC management, “significant” work has already been done with their City colleagues on the bus lanes which were proposed in the Five Year Service Plan last December. Eglinton East is the top priority, and there will be a report on it in July 2020. It is unclear just how quickly we will see detailed proposals for other corridors, especially with a desire by some affected Councillors to have public consultation, and the very real possibility that opposition to these lanes will block their implementation.

The TTC does not help its own argument on this point.

Staff advised that the Eglinton-Kingston-Morningside lane would save 7 buses overall for the routes operating in this corridor, and spoke first of this as a budgetary saving, not as an opportunity for improved service. This is exactly the same position staff took in the early days of the St. Clair proposal where residents and riders were dismayed that after so much upheaval there would be no improvement in service.

This position does not align with the statements by Commissioner Brad Bradford who spoke of “flooding the street” with buses taking advantage of the new transit priority, and while that may be a great sound bite, it does not reflect what the TTC is likely to do, or can do with limits on its fleet and staff constraining bus network growth. Moreover, a 7 bus saving is not a huge change at the scale of the full network. This is unsurprising given that the likely change in travel time is not going to bring as much saving as many think.

Bradford asked how the transit priority scheme would help in the Covid fight, and again staff’s response was lacklustre claiming that shorter travel times would reduce the time spent on board, rather than speaking to improved crowding conditions through additional service.

There is a stark disconnect between the hoped-for benefits of transit priority for riders and the manner in which the TTC appears poised to scoop any savings in the budget, not for better service.

Bradford spoke of the importance of the bus  network and the “underserved” neighbourhoods where bus lines run. It is odd for a TTC Commissioner to openly talk of “underserved” areas while the very Board and Council he sits on refuses to address the problem of bus route capacity.

The hoped-for September 1 implementation will be a stretch for anything beyond one corridor, and that with little more than paint and signs.

Commissioner/Councillor McKelvie proposed an amendment that the study of future corridors also include Lawrence East from Victoria Park to Rouge Hill. The report with this amendment passed unanimously.

Rider Attitude Survey

The Covid recovery report includes an extensive section on rider attitudes and the potential recovery of transit demand. I will deal with this in a separate article.

Streetcar Track Noise at King and Sumach

An ongoing issue at the intersection of King and Sumach has been streetcar noise and vibration ever since the Cherry Street branch began operation. Several issues contributed to this problem including wheel squeal on curves and noise from track switches tongues “slapping” in their castings as cars passed over them.

Various changes have been made to address components of the problem, but more work is pending.

  • With the removal of CLRVs from Cherry Street service, the noisiest cars were no longer making turns at King and Sumach.
  • A wheel lubricator was installed at Distillery Loop, although this is of no benefit for cars turning east to south off of King.
  • Wheel vibration dampening rings have been installed on 10 streetcars and these reduced noise on curves by 5-7 dBA. A further 60 cars will receive dampeners over 2020, and the rest of the fleet will be completed in 2021. Cars with these devices will be assigned to the 504A King route to the Distillery.
  • On board wheel lubricators are already installed on the first half of the fleet, and the TTC plans to add them to the remainder.
  • Curve track geometry has been adjusted, and will be further refined as part of the 2021 Capital Budget plan for track repairs.
  • Switch tongues that did not sit flush have been ground to reduce the slapping effect as cars pass over them.
  • A new design for flexible switch tongues is under review with plans to install one on the trailing eastbound switch where noise has been a problem. A trial installation is already in place at College & Lansdowne eastbound.

Although King & Sumach has been the focus of complaints and testing, many of these changes will benefit the streetcar system as a whole.

Waterfront LRT Design

The TTC Board approved a contract for $15 million for design work on the underground portion of the proposed Waterfront East LRT/streetcar extension. This work is being done jointly with Waterfront Toronto who are responsible for the surface portion of the route from a portal near Yonge Street to Cherry Street including a connection to the existing Distillery Loop.

This contract will take the design of the underground portion to 30% with a project cost estimate leading to a request for Council approval in the second quarter of 2022. Whether this project will actually proceed remains to be seen.

Part of the work will involve staging plans to determine whether and how the project can be built to stretch out spending based on the rate of growth of demand in the eastern waterfront. This statement was a bit puzzling considering the scale of changes required at Union and Queens Quay Stations including lowering the track elevation to provide more space for air circulation to meet modern fire code.

