What Toronto's March 2016 Transit Reports Mean for the City's Future
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What Toronto’s March 2016 Transit Reports Mean for the City’s Future

Toronto Council faces a mountain of reports on rapid transit plans. We analyze the critical points you need to know for the city's transit future.

Recomended transit to be built in the next 15 years, from pg  10 of the staff report [PDF]

Recomended transit to be built in the next 15 years, from pg. 10 of the staff report [PDF].

Toronto’s City Planning Department released a major update on rapid transit network plans on March 3, and the information will inform the city’s transit debate for the near future. The report will be discussed at the Executive Committee on March 9, and then at Council on March 30.

Although there are over 400 pages, much of the material (attached as appendices) has already been published. Council must now digest the staff recommendations available at this time.

Eventually, as part of the Official Plan, Council’s decisions will guide development for decades to come. But this is not the final, definitive version with priorities of various projects nor a discussion of how they will be financed. That will come in June, and it promises to be a long and challenging debate.

Here’s where we’re starting from.

The report concentrates on a few key areas to set direction for studies that will lead to the June round of meetings:

  • Setting the scope for Mayor Tory’s SmartTrack proposal
  • Narrowing options for the Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE) and the Relief Line (RL)
  • Confirming support for east and west extensions of the Crosstown LRT
  • Inclusion of the proposed rapid transit network in the City’s 15 year financial plan

Also included is a review of work already in progress on the so-called reset of Waterfront transit plans from Long Branch to Woodbine, but detailed work on this has not yet begun. The first challenge will be to consolidate over two decades’ worth of proposals and priorities into one coherent plan.

Some routes, such as the Jane LRT, the Steeles BRT and an unspecified Sheppard East rapid transit service, are not discussed in this report. The King Street transit priority corridor, included as recently as the February round [PDF] of planning presentations, has fallen off of the map because it is not considered to be rapid transit.

Photo by Loozrboy from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by Loozrboy from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Where Is SmartTrack Going?

Ever since the 2014 election campaign, John Tory’s SmartTrack scheme has been praised by some as visionary, but criticized by others as ill-conceived and impractical. Until detailed studies began to appear, the debate had little technical backing, but a lot of mayoral swagger and easy dismissal of the naysayers.

But in January 2016, all this changed with a feasibility review of the “Western Corridor,” the proposed SmartTrack link from Mount Dennis to the Airport via Eglinton Avenue. That review concluded that SmartTrack was a very bad, very expensive way to serve this corridor, and that the already-approved western extension of The Crosstown LRT would do a better and cheaper job. The first recommendation before Executive Committee confirms this:

1.a. Review the approved environmental assessment for the Eglinton West LRT extension from Mount Dennis to the Mississauga Airport Corporate Centre (MACC) and Pearson Airport to optimize design, and remove the heavy rail options on the western corridor from further consideration.

Because the Eglinton Crosstown LRT is now a Metrolinx project, their staff will report in June on an “optimized” version of what is now called the “Crosstown West” LRT. This will include comparison of various arrangements including stop locations and possible grade separation. Who will pay for this extension is not clear, but it could be a “shovel ready” candidate for stimulus funding if only the politicians can decide just what was to be built.

The Metrolinx study of how GO’s Regional Express Rail (GO/RER) and SmartTrack would co-exist settled on four possible configurations of service design and infrastructure requirements. Two of these require substantial investment for SmartTrack over and above what GO already plans for its RER network, and this includes some intrusive construction and property requirements if SmartTrack is to have its own dedicated track.


Of these options, the first two require additional infrastructure, and Option B does not satisfy even the minimal requirements for either GO/RER or SmartTrack service. These options have been dropped from further study leaving Options C and D. These have lower incremental cost for Toronto, but they do not add anywhere near the number of stations or service level originally proposed for SmartTrack. The report recommends:

1.b. Complete the analysis for SmartTrack/GO RER integration options C and D, and remove from consideration the Separate and Parallel SmartTrack option, option A and option B.

