Last month we reported on the activities of an alliance of individuals and community groups called The Clean Train Coalition, who at that time were just beginning their effort to promote public awareness of some of the environmental hazards, including increased air pollution from diesel exhaust, posed by a rail expansion plan by Metrolinx, the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area’s new regional transit authority. The plan, currently in its third round of public “open house” commentary periods, will receive community input until the close of its provincially mandated public assessment period on July 30. If the plan were to go ahead unchanged, the result would be the addition of enough tracks to the rail corridor between Union Station and Malton to enable carriers to increase VIA, GO, and freight train traffic to several times current levels. The plan would also would establish a convenient rail link between Union Station and Pearson Airport, to be operated by a private carrier.
Since Torontoist’s last article, The Clean Train Coalition has contributed to what can now be called a successful campaign to wrench compromise from Metrolinx. On May 26, word came from city councilman Joe Pantalone’s office that Metrolinx had abandoned plans to build a so-called “super bridge,” which would have raised Strachan Avenue far above Wellington Street West and Douro Street so that trains could pass underneath. Citizen groups, including The Clean Train Coalition, had decried this solution as being too disruptive to the existing geography of the community surrounding that intersection. Metrolinx’s new proposal for the Strachan bridge involves a much sleeker and less obtrusive structure, with access for pedestrians and cyclists. A concise explanation of the compromise, with pictures, is available on the Save Strachan blog.
Also, on that exact same day, Metrolinx announced that it would, this summer, initiate a project “to study the electrification of its entire GO Transit rail system as a future alternative to diesel trains currently in service.” There can be no doubt that The Clean Train Coalition’s efforts were a key factor in bringing this result about. In fact, in an article published on the day of the announcements, an unnamed source told The Star‘s Tess Kalinowski that a member of The Coalition would “likely” be asked to join the study’s advisory committee.
If one were so inclined, it would be possible to feel sorry for Metrolinx. These rail expansions are only the first steps in the execution of a Metrolinx-authored twenty-five year strategic plan for transportation in the region. The plan, known as The Big Move, is available to the public as a one-hundred-thirteen page PDF document. It’s a transit manifesto in full colour, with promises of things like bike racks on all buses and light rail vehicles (page thirty-two) and an integrated fare card for all GTA-region transit systems (page forty-two). There’s something about The Big Move that’s beautiful and self-contained. It’s like a Fabergé egg.
Metrolinx’s new CEO, Robert Prichard, who was installed last month by Ontario’s provincial government to help guide the agency through a massive restructuring of its executive board, has spent some time, during his first few weeks on the job, speaking publicly in defense of the egg. He said, during a June 10 speech to the Building Industry and Land Development Association, by way of justification for The Big Move’s… er… bigness, that immediate sweeping improvements to transit are necessary in the region, because there simply hasn’t been any progress on this front for the past twenty years. Prichard’s exact words were:
Between 1950 and the mid-1980s, we regularly built new transit infrastructure and Toronto gained a reputation as one of the best run cities in the world. Then, starting in the late 1980s, for 20 years, we virtually stopped. As a result, we lost a generation of investment and the growing congestion and expanding commuter times are the direct result.
Other parts of the speech stressed the clarity and popularity of The Big Move, as well as the necessity to “engage openly and thoroughly” with members of the neighborhoods and communities most directly affected by Metrolinx construction projects. All this to avoid what Prichard considers the ultimate worst-case scenario: “to repeat the mistake of the past 20 years and to fail to grasp the full potential of improved transit to contribute to a stronger and more prosperous GTHA.”
That’s a dire consequence. If Prichard is right, then acquiescing to the unmet demands of The Clean Train Coalition and their supporters starts to look risky. Yes, there are unmet demands. The previously mentioned study of electrification that Metrolinx has already publicly committed itself to is only an investigation, and won’t require Metrolinx to adhere to any kind of timetable—or even to electrify at all, if it decides not to. This isn’t an ideal outcome for The Coalition, whose stated goal has been to convince Metrolinx, with public and political pressure, to completely halt its effort to construct tracks for diesel locomotives on its new rail expansions and instead re-calibrate the plan to accommodate only electric trains, so as to avoid the negative consequences of airborne pollutants from diesel exhaust. This process would certainly cause construction delays, though it’s unclear how severe they might be. In the absence of evidence, there’s no way of knowing how waiting to electrify might impact some of the unequivocally positive aspects of Metrolinx’s designs.
Torontoist brought this concern before The Clean Train Coalition’s Eli Malinsky, who was generally skeptical of Metrolinx’s claims with regards to the urgency of its initiatives. “I worry,” he wrote, “that this is a false argument—that any delay due to electrification will cause ‘unreasonable’ hardship. Where is the proof? And what of the interim ‘unreasonable hardship’ for over a quarter million residents who live along the tracks?”
Malinsky and The Coalition are not alone in their concern over the toxicity of diesel exhaust. In an article in June 9’s Globe and Mail, reporter Brodie Fenlon described a report by Toronto’s medical officer of health, set to go before the city’s board of health today. The report recommends the use of electric trains over diesel on the proposed rail expansions, as a public health measure.
In his exchange with Torontoist, Malinsky elaborated further on the public health danger posed by diesel exhaust from trains. He wrote:
The best case scenario—and the least realistic—is that 300,000+ residents across the corridor are exposed to toxic, carcinogenic diesel exhaust for 15 years. This is the entire development cycle of two generations of kids. But does anyone actually believe that 15 years after a $875 million investment, the Province will suddenly invest in electrification? Why on earth would we redo this project? Why on earth would we build a diesel air-rail link in 2009?
The Air Quality and Human Health Assessment on Metrolinx’s public comment portal admits that there would be “possible respiratory irritation in sensitive individuals living at specific points along the corridor,” but claims that this would only be problematic during relatively rare periods of acute emissions from not only trains, but nearby idling buses, cars, and trucks.
The confounding thing about this controversy is that both sides claim, convincingly, to be serving the long-term public good. The argument isn’t over whether or not Toronto needs more and better regional transit. Everybody agrees that it does. Grossly simplified, the dispute seems instead to be over whether the standard for “long-term” should be set by the growth cycles of a region, or by the growth cycles of people currently living in that region (at the possible expense of any additional thousands or millions of people who might like to come join them, exhaust fumes or no). Metrolinx would serve the region at the possible expense of individuals; activists would have it the other way. Neither side has yet been able to produce a data point convincing enough to silence the other.
If The Big Move is an egg, as we have twice already insisted, community activism might turn it into a frittata. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—as long as it’s an edible one, and big enough to share.