Toronto’s Omnibus Transit Report: Part III

This is the third and final part of my review of the transit reports that will be before Toronto’s Executive Committee on April 9, 2019, and at Council a week later.

In part one, I reviewed the financial issues presented in the reports together with the Scarborough Subway Extension, now known as the Line 2 East Extension (L2EE).

In part two, I turned to SmartTrack, the Relief Line and the Bloor-Yonge station expansion project.

This article reviews the streetcar/LRT projects as presented in the current set of reports.

Relevant documents include:

  • Main report: Toronto’s Transit Expansion Program – Update and Next Steps
  • Attachment 1: A status update on all projects
  • Attachment 3: Waterfront Transit Network – Union Station-Queens Quay Link and East Bayfront Light Rail Transit. [Note: The properties of this attachment were incorrectly set by the authors. Although it really is Attachment 3, it appears on browser tabs as if it were Attachment 2 for the Scarborough Extension.]
  • Attachment 4: Eglinton East LRT
  • Attachment 5: Eglinton West LRT

Much of the LRT network still at some stage of design or construction is a remnant of the Transit City plan announced in 2007. Pieces have have fallen off of that network proposal, notably in Scarborough, but also a few key links that would have knitted the network together allowing sharing of carhouse and maintenance facilities. Confusion about the planning, ownership and funding scheme for parts of the network complicates the situation further.

Although the province has announced that it wishes to take over “the subway”, the boundary is unclear because a previous government decided to take over at least part of the Transit City LRT network, notably the Eglinton/Crosstown and Finch West routes. The Ford government prefers to put as much transit underground as possible, but if Toronto wants to extend an existing route (for example on Eglinton East), the city’s preference will be for surface construction to keep cost within its ability to fund projects.

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Waterfront Transit “Reset”: The Union Station Connection

Toronto’s Waterfront Transit Reset planning has been underway since 2016, and most of the decisions about routing were settled by early 2018.

A major outstanding issue was the link from Queens Quay to Union Station. Three options were originally under consideration:

  • Retaining the streetcar link with an expanded loop at Union to provide greater capacity and an underground junction at Queens Quay leading to the Waterfront East line.
  • Replacing the streetcar operation am “automated people mover” (now “APM”, but originally called a “funicular”) using two linked trains, one in each tunnel, and an expanded station at Queens Quay. The APM trains would be linked by a cable that would move the cars, and they would have no on-board propulsion. When one train is at Queens Quay, the other would be at Union.
  • Replacing the streetcar operation with a pedestrian walkway and moving sidewalk from Union to Queens Quay.

In the two latter schemes, the original idea was to keep the streetcars on the surface at Queens Quay with links down to a station below.

The walkway/moving sidewalk option was discarded early in the process because there was not enough room for a bidirectional ramp (akin to what used to be at Spadina Station) and walkway, and a unidirectional ramp would pose accessibility problems.

Two technologies remained – streetcar and automated people mover (APM) – for the tunnel with sub-options for the interchange between APM and streetcar.

Streetcar with expanded Union loop and Queens Quay Station (modified EA)

APM with streetcar below grade at Queens Quay / Bay

APM with streetcar at grade along Queens Quay

The design of a surface station at Queens Quay proved to be unworkable because of:

  • the space that would be taken out of the street by track, platforms and vertical access to the station below,
  • the volume of transfer traffic projected and its potential conflict with other activity for this location,
  • the need for an outdoor transfer connection.

For both remaining schemes, an underground station would be required at Queens Quay although the design would vary depending on whether the streetcar or people mover option was selected for the Union link.

Overall Evaluation

The two options were evaluated for various factors including user experience, overall network benefit, construction effects, and cost. On balance, the streetcar option won out, and the people mover option was not as simple and cheap as its proponents had thought. The one criterion on which the PM did rank better was construction difficulty.

This recommendation will go to Toronto’s Executive Committee, the TTC Board and Council in April along with reports on other major projects including SmartTrack and the Scarborough Subway Extension. How much attention the Waterfront will get in the midst of debates on larger projects remains to be seen, and of course there is always the problem that available funding falls far short of paying the bills for every project on the table.

