Have Gardiner gridlock fears been ramped to the max?

The York-Bay-Yonge ramp demolition is proceeding quickly. Peter Baugh photo

The York-Bay-Yonge ramp demolition is proceeding quickly. Peter Baugh photo @PWBaugh

By STEPHEN WICKENS

On Monday, eight days after the end of the world, a Toronto TV newscast was still making a fuss about the shutdown of a Gardiner Expressway ramp that had been, until April 16, funnelling 21,770-plus vehicles onto York, Bay and Yonge streets on average weekdays.

“Car-mageddon” forecasts began in earnest on Feb. 8, with Mayor John Tory making a stern, brows-knit announcement. “I’m not going to sugar-coat this,” he warned, conjuring memories of newsman Ted Baxter from the old Mary Tyler Moore Show.

In March, Wheels, the Toronto Star’s largely advertorial automotive section, published a rant under the headline “York-Bay-Yonge ramp demolition will equal traffic chaos for downtown Toronto.”

Then, in the final days before the Y-B-Y ramp closed, local media outlets revved up the coverage – lots of interviews with concerned and angry expressway users interspersed with bureaucrats explaining that the ramp is 50 years old and crumbling.

One official, apparently unaware that relatively few of Toronto’s downtown workers arrive on the eastbound Gardiner, said “we’ll all just have to bite the bullet.”

I hate sitting in traffic as much as the next guy, (part of the reason I rarely drag tons of steel, glass, rubber and plastic with me when I go downtown). I own a car and I’m sympathetic with co-workers made late by congestion. I very much appreciate that there’s a significant group of people whose livelihoods require they drive into and out of the core.

Yet for all the media coverage, I haven’t seen a story that puts into context the degree to which closing this two-part ramp will crimp the transportation network during the eight months needed to build the replacement exit at Simcoe (apologies if I missed it).

After a few emails, phone calls, a little Googling and some rummaging through the home-office filing system, I’d classify the ballyhooed ramp-gridlock-crisis story as much ado about relatively little. Rather than chaos, what I see is merely more evidence of just how self-defeating car-based transportation is as a major mode in an urban context.

City staff tell us 1,537 cars were using the old ramp in the busiest 60 minutes of the a.m. rush on an average weekday. That’s less than a quarter of the average number of people who emerge downtown from each of the TTC’s seven core subway stations (Dundas, Queen, King, Union, St. Andrew, Osgoode and St. Patrick). The seven-station peak hour total is 43,295 arrivals (28.2 times the ramp number) (1).

Over the three-hour a.m. rush, the Y-B-Y ramp sees roughly 4,500 vehicles (2), while each of the seven core stations averages 14,910 people. That’s 104,352 total, 23.2 times the ramp number.

Looking at the 24-hour period, the ramp’s 21,772 total is less than any of the seven aforementioned stations (even though the subway is shut for about four hours each night). The seven-station total is 412,472, or 18.9 times the ramp number.

Not including GO and Via, 6.9 times more people get off at Union station’s subway platforms in the a.m. peak hour than the number of cars passing through the ramp. In the 20 hours that the Union subway platforms are open, they handle 118,446 people, 5.4 times the number of vehicles using the ramp over 24 hours.

And none of this includes the roughly 89,000 who travel downtown by GO Transit on an average weekday (3), or the tens of thousands more who arrive by TTC surface routes, on bikes and on foot.

In fact, as urban planner Gil Meslin (@g_meslin) tweeted in response to this post: “That peak-hour ramp usage is less than the number of people disembarking from one full GO train at Union Station.” A GO train can carry 1,670 people.

(And we haven’t even mentioned the TTC’s two busiest stations, Bloor-Yonge and St. George, neither of which is really in the core. Bloor-Yonge, BTW, handles 18.3 times as many people a day as the Gardiner ramp and, by one measure, more daily passenger movements than all of Union Station and Pearson Airport combined).

