The Downtown Relief Line Still Being Debated After More Than a Century
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The Downtown Relief Line Still Being Debated After More Than a Century

Mayor John Tory continues his stand-off with the Province to demand it fund transit projects, rather than even considering raising property taxes.

An early plan for the Relief Line—from 1910.

An early plan for the Relief Line—from 1910.

After nearly 100 years of being debated in one form or another, the famed Relief Line is one step closer to being shovel ready, as City Council yesterday approved the Carlaw alignment and voted to advance the plan into the design phase.

For now, this is only a baby step: Council will receive a cost estimate and rough construction schedule in the fourth quarter of 2019—so no relief is imminent on Line 1. As Metro Toronto reporter Matt Elliott pointed out, we are closer than ever to seeing the Relief Line in operation—and, at minimum, that’s 14 years away.

While Council agreed, generally speaking, on the need for the Relief Line (Councillor Jim Karygiannis refused to vote for it until the Sheppard West Subway was put on the table), there was a considerable amount of debate on how, exactly, it is best to proceed. As it stands, the Relief Line is being developed concurrently with the Yonge Subway Extension. Without the Relief Line in operation first, though, it is almost surely the case that Line 1 will not be able to handle the increased capacity that would come with extending the line out to Richmond Hill. But the political tit-for-tat here seems to be that a subway commitment for downtown must be met with a subway commitment for the northern suburbs.

This is something we’ve seen before from City Council—when the Scarborough Subway Extension was approved in mid-2016, it was paired with the Eglinton East LRT, considered a sort of sweetener to the deal, and a transit project that might placate Council’s left-leaning members.

While this creates a number of problems, it is also a clever move by Mayor Tory, who has of late enlisted Markham Mayor Frank Scarpetti and Richmond Hill Mayor Dave Barrow as “allies” in his continued stand-off with the Province. With a unified front asking for money for the Yonge Subway Extension, Tory can easily ask for Relief Line money as well, considering that they are part of the same project.

The Carlaw alignment approved by Council on Wednesday

The Carlaw alignment approved by Council on Wednesday

Though Tory may be viewing funding negotiations as a sort of pitched battle, the provincial government sees it differently. In a Wednesday press release, Ontario Minister of Transportation Steven Del Duca said:

Mayor Tory just can’t take yes for an answer. We are the only government that has come to the table with planning money for the Downtown Relief Line—we’ve invested $150-million for Relief Line planning and design work which is nearly three times the amount the City has committed. This is in addition to $55 million for Toronto to use towards planning work on Yonge North. Despite these investments, we have yet to see the city actually confirm its own capital contributions on these projects.

But Tory’s recent alliance with his counterparts north of Steeles has come at a cost. Many councillors, including Councillors Pasternak (Ward 10, York Centre) and Augimeri (Ward 9, York Centre), expressed dismay that Toronto would be stuck with 100 per cent of the operating cost of a transit project that operated predominately outside of Toronto’s borders, as it has with the soon-to-open Yonge-Spadina Extension. Some, like Councillor Davis (Ward 31, Beaches-East York), took it further, complaining about the high share of operating costs that Toronto has assumed for basically all the recent projects. “We’ve virtually assumed 100 per cent of the operating costs,” she said, laughing. “Let that hang in the air for a minute.”

There were a number of technical amendments to the plan that, going forward, shape the way this particular pair of transit projects will play out. Council voted unanimously to pass a motion, moved by Davis, to ensure that an amenable cost-sharing agreement was reached with the Province and York Region on the operation of the Yonge Subway Extension. Councillor John Fillion’s (Ward 23, Willowdale) motion also passed, dictating that the Relief Line must be in operation before the Yonge Subway can be moved forward. And Councillor Josh Colle’s (Ward 15, Eglinton-Lawrence) motion that set the expansion of Bloor-Yonge station as a priority was also passed. (Councillor Perks, off-mic, said: “We should do that before the Relief Line.”)

The proposed Yonge Subway Extension

The proposed Yonge Subway Extension

In addition to the discussion about the Yonge Subway Extension and the Relief Line, there was discussion of the Relief Line North—a line connecting Pape Station in the south to Don Mills Station in the north. (This line has alternatively been called the Don Mills Subway, the latter name courtesy of Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong.) There is even less set in stone about this line, though it has been identified as a top priority. As it stands now, the Don Mills Subway is also on the table as an LRT line, courtesy of an amendment from Councillor Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s).

So, where does the whole plan go from here? Neither the Yonge Subway Extension nor the Relief Line have advanced past the 0 per cent design stage, and there are no clear cost estimates for either. (The number $7 billion was thrown around a couple times by various councillors during the debate, but this is a highly speculative figure—though it does give some rough sense of the scale of the project.) Attempts to decouple the Relief Line from the Yonge Subway Extension didn’t pass, and for the time being (much like the Scarborough Subway Extension and the Eglinton East LRT lines) the two projects are being considered as a package deal.

The next we are scheduled to hear about the Relief Line is in the fourth quarter of 2019, and considering there is an election cycle between now and then, the fate of the Relief Line could yet change. (For better or worse, it should be said.) As well, in 2018, Council will receive an update on what the most crucial transit priorities are; the oft-repeated dogma that the Relief Line is the top priority is based on a four-year-old study and while I wouldn’t expect that to change (and it didn’t appear as if Chief Planner Jen Keesmaat did, either), Toronto won’t have a perfectly up-to-date set of data until then.

As always, there were some amusing moments in chambers. Speaker Frances Nunziata (Ward 11, York South-Weston) told Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West) to “keep his mouth shut,” to which he took great offense; he later demanded that Nunziata retract her comment, which she did, adding she was only going to do it if Mammoliti “stopped chirping.”

@norm informed everyone in the chamber of a little-known fact: he likes to praise Toronto on social media. Even more amusing, though? His proposal to put transit debates up for referendums.

Coming out of the debate, there are reasons to be both optimistic and pessimistic. On the one hand, Council and City staff both acknowledged repeatedly that in terms of ridership, the Relief Line is the number one priority. Mayor Tory expressed his support for the plan, saying “I sure want that relief line down from Pape funded, pronto!” (To date, the Relief Line is entirely unfunded.)

They also seemed uncharacteristically self-aware about the dire need for transit solutions in Toronto, and the political inaction that got them there. “One of the reasons we’re in this mess is because we didn’t plan effectively in the past, for whatever reason,” said TTC CEO Andy Byford. That self-awareness translated into a Council that was, for once, generally in agreement about a transit proposal. “To start playing games with this,” said Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s), “is the wrong way to go. Focus on the relief line […] It’s been debated for over 100 years.”

On the other hand, however, the meeting was reminiscent of so many Toronto transit debates before it that have expressed great support, but have been scant on specifics. In one especially germane moment, Councillor Joe Mihevc put a list of transit projects, and with a bit of back-of-envelope math, made the point that in recent years Council has approved over $20 billion in transit projects, very few of which are accompanied by specific plans to bring them to fruition.