Seizing the Transit Initiative
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Seizing the Transit Initiative

This week, news came out that plans to bury the Eglinton LRT may be revised. Does this signal a break between TTC Chair Karen Stintz, council, and Mayor Ford on the transit file?

For the past year, TTC Chair Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) appeared content to advocate for Mayor Ford’s transit agenda, right down to her recent vote on the 2012 budget. Never mind that a majority of councillors approved a $5 million addition to the TTC subsidy, to undo planned service cuts. Stintz was right there on the barricades defending the Ford budget story, and planned to thwart the will of council by using the money either for capital spending or for Wheel Trans.

Now Stintz champions a revised rapid transit plan, one that blends bits of the original Transit City, a small fragment of Ford’s Sheppard subway extension scheme, and a bus rapid transit (BRT) upgrade to Finch Avenue running across the city.

First, a clarification, since the term “LRT” has suffered much abuse, and misuse, in our current debate. A light rapid transit route is one with streetcar-like vehicles running in reserved lanes with limited cross streets and priority at traffic signals. “Light” refers more to the infrastructure than the vehicles because complete grade separation of tracks and stations is not required as it is for subways.

Now, a rough outline of the revised plan:

  • The Eglinton (Crosstown) LRT would revert to a surface alignment between Leaside and Kennedy, much as proposed in Transit City. In Transit City, only a short section at Don Mills Station would have been underground; in the new version vehicles would surface east of the Don Valley Parkway.
  • The Scarborough RT would be converted to LRT and through-routed with Eglinton as in the current plan.

Funds released from the Eglinton project (estimates of saving range from $1 to $2 billion) would be shifted to paying for:

  • An extension of the Sheppard subway two kilometres east to Victoria Park, with a stop at Consumers Road.
  • A BRT line stretching across Finch from eastern Scarborough to Humber College in northwestern Etobicoke.

This plan appears to have good support from across the political spectrum of Toronto council—though not from the mayor, who remains opposed to rail transit on streets. (Rob Ford’s policy advisor, Mark Towhey, told the National Post that they still preferred the current option of burying Eglinton entirely, saying “Residents don’t want trains running down the middle of the street.”) However, support for specifics beyond the Eglinton line may not be as broad, and a consensus could be undone by conflicting priorities.

Metrolinx and Queen’s Park bought into the original Ford plan with undue haste almost a year ago, and they must agree to any revisions. Metrolinx President and CEO, Bruce McCuaig, emphasizes that council needs to be clear in its desires. It’s about time. For the past year, Metrolinx worked on the Ford plan as if it were official city policy without any council endorsement.

If Toronto heads down this path, more is at stake than just shuffling around an $8.3-billion nest egg from Queen’s Park. Some open questions:

  • Recent attention has focused on the eastern portion of the Eglinton line, but debate remains about the section from Black Creek west to Jane Street. How will the line pass through Mount Dennis (Weston and Eglinton) and connect with GO services on the rail corridor? During the environmental assessment, TTC and Metrolinx staff fought for a surface route claiming that a tunnel would be too expensive. This claim shattered when Queen’s Park agreed to put the whole Crosstown route underground.
  • A two-station extension of the Sheppard line will take some time to build, and by the time it opens, the mayor’s anti-LRT stance may have less weight in transit planning. Will Victoria Park Station simply be a temporary terminal that anticipates further extension, or will it provide for the possibility of a Sheppard East LRT? How would a Finch BRT compete with rapid transit on Sheppard?
  • Construction priorities could be revisited especially if Finch will be a comparatively inexpensive and easy to build BRT operation. Could this be moved up so that a Finch West BRT opens concurrently with the Spadina subway extension in 2015? Politicians love “quick wins” and this is an obvious one.

Completely missing from the current discussions is any comment about waterfront transit. Even though a council-approved review of plans for the Port Lands and the area around the Don River is now underway, there is no talk of how to finance transit to serve a large population east of Yonge. TTC cost estimates for such a transit line continue to rise thanks to the complexity of expanding the streetcar loop at Union Station and the challenges of building a new tunnel exit to Queen’s Quay East. Expensive this may be, but the cost is tiny compared with the billions to be spent elsewhere.

Toronto cannot afford to muddle through and hope to serve the new developments with rudimentary extensions of the bus network. This is not the “transit first” planning we were supposed to see on the waterfront: developments here will be in place before any of the suburban lines opens for business.

Finally, council must address the issue of transit service quality and quantity. Just building new lines isn’t enough, and Toronto must strongly support day-to-day operations. Even Metrolinx recognizes that operating costs and service may be a funding challenge, but they form an integral part of transit delivery. How can Toronto justify billions in construction while passengers languish on overfull buses and streetcars? The new alliance on council must think hard about what it expects transit to do and how they are willing to pay for this service.

Council now knows that it can amend a Ford budget, and those who would see better transit cannot hide behind the spectre of a penny-pinching, all-powerful mayor. Council must seize control of the plans for future years so that the TTC goes into 2013 and beyond with a strong mandate for improvement, not further cutbacks.