Ontario’s “contribution” to SmartTrack consists of building the additional infrastructure needed for its GO/RER service, and only three new stations are included in the GO/RER budget (Mount Dennis, Caledonia and Downsview). Anything beyond that is considered a SmartTrack cost.

Moreover, some GO/RER work such as grade separations will trigger utility relocations and other changes, and the cost is partly billable to Toronto. There is $2.6 billion “committed” by Ottawa, but this will come from the 10-year pot of infrastructure spending, not as a separate revenue stream.

Toronto is clearly trying to minimize the capital it must expend to make SmartTrack a reality, and is taking advantage of whatever surplus capacity might exist on GO after the RER infrastructure and service are in place. These cutbacks, however, mean that the “SmartTrack” actually under study does not provide the service or the ease of access originally claimed. Once a five minute service with more than 20 stations (over half of them new), SmartTrack is now a much less ambitious project.

The Scarborough Transit Plan

Scarborough city hall and town centre  Photo by Himy Syed from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Scarborough city hall and town centre. Photo by Himy Syed from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Scarborough’s plan for transit has seen many changes over the years from the days of Transit City to the plan now before Council. The primary components of the plan are:

  • A one-stop “express subway” from Kennedy Station to Scarborough Town Centre (STC) via McCowan Road
  • SmartTrack service on the GO Stouffville rail corridor with local stops at all major arterials from St. Clair to Steeles
  • Extension of the Crosstown LRT via Eglinton Avenue, Kingston Road and Morningside Avenue to the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC)
  • A future, as yet undefined, rapid transit service on Sheppard Avenue from Don Mills east with links to STC and UTSC.

This plan, announced only in January, is already out of sync with plans for SmartTrack. The scheme depends on frequent SmartTrack service taking over the local rapid transit function while the subway runs express from Kennedy to Scarborough Town Centre. These problems have not been acknowledged or discussed in the City’s report, and demand projections do not reflect the configuration of service and stations likely to be adopted.

Demand models used a combination of the three-stop subway (Lawrence, STC, Sheppard) with a SmartTrack route having stops every two km and peak service every five, 10, or 15 minutes. The more frequent the SmartTrack service, the lower the peak demand on the subway line. A one-stop subway, however, will not pick up at Lawrence, and it will receive less demand from the north if feeder buses go west to connect with SmartTrack. Conversely, if SmartTrack has fewer stations, or less frequent service, its effect on the subway will be reduced.

Potential demands for the two routes are closely linked because they are after the same passengers. However, more subway riders will translate to more transfer demand at Bloor-Yonge as compared with direct-to-Union travel on SmartTrack. Updated demand modelling is essential to understanding how the two lines will behave.

Funding of the new Scarborough plan is a bit of a shell game in which money originally earmarked for a 3-stop subway to Sheppard is partially reallocated to the Eglinton line, now called “Crosstown East”. Queen’s Park already has money on the table with their $1.48 billion (2010) commitment, and Ottawa has pledged $600 million. Whether the Crosstown East LRT could be accelerated as a “shovel ready” project remains to be seen. The real question is whether various governments believe more strongly in economic stimulus and quick spending on transit, or prefer to continue debate over goodies for preferred politicians and constituencies.

This brings up an astounding comment by Mayor Tory about the Scarborough plan in a recent Toronto Life interview:

Scarborough MPP Brad Duguid, minister of economic development, said that if anyone tries to cancel the subway, they’ll do it over his dead body.

This explains the contortions undergone by planners to retain some form of the subway, even with a single stop, in the transit plan. A lot has been said about the future development of the Town Centre planning district, but the transit plan is notable for how it starves STC for connections to the wider network and especially by the absence of an east-west link through the district. This would have been provided by the Scarborough LRT line from Kennedy to Malvern, but that option is completely off of the table, and it seems to be political suicide for anyone to mention the LRT.

Planning staff have also rejected a proposed spur from the RER/SmartTrack corridor east through STC roughly along the alignment of the existing SRT. This would provide a direct link from STC to downtown, but would starve the rail corridor north of Ellesmere for service. For this and other reasons, the spur proposal will not be pursued.

