The Truth About SmartTrack
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The Truth About SmartTrack

John Tory's plans are no more than a brand name for pre-existing transit projects.

SmartTrack Map

In 2014, then-mayoral candidate John Tory ran on a campaign of sound fiscal management, returning decorum to City Hall, and a curious new transit plan called SmartTrack, which promised “London-style” rapid transit from Mississauga to Markham. During the election campaign Tory claimed that the new rail service—53 kilometres long, costing $8 billion—would provide needed transit relief in just seven years, all on a TTC fare.

During campaign speeches, Tory called the plan “bold.” He also promised to build the Rob Ford-backed subway extension to Scarborough Centre, rather than return to the cheaper, funded light rail alternative that candidates Olivia Chow and David Soknacki were backing.

Of course, Tory won the election, and many Torontonians were looking forward to an era of competent governance, if not visionary leadership. But two years in, the costs of the Scarborough subway keep mounting, even if the number of stations kept shrinking (from three stations to one stop), and the scope of John Tory’s “bold” SmartTrack plan kept getting watered down.

With the recent provincial and municipal transit announcements on new GO Station locations, it’s now official: SmartTrack is nothing more than a brand name for transit projects that were already in the works. And the City of Toronto is stuck with some of the construction costs that would have been borne by the province.

Map of the proposed new GO Transit stations and the SmartTrack corridor

Mayor Tory and the provincial government held two separate transit announcements this week: one in Liberty Village, the other at the former Unilever lands that First Gulf is looking to redevelop as a major office and commercial centre. While Tory has been bullish about promoting First Gulf’s development, the East Gardiner replacement, SmartTrack Station, and even a Relief Line subway stop—projects he championed—will all serve this particular property.

Those announcements coincide with a Metrolinx report [PDF] that recommends 12 new GO Transit stations: Breslau, St. Clair, and Liberty Village on the Kitchener Line; Innisfil, Mulock, Kirby, Davenport-Bloor, and Spadina on the Barrie Line; East Harbour (Unilever), Gerrard, Lawrence East, and Finch East on the Lakeshore East and Stouffville lines. Stations at Mount Dennis, Downsview Park, and Caledonia were already approved and will connect to the subway and Crosstown LRT. Seven of those stations—from Mount Dennis to Unionville—are along the SmartTrack corridor. Spadina Station, part of Tory’s SmartTrack map, will only be served by Barrie corridor trains.

From the start, SmartTrack was a fantasy built on assumptions; the line was an idea conceived by a little-known organization called Strategic Regional Research Alliance. SRRA authored a report, “The Business Case for the Regional Rail Line,” discussing the potential of a 2009 concept for connecting suburban office parks with Downtown Toronto with rapid transit. That report became the basis for SmartTrack.

Meanwhile, Metrolinx—the provincial transportation authority for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area—was involved in studying plans for converting much of its existing GO Transit rail network from a commuter rail system to an electrified, regional rail network known as Regional Express Rail. RER and SmartTrack (as well as VIA Rail and UP Express trains) would be sharing the same corridors.

Since the election, the truth about SmartTrack has become clear. Previous plans for SmartTrack were simplistic, with maps created using out-of-date Google Maps imagery that ignored the fact that lands owned by the City of Toronto along Eglinton Avenue in Etobicoke—reserved for an unbuilt freeway—were largely sold off and redeveloped. There were serious engineering and financial complications of building the connection between the existing GO line at Mount Dennis and the Eglinton spur. The plan to use tax increment financing (TIFs) to build SmartTrack remains dubious. The Eglinton spur was removed, replaced by the revival of the approved yet unfunded western section of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. Tory surrounded himself with experts, including a prominent University of Toronto transportation professor who gave the plan an “A+.” Critics who pointed out these flaws were ignored or insulted. There are few excuses that Tory can make for this failure.

With the latest announcements, it is clear that SmartTrack has become nothing more than a moniker for an existing GO Transit RER. Rush-hour train frequencies will likely be every eight to 10 minutes; off peak, trains will arrive every 15 minutes (the TTC subway never operates at less than six-minute frequencies). We do not know what fares will be charged on GO RER/SmartTrack as Metrolinx continues to study regional fare integration. And it is very unlikely that we will be seeing frequent, electric trains offering relief by 2021.

As the Globe and Mail‘s Marcus Gee points out, the City will now be expected to pick up much of the construction tab—similar to how the municipal government is stuck with cost overruns on the Scarborough subway extension after it rejected a provincially funded seven-stop light rail line to replace the ageing RT line.

At best, SmartTrack represents the City of Toronto’s buy-in to GO RER, a worthwhile project to provide better rail service to suburban Toronto and the 905. There’s room to negotiate at least some fare integration between GO and the TTC. But at worst, SmartTrack is a failure to deliver on a key election promise, as flawed as it is. But in order for the Mayor to save face, the SmartTrack brand will likely never go away.