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TTC Backs Downtown Relief Line, Reopens Sheppard and Scarborough Subway Debates

A series of symbolic votes, not entirely consistent with one another, coming out of the TTC board.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/seango/8033888446/in/faves-30577037@N03/"}seango{/a}, from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Plans for a new subway in Toronto are—as they ever were—still just lines on paper, but a renewed push to realize them is gaining steam at City Hall. Last week TTC staff released a report on what is being called (to the frustration of many) the Downtown Relief Line (DRL), a new subway loop that could, in its most ambitious version, start at Eglinton Avenue East, go down through Pape Station and south to Queen or King and the Financial District, and then extend as far west as Roncesvalles. That report recommends the TTC proceed with detailed studies of what it would take to get such a subway line built, and that both Toronto and Metrolinx make constructing it a high priority.

Today, the TTC board endorsed that report, which will now go to city council for further debate.

The subway line in question has a troubled history: generations of residents and planners have said it’s a good idea, but nobody has managed to come up with a plan to pay for it—at least, not one politician is willing to stake his or her re-election chances on. It’s further complicated by current political divides at City Hall, where the downtown-vs.-suburbs rhetoric continues to rage. This is why the proposed line’s name bothers some: “Downtown Relief Line” implies a nice cushy ride for those latte-sipping denizens south of Bloor, while the rest of the city suffers, without relief, in slow-moving buses.

As was made clear by TTC staff today, nothing could be further from the truth. Subways are the busiest south of Bloor, but that’s not because downtown residents are riding them—it’s the population from outside the core that needs higher-order transit, to get to work, school, and entertainment destinations downtown. The TTC’s manager of service planning, Bill Dawson, summarized it this way: staff are projecting that by 2031 there will be a 51 per cent growth of travel to downtown, and 83 per cent of that increase will be from outside Toronto. GO Rail–originating journeys, which currently make up 34 per cent of inbound TTC trips, are expected to increase to 49 per cent. The Yonge line is nearing its maximum capacity, and the DRL is meant to target our most urgent transit-infrastructure needs, as determined by projected growth in density, ridership, and employment patterns.

The TTC has larger issues than the optics of what it calls this proposed new line though, as it still doesn’t have a funding strategy to accompany those pretty lines on a map. City council will consider a list of possible revenue tools (ranging from property-tax increases to road tolls) shortly, and Metrolinx is set to release its own report on the subject next June. But even if the funding issue—a huge one—gets settled, Metrolinx intends to build the DRL but has no intention of doing so anytime soon: the project is currently slated for a later phase of development (in years 16–25, specifically).

Complicating all this—or at least the public’s perception thereof—is the fact that immediately after endorsing the new report and declaring the DRL a priority that needs our urgent attention, the TTC board also green lit two feasibility studies that would reopen the debates about whether or not to extend the Sheppard subway—an endeavour that was promised in Mayor Rob Ford’s campaign and moved today by Peter Milczyn (Ward 5, Etobicoke-Lakeshore)—and whether to convert the Scarborough RT to a subway rather than to an LRT, moved by Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough-Centre). Council fought bitterly about similar proposals less than a year ago, and decided after heated debated to restore the original light-rail plans. The TTC is close to signing a master agreement governing those light-rail plans with the provincial government (which is picking up the tab), and once those agreements are signed—which might be as soon as the next few days, TTC CEO Andy Byford told reporters today—we are legally locked into the LRT plans.

Essentially, commissioners voted to study something there’s no reasonable prospect they’ll build, and which council as a whole rejected just a few months ago. (“Stupid, stupid,” declared councillor and TTC commissioner John Parker, who was out of the room for the vote.) This is sure to suck up headlines, and to reinforce the concerns that Toronto city councillors are unable to summon the fortitude to make a transit plan based on evidence (rather than political interests) and stick to it for more than 10 minutes at a time.

Really, though, the feasibility studies are almost certain to have no effect. TTC Chair Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence), though she voted for the studies, said they were just requests for information, and told reporters that they will not change any plans the TTC already has for LRT on Sheppard or for the Scarborough RT replacement. Soon after, she tweeted, a bit more bluntly: “So we’re clear: the #TTC expert reports will say a Sheppard closed loop makes no sense and the Scarborough BD extension does. No changes.” The political spin will rage on, but for now there’s no reason to think actual plans will be revised in light of any of today’s decisions.

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