Toronto talks a good line about “transit first” development, but never puts up real money. The waterfront is always a project for some indefinite future time, but not now. As a city, we love new buildings and crow over the number of cranes in the sky, but we assume that travel demands these buildings create will magically flow over the existing network. On a regional scale, this has delayed needed growth in GO Transit and the Relief subway line, and on a local scale it limits transit growth to a handful of very expensive subway extensions whose value is counted first in votes.

Development at a scale many parts of the GTA can only dream of will occur within a few kilometres of Union Station, and there is a great danger that transit will not be ready as buildings come on stream.

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The Tangled Web of Waterfront Transit and Sidewalk Labs

The Waterfront East LRT (streetcar) is a years-overdue project. Development marches east from Yonge to the Don River along Queens Quay while transit service amounts to a handful of infrequent and unreliable bus routes. I strongly support the LRT plan, and participated in various advisory groups at Waterfront Toronto and the recently disbanded Sidewalk Labs Mobility Advisory Committee with the hope of seeing the LRT project come to life.

Toronto as a city talks a good line about “transit first” in the waterfront, but does nothing to support this. There is always some other project more important. During the early days of SmartTrack, there were even claims that it would make the Waterfront East LRT unnecessary. That was complete balderdash, along with claims that ST would replace every other project, including a Relief subway line.

Now Mayor John Tory has shifted his position on ST’s benefits somewhat, but keeping his personal project alive diverts attention and funding. A Waterfront Reset study now underway by City Planning, Waterfront Toronto and the TTC owes more to the demand for better transit to the Humber Bay Shores than to the new developments in the eastern waterfront. Political dynamics on City Council are such that the western extension could be first out of the gate leaving the eastern waterfront high and dry, so to speak, for better transit. Design for an extension of the existing streetcar track at Exhibition Loop west to Dufferin with provision to go further is already underway. [See the Exhibition Place Streetcar Link tab within the Waterfront Reset page.]

The most contentious part of the Waterfront Reset has been the link to Union Station. One might think that simply expanding platform space there would be the obvious solution, but there are competing interests. Some residents and other activists argue for a surface LRT straight through the Bay & Queens Quay intersection to the eastern waterfront, while the existing Bay Street tunnel would be repurposed for various other technologies including a moving sidewalk or some form of “people mover”. For a while, Waterfront Toronto’s former CEO was pushing for a “funicular”, although the term is more applicable to transit routes on steep hills than in a relatively flat tunnel.

The existing underground streetcar infrastructure, consisting of a ~540-metre long tunnel under Bay Street from Queens Quay Station to Union Station, opened in 1990. This existing link provides connections between the central-western waterfront, TTC Line 1, GO trains and buses, and the lower downtown core. The existing streetcar loop at Union Station is currently inadequate for present service levels, to and from the west only, because of its single, curved streetcar platform, on a single track, with insufficient space for present volumes of waiting and alighting customers, and the loop would not function effectively or safely if additional service from the east was added.

Currently, options for the link between Union Station and Queens Quay have been narrowed down to a short list of technologies: expanding the underground streetcar capacity at Union Station (loop expansion); or, repurposing the existing underground streetcar tunnel with an automated dual-haul cable-pulled transit system. The study area for the Union Queens Quay Link is illustrated below. [Waterfront Reset web page]

Two designs were presented at a recent public meeting, but I did not report on them here as there are still many details to be worked out. Drawings for these options are not available online.

  1. Two new north-south tracks are added under Bay Street, one on either side of the existing structure. Platforms would be built beside these new tracks so that passengers would load and unload along straight segments rather than on the congested curve at the north end loop. Two configurations are possible: in one all unloading would occur on the east (northbound) side with loading on the west (southbound) side, while in the other each side’s platform would serve one of the two waterfront routes. (For example, cars bound for Waterfront East could serve the east side platform while those going west stopped on the other side. The four-track structure would allow cars to bypass each other.
  2. The streetcar tunnel would be repurposed with a “People Mover” using one train in each half of the existing structure. Queens Quay Station would be substantially modified both as a southern terminus for the People Mover, and with a new underground LRT station. A surface option for this setup was dropped from the short list because of the volume of passengers who would be transferring between the PM and the LRT.

