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politics

John Tory’s “One Toronto” Transit Plan

Mayoral candidate proposes single, bold change, but fails to confront the transit problems Toronto faces today.

Today, mayoral candidate John Tory announced his transit plan during an address to the Canadian Club.

The plan is almost entirely about one line—”SmartTrack” in Tory terminology—that would be built mostly on existing GO Transit corridors to link Markham, downtown Toronto, and the Airport Corporate Centre.

“SmartTrack” would serve western Scarborough, southern Toronto, and the centre of Etobicoke—a transit line for everyone, not just those pesky downtowners. Its fundamental premise is that rapid transit should go beyond serving inbound riders, and should make it possible for outgoing commuters to travel to jobs in places beyond the city—places they now reach only by car.

Image courtesy of the John Tory campaign. Larger version here.

In a clear move to attract subway advocates, the route is described as a “surface subway,” which is a more marketable term than Metrolinx’s “Regional Express Rail” (RER). The technology would be electric multiple unit (EMU), which involves regular commuter rail passenger cars that use electric propulsion as the subway does. This technology is used worldwide, but not in Toronto—thanks to GO Transit’s less-than-enthusiastic embrace of electrification.

EMU from Aukland, New Zealand. Image courtesy of the John Tory campaign.

Even where the line diverges from the existing rail corridors, it would be physically separate from roads, much as the subway is north of Rosedale Station. Eglinton Avenue West includes a wide swath of vacant land originally intended for the Richview Expressway, and this would become the location of the new trains. Effectively, this would replace the proposed western extension of the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT line. “SmartTrack” would not actually enter the airport, but would serve the office areas to the south.

Tory’s campaign pitches this as a full embrace of the “RER Vision,” which would bring Toronto into the same league as London, U.K. and other cities with extensive commuter rail networks. This means that Tory looks at transit not as the “TTC” or “GO,” but as one system that should exploit whatever resources are available to move people around the region. That positive outlook is offset by Tory’s continued embrace of the Scarborough subway, which draws many of its potential riders from the same catchment area as his own regional line. Moreover, Tory plays down the role of a “Downtown Relief Line” and claims that he supported it only as a general idea and never endorsed the specific subway scheme now being studied. He fails to grasp the wider role of the DRL as the first stage in a Don Mills subway.

SmartTrack would open by 2021—a very aggressive target considering the lethargic pace of Metrolinx expansion—and offer service at least every 15 minutes. The Scarborough subway would still be under construction, and a good chunk of the subway’s potential riders would have a better way to get around the city.

Tory hopes that with Toronto bringing one-third of the anticipated $8 billion cost to the table, other governments might be persuaded to spend big and spend quickly. He even believes that a Tim Hudak win in the coming provincial election would not be fatal to the plan, because it just “makes way too much sense.”

Toronto would pay for its share with Tax Increment Financing (TIF), which operates by earmarking taxes collected only because the new transit line is in place. Tory’s team has done preliminary number crunching, and it estimates that, based simply on lands around the rail corridor from Liberty Village to the Don River, there would be $150 million in new annual tax revenue. Of this, part would be earmarked for Tory’s proposal, with the equivalent of $2.5 billion (2014) dollars taken from this source. A detailed study (after a Tory victory) would be needed to verify this. What Tory’s plan does not tell us is whether reserving some of the taxes for SmartTrack would elbow other deserving projects off of the table.

Metrolinx is keen on Regional Express Rail, but whether it wants to push ahead as quickly remains to be seen. As for Ottawa, a lot would depend on who was in power when the time came for funding negotiations.

One of SmartTrack’s major roles would be to relieve Yonge-Bloor transit congestion. Riders who would otherwise funnel into the outer parts of the subway network would instead have a direct route to downtown. For this to have a meaningful effect, though, other factors—including frequent service, ease of access at stations, and a low fare—would have to be in place. Tory proposes that although this would be a Metrolinx line, a regular TTC fare (and free transfers to and from connecting TTC routes) would apply. In that respect, SmartTrack would be more like the Eglinton LRT line (a Metrolinx route that will be part of the TTC fare system) than a GO line, even though it would run mostly in GO corridors.

The new route is projected to carry 200,000 riders per day, but Tory’s team was unsure how many of these riders would be redirected from downtown trips, how many would be taking new counter-peak trips to suburban centres, and how many would be making off-peak trips. The numbers would depend in part on the service that would be operated. If only four trains per hour come into downtown, this would limit how many trips could be rerouted from Yonge-Bloor.

Tory was at pains to establish that he was not abandoning the proposed Downtown Relief Line subway, but suggested that its importance would diminish if his new route was in place. So the campaign pitch is that we would see the new SmartTrack by 2021, when the DRL would still be a decade away under current plans. One big reason for this, of course, is that the top subway building priority in Toronto is the Scarborough extension.

Apart from the SmartTrack proposal, there isn’t much to the Tory transit plan. The only bone thrown to surface bus and streetcar riders is a proposal for express buses to downtown from Don Mills and Liberty Village (the latter to compensate for problems people have with the overcrowded King and Queen streetcars). More service on these routes could provide benefits sooner and over a wider territory than a single GO station at Liberty Village, but Tory’s policy advisers seem not to have considered this. Nothing in his plan speaks to service quality or to capacity on the rest of the transit network, which has been affected by the cuts and constraints imposed by the Ford/Stintz regime.

Other parts of the subway network, notably the proposed Richmond Hill extension, get no mention either, although the campaign acknowledges that relief at Yonge-Bloor is essential to a network that would handle new riders from the north. Many of those riders should actually be accommodated by improved GO service as part of an RER network, but timing and political pressure for yet another subway could pre-empt any such discussion.

John Tory presents himself as the one mayoral candidate who can work with all parties and all factions of Toronto council. He seeks to win support based on a single, bold change to the way Toronto views transit, but he risks being seen as a candidate who has one big trick and little more. Like many others, including those at Queen’s Park, his focus is on building at five-to-10-year horizons, not on confronting the problems Toronto has today.

The city will certainly need more than a few express buses during the four-year term of this would-be mayor. The “One Toronto” transit plan omits huge parts of the network and the city, and fails the basic test of improving transit today and of undoing the damage wrought by Rob Ford. How long must Toronto wait just to be able to get on the Dufferin bus?

[Disclosure: Steve Munro has been consulted by several municipal candidates regarding transit issues, but is not serving as an official policy adviser to any of them, and has not received compensation from any of them. He has and will continue to offer his input to any candidate who asks for it equally (much as City staff briefings are available to all candidates who are interested), and he will continue to comment freely on the platforms of all candidates.]

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