Let's Talk About Relief
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Let’s Talk About Relief

Metrolinx, the City of Toronto, and York Region are hosting public meetings to discuss transit studies—but riders will have to wait a while longer for relief.

Congestion—of both the road and transit varieties—is a big issue throughout the Greater Toronto Area, and no more so than on the Yonge subway.

Beginning April 5, Metrolinx, the City of Toronto, and York Region will host a series of public meetings to discuss studies related to transit relief for the Yonge corridor.

Two separate studies are on the table:

  • The Yonge Relief Network Study, a Metrolinx project that looks broadly at the options for increased travel capacity not just on Yonge itself, but in the wider area from which the north-south network draws its riders.
  • The Relief Line Project Assessment, a joint TTC/City of Toronto study that will lead to a formal Transit Project Assessment later in 2014.

The two studies overlap, but they differ fundamentally in character and scope. One looks at the broad regional network, while the other contemplates options for a specific route within that network. The work is complicated by the municipal election campaign now underway, and by the possibility of a provincial election later in 2014. Timelines are longer than they might be otherwise, and there is always the chance that a new regime could derail the whole process.

The Yonge subway is a vital part of the regional network, but it serves multiple, overlapping travel markets. Some riders make trips within Toronto that originate on the Yonge line itself, while others transfer from the Bloor-Danforth line. Some riders come from York Region via what are now feeder bus services, but will in the future be extended subway lines. The critical part of the subway network stretches from Bloor Station southward.

In the 2006 Toronto Tomorrow Survey, 7,600 of the 28,700 morning peak-hour riders travelling south from Bloor had come from Scarborough or from the east side of the old Toronto and East York, while another 17,000 had come from either north central Toronto or York Region—meaning there was little demand placed on the Bloor-Yonge interchange from west of downtown or Etobicoke. Transit relief for the east and north, then, is the greatest priority.

The following subway improvements, currently underway, will lead to an increase in capacity:

  • new subway cars (10 per cent increase)
  • automatic train control (35 per cent increase)
  • diverting riders to extended Spadina subway in 2016 (5-10 per cent improvement)

Impressive though the cumulative increase may be, some of this capacity has already been consumed by growth, and more will be lost in the years before a relief line is approved, funded, and built. In the short- to medium-term, the question for Metrolinx is whether any of the northern or eastern demand can be shifted from the subway to GO Transit.

The relief line is a hot topic for the Toronto election, for residents of wards that may be served and affected by a new rapid-transit route, and for a small army of would-be transit planners who visit various websites to conduct endless debates about possible routes. All of them will be disappointed by this round of public meetings.

The mandate given to planners by city council is to consult not on the relief line itself, but on the study process—they’ll be considering the overall terms of reference, the consultation plan, and the evaluation criteria that will be used to decide among options for route alignment, station placement, and technology. Planning staff will return to council in June 2014 to report on this first phase and to seek authority to proceed through the remainder of the study and consultation.

Future phases will eventually arrive at the question of routes and station locations, not to mention the problem of yard capacity for an expanded subway fleet. The City and TTC will work through a long list of options, then a short list, and finally a draft recommended option for a relief line. Each round of study will be increasingly focused on flagging problems that would eliminate options from consideration and will refine the designs of those that remain.

Metrolinx will be seeking feedback on a preliminary list of options that, as of the time of writing, has not yet been published—they will include long-term infrastructure upgrades, but also short- and medium-term changes, such as improved frequencies on GO lines, better integration between regional systems at both the service and fare level, and policy decisions about the role of each component in the regional network.

Changes within the existing system must, by definition, be fairly inexpensive and easy to implement—improved service frequency would be one example. However, such changes are limited by available equipment, track time, and crews, especially when it comes to adding service at peak times. New policies could involve a fare structure that would attract riders to GO Transit, and to joint trips with GO and other local systems in the region. Service optimization, according to Metrolinx, is the fastest way to improve connections in the network.

While these changes would add to operating costs, the new policies could quickly divert riders from the subway. Short-to-medium term relief could be available faster and at considerably less cost than a major infrastructure project. All this is based on the assumption that GO has or will be able to provide the capacity to absorb more demand.

Metrolinx will winnow a large selection of corridor options to eliminate the impractical, the inappropriate, the too costly, and the too difficult. The shorter list will be reviewed in detail to see how well each proposal contributes to the overall network and addresses the specific problems of the Yonge corridor.

By June 2014, Metrolinx will have recommended a “bundle” (its word) of transit solutions, which will feed into the City’s study by establishing whether there are prerequisites for a relief line, such as the locations of interchanges with GO Transit. Metrolinx should also know what is or is not possible with the GO rail network in the medium-term, and how much time GO improvements will be able to buy before a relief line must become available.

Projects from phase one of the Metrolinx Big Move plan are not on the table for review—this means that neither the Union-Pearson Express, nor the planned LRT lines on Sheppard or Finch will be revisited in this study.

Overall, Metrolinx recognizes the need for a variety of solutions to address the location and needs not just of today’s riders, but also those of decades to come. No one policy or project will fix the challenges of transit growth and congestion that have been ignored for decades.

This is a crowded political year, and everyone wants quick promises, decisions, and commitments. The challenge will be to attract interest to detailed studies and to ensure they remain relevant for voters and whatever administration follows in 2015.

Toronto needs better transit, but instead has only a mound of reports and empty political promises. The Yonge subway is packed, while city council argues over future extensions. GO Transit runs a few commuter trains on each of its north-south routes, but improved service has been slow to arrive.

That the City and Metrolinx relief studies exist acknowledges that failure to improve the network is not an option: if its problems are not addressed, the GTA will become the victim of its own growth. Attractive transit that people can ride in moderate comfort must be more than a dream—more than a mirage that drifts endlessly on the horizon.