It is ironic that the impetus for removing streetcars from Bay Street came from the hope that the existing portal between Bay and York streets could be filled in, and that a new portal east of Yonge would not be required. However, the People Mover option, with its underground station, does not achieve this goal.

The next public meeting of the Waterfront Reset project will be held in the Brigantine Room at Harbourfront, 235 Queens Quay West, from 6:30 to 8:00 pm on Monday, March 4, 2019.

A third route into Union, the Bremner LRT, did not appear in the City proposals. It would, in any event, be impossible in the People Mover configuration. This proposal never made sense as Bremner is not wide enough to host an LRT route separate from Queens Quay West. A third service competing for platform space and track time at Union would make that interchange even more challenging than with only the west and east LRT services. City Planning could do everyone a favour by formally removing the Bremner route from their maps. This would also end a rather contentious debate about how a this route would affect the area west of Bathurst and south of Fort York.

The Union loop should and could have been expanded during the extended shutdown of streetcar service for the reconstruction of Queens Quay West and the nearby work on GO’s Bay Street Concourse (to which the expanded loop will connect), but there was no political will to spend money on streetcars at Union.

The Union Station connection will be the most expensive part of any upgrade to waterfront transit facilities, and this cost has been a drag on political decision-making. The Waterfront Reset is supposed to report to Council in April as part of an omnibus report on transit projects in Toronto. Once again, the waterfront could take a back seat to the favoured projects: SmartTrack and the Scarborough Subway Extension.

This is the context in which Sidewalk Labs and their proposed Quayside development join the story.

Quayside

Development of the waterfront has followed a standard pattern. Waterfront Toronto, funded jointly by all three levels of government, upgrades infrastructure (mainly utilities and roads), and manages the process for inviting development on public land that is serviced by the new facilities. Private developers bid for the sites, and Waterfront Toronto maintains input through its desigmn review process. (Some privately owned sites ignored WFT, but the majority of the land is in public hands.)

The Quayside site spans Queens Quay mostly between Sherbourne and Parliament Streets. What is quite striking here is the huge size of the Port Lands to the east and south compared with Quayside itself. [Map from Sidewalk Toronto website] The Port Lands are almost 30 times the size of Quayside and the same size as a large chunk of downtown’s business district. A share in any development there is a big prize.

Waterfront Toronto took a different tack with invited bids for a futuristic centre where new technology would be at the heart of the Quayside development. This would not simply be another new set of condos on the water. The winning bidder was Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc. which is also the parent of Google. This company has very deep pockets. Sidewalk Toronto is their local presence.

Original concepts for the area stirred both excitement and skepticism, but the debate quickly focused on technology issues related to invasive monitoring of activities at Quayside, the ownership of data collected, and the role of technology generally including autonomous vehicle (AV) technology from Waymo, another Alphabet company.

Central to the Quayside proposal is the reduction of the carbon footprint both through building design (construction and operating effects) and by shifting much transportation demand to modes such as walking, cycling, shared vehicles and transit. Transit is particularly important because the projected volume to and from the eastern waterfront exceeds 3,000 passengers per hour. The origin-destination pattern for these trips is not conveniently within the Quayside precinct, but spread over downtown. Incoming school and work trips originate even further afield. This is not a demand that autonomous vehicles can touch both for capacity and for reach of service in the foreseeable future, certainly not in the period when the waterfront will develop and be populated.

For me, the Mobility Advisory Committee was a frustrating experience. There was a clear conflict between Sidewalk telling us about their wonderful technology and the committee’s ability to review and comment critically, if only thanks to time constraints, the number of committee members and infrequent meetings. There was far too much “sizzle” and far less hard detail, not to mention a sense that Sidewalk was rather full of themselves about their brave new technology world. The design for Quayside includes provision for AVs, and to some extent the proposed road layout was gerrymandered to increase the contiguous territory where AVs could operate without having to deal with a major artery such as Lake Shore Boulevard.

A fundamental problem with any discussion of AVs is that Quayside is quite small, and most of the local trips within it would be taken on foot or by cycling. AVs might be handy for some journeys, but they would not be the backbone of travel because most trips started or ended well outside of the Quayside area. If AVs were going to have any meaningful presence in Quayside, the project scope had to expand, but how this would occur was not obvious until the Star’s revelation of Sidewalk’s and Google’s designs on the wider waterfront.