City data from 2011 measuring how people are getting downtown in the a.m. peak hour indicate that just 3.9 per cent are arriving on the eastbound Gardiner and the expressway as a whole is delivering just 7 per cent. Cyclists and pedestrians were at 3.2 per cent, and with the dual booms in condo construction and cycling those modes have likely since surpassed the eastbound Gardiner’s proportion of the total.

This Toronto Star graphic, produced during the debate on the fate of the eastern Gardiner, illustrates how little the expressway contributes to the core's connection to the region. The data are from 2011, so it's likely that with the dual condo and bike booms that the pedestrian and cyclist total has well eclipsed the Gardiner.

This Toronto Star graphic, produced using city data during the debate on the fate of the eastern Gardiner, illustrates just how little the expressway contributes to the core’s connection with the region. The peak-hour numbers are from 2011, so it’s likely that, with the dual booms in condo construction and bike usage, the pedestrian and cyclist total has well eclipsed the Gardiner.

Would media go this big if TTC had to temporarily shut a core subway station or GO was forced to remove a handful of train runs? Highly unlikely.

Over the decades, most of the city and its media have become inured to the core transit system’s overloading. Delays happen and people get mad but public transit is resilient. As long as we’re not totally shutting down what little subway infrastructure we have into Toronto’s core, we always muddle through.

So why the big deal over a single highway ramp?

Driving is so land-consumptive that you don’t need many cars to create serious congestion. Driving is also inefficient because it’s disrupted so easily, whether by regular volume, common fender-benders, basic maintenance and construction … or the occasional ramp shutdown.

And our media outlets, including many of the reporters and editors they employ, seem unable to see differences between the urban and suburban parts of the metro area, or even within the 416. Prevailing assumptions about the importance of cars to the older parts of the city, where so much of the economic engine resides, are wildly inaccurate.

We decry the billions of dollars that congestion is said to cause us, but through ignorance and cynical politics we continue to give priority to spending on a mode that guarantees congestion and inefficiency.

Thankfully, we don’t have room to widen roads in the city. But unfortunately, politicians – even conservatives who claim to be respectful of taxpayers – choose not to listen to facts or do the basic math when it comes to urban and suburban transportation issues.  And our media, especially broadcast outlets, don’t put much effort into helping to seriously inform the public.

The result is that, to ensure we don’t inconvenience a small number of vocal drivers who have the ear of media and politicians, we’ve allotted $3.6-billion for rebuilding and adjusting the alignment of a short stretch of the Gardiner Expressway, yet we somehow still have nothing for a decades-overdue subway line through the core that can benefit the city and the entire region on a scale few can comprehend.

NOTES

1. The numbers of people arriving by car are surely higher than the number of cars. I’ll factor that in and adjust the totals when the city provides it’s updated formula. I asked last week, but so far no luck. From my files, city staff acknowledged at a Canadian Urban Institute event in 2005, that it assumed cars on local expressways carry less than 1.2 people during the a.m. rush and slightly less than 1.1 for the rest of the day.

2. The city suggested I multiply by three the 1,537 a.m. peak number to get the full a.m. rush total. I’m reluctant to do that because the shoulder times outside the actual peak hour will necessarily be less. If, for example, I multiplied the TTC’s a.m. peak numbers by three, the totals for the seven core subway stations would jump considerably. I went with 4,500, which is also what The Globe’s Oliver Moore did on April 15 (page M3, but apparently not online).

3. GO buses, of course, use the expressway system, though they are a tiny part of GO’s Union customers. Vanessa Barrasa of Metrolinx told me that, “In anticipation of the Yonge-Bay-York ramp closure, GO bus made some minor adjustments for trips arriving from the west. We have not had any major delays caused by the closure.”

 

Crossrail versus TYSSE update

Black Creek station on the York-Spadina subway extension, slated to open in 2017, is an example of how suburban stations tend to be designed in the absence of a land value-capture regime.