Buried in the appendix on Transit Network Analysis is an examination of the degree to which various options contribute to making jobs in Toronto more accessible, as measured by travel time. This can occur because new stops serve major job concentrations, or because they serve residents previously living in transit deserts but now close to good service.

“The recommended Scarborough Transit Network (which includes the Eglinton East LRT) improves access to jobs for residents of Scarborough and residents of NIAs in Scarborough significantly more than any of the three-and four-stop extension options alone.” (p. 5)

The Scarborough transit plan is touted mainly for what it does for the Town Centre, but the LRT much farther south makes an important contribution that should not be ignored. The subway alone is only part of the solution.

The Scarborough transit plan is the subject of three recommendations to Council:

2.a. remove the Bellamy corridor from further consideration;

2.b. remove the Scarborough Express Rail (SmartSpur) from further consideration;

2.c. develop recommendations to integrate the proposed optimized Eglinton East LRT into the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus secondary plan; and identify areas in need of an Avenue Study to facilitate intensification along the proposed LRT corridor in consultation with the Toronto Transit Commission, Metrolinx and the University of Toronto.

One further recommendation provides intrigue through its wording:

2.d. report to the June 28, 2016 Executive Committee on part c above, along with a recommended preferred corridor and alignment, and number and location of stations for the Scarborough Subway Extension.

In other words, the number and location of stations for the subway are not yet settled, and this begs the question of a final, consolidated configuration for both the subway and SmartTrack.

The Relief Line

There are three possible segments for a Relief Line whose purpose, as the name implies, is to reduce demand on the Yonge Subway and the Bloor-Yonge interchange.

  • Downtown to Danforth
  • Danforth north to Eglinton or Sheppard
  • Downtown west and north to Bloor & Dundas

Although it is shown on the map as a large, pink “U” running from Sheppard and Don Mills through the core and back out to Bloor and Dundas, all of the demand projections cited in the report are based only on the “little j” from Pape and Danforth to the core. The western and northern extensions are shown in light pink, the only case on the map of transit plans where parts of a line are implied to be beyond the 15-year scope.

This limitation shows up in comments about the degree to which various new lines (SmartTrack, the SSE and the Relief Line) will affect the subway, and there is no indication of the benefit that a northern extension might bring. This is partly due to the terms of reference for the RL study, but also suggests an unwillingness to embrace the larger, and more expensive, version of the project. For example:

…by 2041, it appears that no combination of the Relief Line and SmartTrack reduces ridership below the capacity of the [Yonge] line.

A related problem is the capacity of Bloor-Yonge station not just for the throughput of passengers, but for accommodation of transfer traffic that originates mainly on the Danforth leg of the subway. The TTC has a very complex $1 billion proposal to expand the interchange, but if the transfer traffic could be diverted elsewhere, this cost and the associated construction upheaval could be avoided. Metrolinx has projected a substantial drop in demand at this location with the “long” version of the relief line in their Yonge Relief Network Study. This is not even mentioned in the analysis of Relief Line travel because it looks only at the “short” version of the route.

Photo by peruse from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by peruse from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The need for a wider view shows up only in the demand model appendix where Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat writes:

The findings in this Summary Report make clear the importance of the Relief Line. It is apparent that both the Relief Line and SmartTrack will be required in the future to ensure the efficient operation of the existing and proposed future transit networks. Additional work is required to assess the potential benefits of extending the proposed Relief Line north of the Bloor-Danforth subway to Eglinton Avenue and potentially to Sheppard Avenue. (p. 3)

The report recommends that the RL originate at Pape Station and take a Queen/Richmond corridor into the core area:

3. City Council approve Pape to Downtown via Queen/Richmond as the preferred corridor for the Relief Line project and request the Chief Planner and Executive Director, City Planning in consultation with the Toronto Transit Commission to report the preferred alignment and stations to the June 28, 2016 Executive Committee.

Examination of the background reports reveals that there was much to recommend alternatives to this plan including the benefit of swinging south to serve the Great Gulf (Unilever) site at the Don River, the higher concentration of jobs on a King/Wellington alignment, and the ease of western extension from King/Wellington to connect with a proposed new GO terminal for its northwest corridor services near Spadina and Front. The overall scores for both the King and Queen alignments were identical, all things considered.