A parallel and much more high profile controversy related to the data that would be collected by a very technologically active environment integral to the Quayside proposal. This is a transit blog and I will not delve into all of the threads that debate took, but the discussion served an unexpected purpose. With all of the focus on privacy and the integrity of personal data, other aspects of Sidewalk’s scheme and their wider designs faded into the background. The cynic in me suspects that for all that this might have annoyed Sidewalk, there was an advantage that the bigger picture of development scope and infrastructure funding did not receive the same attention, at least until the Star broke the story.

There was always a nagging suspicion that the real prize for Sidewalk was the wider waterfront, but most discussions looked only at the comparatively small Quayside district. The problem with only reviewing that small precinct is that neither transit nor any AV scheme will rise or fall on the comparatively modest demand of one development district, but of the combined effect of building throughout the waterfront.

A Leak at Sidewalk

On February 14, the Star’s Marco Chown Oved revealed that Sidewalk had designs on the entire Port Lands. His article is based on a presentation deck that has not been released. I asked, and he replied:

A revised presentation was issued by Sidewalk, but it does not include some of the more contentious text cited in Oved’s article.

The foundation of Sidewalk’s proposal is that they would not only finance infrastructure installation throughout Quayside and the Portlands, but that they would be repaid by tapping into future municipal revenues. They would not become developers, but would reap their reward as others built in the area they had serviced.

Internal documents obtained by the Star show Sidewalk Labs plans to make the case that it is “entitled to … a share in the uptick in land value on the entire geography … a share of developer charges and incremental tax revenue on all land.” … estimated to be $6 billion over the next 30 years. [Oved]

This sounds promising if you are a politician accustomed to finding someone in the private sector to take costs off of your hands, at least in the short term. However, it is a form of borrowing just like any debt, and there is no indication of the return Sidewalk (or its funding parent, Alphabet) would expect on its investment. Moreover, there is a risk that economic circumstances will change over coming decades and development could slow or stop in Toronto. Would that risk be part of any deal, shared with Alphabet, or would they expect payment even for infrastructure supporting vacant lots?

Development Charges are poorly understood in Toronto. They are levied city-wide against all new buildings, both residential and commercial, to recoup part of the cost of infrastructure upgrades. They are not site-specific, and buildings everywhere pay the cost of new infrastructure regardless of where it is needed. For example, new buildings downtown helped pay for the Spadina subway extension. (Provincial rules on the DC formula require that the portion of any benefit to existing properties be excluded from the calculation.) It is far from clear that the DC revenue from the Port Lands would be needed only to pay for infrastructure there.

As for tax revenue, property taxes support many municipal services of which only a small portion is capital debt service. Scooping marginal new revenues to pay back Sidewalk’s investment would starve the city of money it needs to support the new population, and this would also dilute the funds available to service City debt overall. (I will avoid the black hole of explaining how City debt financing works here.)

The idea of “Tax Increment Financing” (TIF) has been floated before and it was central to John Tory’s SmartTrack scheme. This something-for-nothing mirage has evaporated. We will now see the City investing substantially in new GO stations while having no control over the service provided to them or the fares charged. Indeed, some of the waterfront lands Sidewalk eyes for TIF benefits were likely also part of the original SmartTrack scheme. One can only collect a tax increment once, and one might even debate which of several projects (SmartTrack, GO RER, Relief Line, Waterfront LRT) contribute to the uplift in land values and taxes.

The revenue streams Sidewalk seeks are municipal, and their proposal is silent on any investment from the provincial or federal levels. Waterfront Toronto, by contrast, is built on a tripartite arrangement with all governments, notably in its signature project the Don Mouth regeneration. If Sidewalk expects to be repaid for its contribution, where are the other “partners”?

Looking more broadly, other financing entities might be interested in this project, and Sidewalk/Alphabet should not be given any preference. One way or another, the investment has to be paid back, and the affected governments will have to get the best deal (including possibly some self-financing) among whatever is on offer.

Earlier I mentioned that it was clear that Quayside alone was too small to be significant in its own right for some of Sidewalk’s goals. Oved quotes Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff:

“We don’t think that 12 acres on Quayside has the scale to actually have the impact on affordability and economic opportunity and transit that everyone aspires to,” Doctoroff said.

