What's Next for the Railpath?
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What’s Next for the Railpath?

The award-winning first phase of the West Toronto Railpath has us impatiently waiting for the results of the phase two feasibility study.

Phase two of the West Toronto Railpath awaits the completion of a feasibility study by the city. Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/subjective_art/5030936359/"}Subjective Art{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/pool/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Undoubtedly, the first phase of the West Toronto Railpath has been a success. And the two councillors whose wards the linear park runs between will tell you as much. Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park) praises the space as “beautiful and accessible,” and Councillor Ana Bailão (Ward 18, Davenport) says the project has connected communities, bringing people together. Last month, a Toronto Urban Design Award of Excellence recognized the work of the project’s landscape architect, Scott Torrance. Naturally, we wanted to find out how the Railpath’s expansion is progressing.

“As any cyclist coming from the west end knows, there is no very good east-west connection,” says Perks, explaining the need for the Railpath. The linear park opened the first phase of the project in October 2009 and currently runs a little over two kilometres along the border of the Junction Triangle and Roncesvalles neighbourhoods.

The Railpath is an exciting addition to Toronto’s public landscape. It’s reclaiming unused space, situated in a corridor of abandoned railway beds that haven’t been put to use in over four decades, notes the website for Friends of West Toronto Railpath, a community group supporting the project.

Railway tracks can pose a problem for cyclists travelling into the core of the city, and Perks says the Railpath can help solve that. Bailão agrees that the park is a great and fast way to cycle. The city is “always short of green space downtown,” she says, noting that the Railpath also functions as a “great place to jog or walk, or to teach how to ride a bike.”

A Nuit Blanche installation seen from the West Toronto Railpath. Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/vgedris/5165063098/"}Vic Gedris{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/pool/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

The next stage of the Railpath’s construction would extend it another two kilometers along the railway beds reaching into West Queen West. Two years after the completion of phase one, phase two remains under consideration, contingent on the results of a feasibility study the City is conducting, expected this fall. Bailão is hopeful that after the study is complete, construction of the second phase can begin next year with a proposed 2014 completion date.

There are, however, difficulties in the plans, as the route would run along an operating GO rail corridor. “Getting bridges and properties to the necessary width for Railpath is a challenge,” concedes Perks. Metrolinx, the Ontario government’s transportation agency, concurs. “GO Transit will accommodate the bike path where possible; however, there are a few pinch points where there is simply not enough room to accommodate the bike path within the rail corridor,” spokesperson Malon Edwards tells us in an email.

Perks thinks Metrolinx isn’t doing enough: “The problem with Metrolinx is while they were helpful in the more northern portion of Railpath to Bloor, they are not helpful south of Bloor.” He says that the agency is “redoing bridges and when asked to accommodate extra width, gave a flat no.” Perks believes money played a role in their decision.

Metrolinx says that timing requirements attached to funding was the main concern. “It was not possible to include any Railpath bridge requirements within this construction timeframe,” explains Edwards, “because federal Infrastructure Strategic Fund (ISF) rules required us to complete the work in 2011.”

Friends of West Toronto Railpath hopes it will eventually run south to Union Station. Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/vgedris/4815451735/"}Vic Gedris{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist/pool/"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

Still, Metrolinx leaves the door open for further participation. “GO Transit will make every effort possible to accommodate the Railpath where space is available within our existing Georgetown South rail corridor, including future structures that the City of Toronto may wish to construct on our existing railway bridge foundations,” Edwards writes.

For now, the dream of one day having the Railpath running all the way down to Union Station (as Friends of West Toronto Railpath would like) seems far off, and progress on the Railpath hinges upon the results of the phase two feasibility study. Slowly, stakeholders are reawakening to shepherd the next stage along. The Friends of West Toronto Railpath website, for example, has sprung back to life after a three-and-a-half-month hiatus. Perks suggests that people wanting to get involved with the Railpath would do so best by applying pressure to the provincial government.

Given the battles over bike lanes this past year and the politicization of cyclists, the Railpath will likely become a higher-profile project moving into its second phase. The project’s completion appears worth fighting for, especially given the positive effect that has come out of the similar High Line project in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. As the New York Times notes, the recently completed elevated park has “revitalized a swath of the city and generated $2 billion in private investment surrounding the park,” against a $115-million investment from the city.

Granted, the scenic vantage points of New York from the High Line means it has a different (read: tourist) appeal than the Railpath. However, Perks thinks the Railpath would create more benefits than the High Line. “I’ve walked the High Line, and the Railpath is even better,” he says, pointing out that “while the High Line is recreational, the Railpath would also act as a transportation corridor.”