One issue raised is the matter of the Don River crossing from the Great Gulf site at Eastern Avenue rather than at Queen, an option with an estimated $400 million premium. However, depending on the outcome of SmartTrack and GO/RER design and service decisions, the absence of a subway connection by the Relief Line could hobble development of the Great Gulf site.

The Relief Line is one that most politicians wish would just disappear because it is so expensive, and it appears to be so far away from their constituents. Oddly enough, they understand the idea that rebuilding the Gardiner Expressway “downtown” benefits suburban motorists, but seem unable to grasp this concept as it applies to transit.

Photo by Andrea Zaratin from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by Andrea Zaratin from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

The Waterfront

Various ideas for waterfront transit have been around for decades, but getting them built is a real challenge. Piecemeal efforts to date include the original Queens Quay line from Bay to Spadina, later extended to Bathurst, and the reconstruction of Fleet Street from Bathurst to the CNE as a transit right-of-way. That is barely a start, and many issues remain to be resolved:

  • How would Exhibition Place and Ontario Place redevelopment be served by a line that hugs the railway corridor far north of Lake Shore Boulevard?
  • What route is most appropriate from Dufferin west to Sunnyside? Should the route stay south of The Queensway until west of Sunnyside both to serve the waterfront parks and to avoid the congestion on King Street and at King-Queen-Roncesvalles?
  • What transit configuration will exist near Park Lawn road if there is a new GO station there, and how will this fit with the large-scale condo developments at the Humber Bay?
  • Is it practical to take an LRT west of Park Lawn given constraints on the road width and the likely level of demand from there west to Long Branch?
  • How soon can the eastern waterfront line be built, especially the expansion of capacity at Union Station?
  • When is the likely development of the Port Lands and new LRT service on Cherry and Commissioners Streets, and a possible link to the Great Gulf site?
  • What demand would be served by taking the route east as far as Woodbine Avenue?

These and many other issues will be examined in a study that is about to begin. An update will come back in June 2016 to Council, but the end date is further off.

Photo by fotograf 416 from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by fotograf.416 from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

TTC Service and Fare Integration

An issue that will become more complex as the network evolves is the relationship of the TTC surface network to various rapid transit lines. When there is only one new route to consider, the TTC can arrange (the word “gerrymander” might also be appropriate) its routes to force-feed the new service. Examples of this can be found at every subway terminal, and the arrangement is maddening to riders whose trips do not follow the classic downtown-commute path and timing.

In Scarborough, there will be a conflict between taking riders to the Town Centre which is supposed to become a major employment node, versus the SmartTrack stations (whichever of these survive into the final design). If local transit is to serve “local” travel (including the substantial number of trips within Scarborough that cross the 401), the surface network will have to serve more than one trip pattern and it will be difficult to make everyone happy. Similar problems will arise along the Eglinton Crosstown line.

The permutations will be even more complex if GO/RER takes on a substantial role for inside-416 travel.

To further confuse the situation, Metrolinx has a Fare Integration Study underway which is likely to propose making longer trips, and especially trips that use rapid transit lines more expensive than trips on the regular surface network. To date, rapid transit means only subway and GO trains, but one can easily imagine LRT being pulled into that definition. Strangely, BRT is not mentioned as a “rapid transit” option.

City Planning and the TTC are working on a report regarding the implications for Toronto of a new fare structure. The political implications of building all of these new rapid transit lines but then charging people more to ride the subway and LRT network are quite substantial given the long history of resentment in Toronto’s suburbs about second-class transit and the elimination decades ago of the zone fare.

Existing fare boundaries present two substantial annoyances: a small proportion of commute trips take riders a short distance across the 416/905 boundary but require a double fare, and there is no “co-fare” allowing discounted riding for a combined GO-TTC journey. Rather than dealing with these explicitly, Metrolinx may propose tearing apart the entire fare structure with considerable implications for fares paid by all TTC riders. To date, they have avoided any discussion of specific effects preferring to talk in generalities about “fairness.” The fun will start when they publish real-life scenarios.