This is not exactly news, but a great deal of “consultation” took place on the basis that only the 12 acres were under consideration.

Brand new in the Sidewalk proposal is a new Google Canada headquarters located on the west side of New Cherry Street, a prime spot within “Villiers Island”, a new island that will be created as part of the Don Mouth project. [From p. 10 in the updated Sidewalk presentation deck]

This would have an interesting effect on the initial size of Sidewalk/Google’s presence by placing a major employment node on Villiers Island. If Google/Waymo want a testbed for AVs, this would put their HQ firmly in the neighbourhood and would increase the initial scope of “AV territory”, although this requires that streets be “AV friendly”.

One big concern about AVs is their co-existence with the LRT line. In an illustration of the new Queens Quay, an AV is clearly shown in front of a streetcar on the “LRT” right-of-way. Bad enough that there is a conflict with AVs stopping on the right-of-way, but with the expanded scope possible to serve the Google HQ, will Waymo expect to use the LRT right-of-way throughout the eastern waterfront? Would this be a condition of the contract for any financing of the LRT project?

Sidewalk knows that the LRT is an important component of waterfront development.

To encourage development, Sidewalk will finance an LRT expansion through the area and fund the construction of “horizontal infrastructure” such as “the power and thermal grid, and waste removal.”

“This is something that is on nobody’s realistic drawing board. We would ensure it gets financed and all we want to do is get paid back out of the increase in value in terms of property taxes and developer charges that are only possible when that LRT gets extended,” said Doctoroff.

“To be clear,” Doctoroff said. “We would not own the LRT. It would remain public.” [Oved]

However, it is not clear how much of the LRT Sidewalk would actually finance, and if this were only the eastern end through Quayside, this could leave the critical link to Union Station in doubt.

In the wider scope, Sidewalk envisages a second phase with an LRT extension south of the Ship Channel to serve land that is now intended to be primarily industrial (at the east end) and recreational (at the west). There is no sense of whether this is a tactic to increase future returns, or simply blue-skying by Sidewalk’s planners. Going over the Ship Channel (twice) will be an expensive proposition as lift bridges will be required to provide clearance for ships entering and leaving the channel. (The existing bascule bridge on Cherry Street will remain, but it cannot carry an LRT line.)

Conclusions

I cannot avoid the sense that Sidewalk has badly overplayed their hand, and in the process has compromised whatever discussions were in progress on their plans.

According to Oved:

One slide states there have been “weekly briefings with officials from the three levels of government,” and “regulatory dispensations,” have been drafted to allow the plan to go ahead.

The whole Sidewalk process has been shrouded in confidentiality agreements, and this has not engendered trust with folks like me, not to mention Council members, who try to keep tabs on what is happening. It is a classic problem of public-private partnerships where all critical debate and decisions happen behind closed doors beyond the ability of anyone outside an inner circle to review.

How much has actually been committed is impossible to know. Sidewalk may have been told “if you want to do X, then you will need dispensation Y”. What we do not know is whether those dispensations are simply for discussion or have the active support of staff and politicians in the various governments.

Sidewalk’s position is further undermined when they reveal that they view problems with public perceptions to be related to the narrow issue of technology use and control [see Oved]. The broader implications of a runaway development scheme cooked up behind closed doors are not mentioned. Implications of widespread information technology presence are understood by a relatively small group, but questions of “done deals” and influence in high places are political issues everyone understands.

The entire proposal contains many sweeteners including sustainability, support for the emerging industry of wood buildings, and supposed improvements in the infrastructure of delivering services to a community. These may offset concerns about invasive technology, but are all of these simply a smokescreen for a much bigger grab for control of the Port Lands?

The ink was barely dry on the Oved story when David Rider reported that a source at Queen’s Park told the Star’s Robert Benzie that the plan “had no chance of proceeding”.

“There is no way on God’s green earth that Premier Doug Ford would ever sign off on handing away nearly 500 acres of prime waterfront property to a foreign multinational company that has been unable to reassure citizens their privacy and data would be protected,” confided the high-ranking Progressive Conservative insider.

All public agencies and officials involved in this project need to go on record about their knowledge of and support for the Sidewalk proposal. This is not the time for bromides about the wonders of new technology and much-needed development.

If we are giving away control of the waterfront, it’s time we all knew what is going on.

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]

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