A transit plan that is not completely crazy, writes John Parker.
The old joke that defines a camel as a horse designed by a committee has to concede that a camel, at the very least, is designed well for what it is meant to do.
The same probably can’t be said of the transit plans produced by the parade of politicians—municipal and provincial—that has tried to settle on a plan for Scarborough in recent years.
That this story now appears headed towards a defensible conclusion owes as much to the fact that the politically-recommended plan collapsed under the weight of its own insanity, as it does to the mercifully level-headed thinking of City Hall’s planning professionals.
To be fair, the issue of how to grow high-order transit in Scarborough is complicated. Not only are there honest differences as to how Scarborough’s transit needs and goals are best achieved but political blood has been spilled all over the floor on the question as to what the transit needs really are. Should the primary goal be to move the greatest number of passengers at the greatest speed? To serve local communities? To keep transit commuters off the road and keep space clear for drivers? To support a planning vision that aims to transform vast expanses of barren parking lots into idyllic urbanized midrise corridors?
Or is the goal mostly just to pour a few billion taxpayer dollars into a ploy to score the approval of Scarborough voters?
There has also been complete confusion as to the purposes to be served and the probable implications of each option on offer: What is light rail, anyway? Is it what you settle for if you aren’t prepared to spring for a subway? Will it put car traffic in a perpetual snarl? Is it a way to build something cheap and fast to address immediate pressures? Is it a penny-wise/pound foolish stopgap if long term needs will require a subway sooner or later anyhow?
This is not confused thinking on the part of the residents only; we are talking about utter confusion among elected political leaders. And lest we pin all the blame on one of them who famously expressed his argument in terms of “subways, subways, subways,” remember that his—presumably more enlightened—successor expressed his understanding of public transit as the recourse that civilized society makes available to “those who can’t afford cars.”
The result of all that confusion, in one sentence: a politically driven jettisoning of a proposed network of modern light rail lines to be financed entirely by money from Queen’s Park and which would have provided local service for thousands of residents in various identifiable communities, in favour of a subway extension of no clearly defined route and stations at yet to be determined locations, that would compete for ridership with a proposed local heavy rail commuter service using Metrolinx tracks that is not within the City’s power to build or operate, would leave the aforementioned communities unserved, would not address the City’s own urban planning goals, would likely feature stations surrounded by parking lots (ever seen the TTC’s Warden station?), would leave the roads clogged with cars and buses, and would cost more to boot.
The argument proffered in favour of all of this essentially boiled down to three propositions:
- “Scarborough ‘deserves’ a subway”
- “We are not about to reopen a decision once it has been made” (translation: Our collective minds are made up; don’t confuse us with the facts)
- “SmartTrack™ was a promise and I am not a flip flopper.”
This is the sorry mess that Council threw at staff to consider and report back on with all the details worked out.
Happily for all concerned, the City’s planning staff then proceeded to brilliantly employ classic principles of jiu-jitsu on the process. It pretty much turned the entire package on its head, to wit:
- Council insisted on a subway extension to Scarborough Town Centre, but showed uncertainty as to its path or the location of its stations—or even the number of stations
- The mayor insisted on implementing a “SmartTrack” line that would cannibalize ridership on the proposed subway extension unless really big changes were made–at enormous cost–to the most logical subway route
- The proposed solution gave Council its subway to Scarborough Town Centre by way of a six kilometre-long express line from Kennedy station, and left it to SmartTrack to look after the needs of commuters in between
- As it happens, the most expensive parts of a subway line are its stations. By eliminating stations, funding is freed up and made available to finance…
- …Surface light rail lines that will serve the needs of about 64,000 Scarborough residents in communities that were neglected in the proposal cooked up by politicians wrangling over transit plans the last five years or so
But doesn’t this make the subway extension do the work of a long-haul express commuter rail line, and expect a system better suited to long-haul commuting (the Metrolinx GO line) to substitute as a makeshift local subway line?
Well, yes and no.
It clearly uses six kilometres of subway tunnel solely to link Scarborough Town Centre to the end of the existing TTC line. This exceeds the length of any single stretch on the current system. It will be costly, and it will require some serious reworking of how the TTC deploys its trains at the eastern end of Line 2. But to expect the politicians to give up on that symbolic length of subway tunnel appears beyond hope at this point.
On the happy side, it will no doubt get a lot of use—as advocates for a Scarborough subway have argued all along. A lot of people live or work within a short walk of the proposed destination. Of all the proposals that were seriously advanced in the long and tortured path to a final plan, this one has the benefit of not being completely crazy.
It then becomes a matter of fare differential to determine how many riders heading for downtown Toronto stay on the line to Bloor-Yonge (or—God willing—to a future downtown relief line), and how many hop off and pick up the GO train at Kennedy for a quick trip to Union Station.
As to the presumed role of a local SmartTrack line, the matter becomes largely irrelevant. The fallacy of the original Smart Track promise becomes increasingly evident with each announcement that emerges from the City’s detailed review process—just look at the utter fantasy of the proposed western spur to the airport. Who knows when—if ever—anything resembling the election-time proposal will be implemented and, if it is, what it will look like and who will operate it. At the moment, it appears for all the world that it will be absorbed into the detail of an eventual regional GO line, and it will be implemented when Queen’s Park decides to get around to it.
Meanwhile, the TTC can be put back to work doing what it was trying to do in the first place: design a local light rail system that will bring high order transit to communities that were bypassed by the three-stop subway that Council is on record as recommending. And while that work is under way, there is a fighting chance that Scarborough residents just might have a chance to experience the benefit that surface light rail transit can bring to a community.
And what of the Scarborough Town Centre residents who work in Markham and other points north, and of residents of those areas who want to see improvements in their commute to jobs in Scarborough and downtown Toronto? Well, maybe that’s something that Metrolinx can focus its attention on.
John Parker represented Ward 26, Don Valley West in city council from 2006–2014, and York East at Queen’s Park from 1995–1999.