Pioneer Village station on the York-Spadina subway extension, slated to open in 2017, is an example of how suburban stations tend to be designed in the absence of a land value-capture regime.

Late this year, Torontonians will be asked to celebrate the opening of the TTC’s 8.6-kilometre Line 1 extension from Downsview to Vaughan, the first bit of subway we’ve been able to accomplish in 15 years. The six-station Toronto-York-Spadina Subway Extension is very late and way over budget, with the latest calculations coming in at $3.2-billion, or $372-million per kilometre, despite traversing only low-density suburban areas.

Meanwhile in London, Crossrail — now officially named the Elizabeth Line — is also nearing completion. Granted, it had a six-month head start on the TYSSE, but it’s 118-kilometres long, nearly 14 times the TYSSE’s length.  The 40-station Elizabeth Line (also known to wags in London pubs as ‘The Lizard’) includes 22 kilometres of tunnels through the dense central city, but the project’s total cost comes to just $205-million (Canadian) per kilometre. That’s 55% of the per-kilometre cost we’re paying.

Let’s hope the people in charge of this controversial Scarborough subway project have finally learned their lessons. We don’t want to get burned again.

Stephen Wickens

KPMG report: David Gunn’s advice is more to the point (and, at free, it likely cost far less)

Don't know who put the Frank Zappa billboard up on the side of the building containing the Leslie Barns project office, but his words seem mighty appropriate.

Don’t know who put the Frank Zappa billboard up on the side of the building containing the Leslie Barns project office, but his words of wisdom seem mighty appropriate.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

The obvious irony is that a consultant’s report released in September 2016, advising the Toronto Transit Commission how to complete capital projects on budget and on time, missed its original deadline by 10 months.

We don’t know if there was a set budget, and weeks of trying to find out merely how much the public paid has turned up nothing: The city told me to ask the TTC, while the TTC replied, sorry, “the city commissioned it.”

The consultant, KPMG, didn’t respond to requests for comment on what it billed and why it took such a soft approach to investigating troubled projects – including the Toronto-York-Spadina subway extension (TYSSE), the Leslie Barns streetcar facility and new signaling systems for the Yonge-University-Spadina subway.

The city seems happy with KPMG’s work and the TTC has agreed to adopt all 41 recommendations, including calls for gate-keeping at key stages on future projects, clearer definitions of management responsibilities and better processes for documenting and monitoring progress. Local media gave it a quick and soft once-over, and likely won’t return to the matter.

But does this report get us much closer to delivering bang for the buck on transit projects?

A public angered by fiasco after fiasco on the transit capital file might ask why KPMG ignored the many people who warned early on that these projects were off the rails.

KPMG didn’t talk to David Gunn (by far the most-respected TTC chief in recent decades). Gunn, in 2011, told the TTC, politicians and Globe and Mail readers the signaling project was in deep trouble and that the grandiose, stand-alone stations on the TYSSE made no sense. He also advised TTC leaders to cancel the now-troubled Bombardier streetcar deal.

In a recent discussion, Gunn pointed out that if the TTC had listened and opted for proven 70% low-floor vehicles instead, it would have saved money and grief and wouldn’t have needed the Leslie Barns maintenance facility at all. And if KPMG had talked to those who can say “I told you so” on Leslie Barns, it wouldn’t have swallowed the “scope creep” excuse for cost overruns (a botched site-selection process made the utility relocations necessary).

City councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon labeled Leslie Barns “a boondoggle” on her first day in office in 2010, but was repeatedly ignored by the TTC and fellow politicians. KPMG didn’t contact her either.

Seeking alternatives, McMahon assembled a group that included globally respected transportation engineer Ed Levy. If KPMG had spoken with him (or others in the group, including me) they might have learned the city – blinded by the prospect of getting 18 acres from the Toronto Port Authority for $1 – encouraged the TTC to skip international best practice’s Step 1 in picking sites for such facilities (minimize the deadheading or the number of unproductive kilometres). Toronto’s now locked unnecessarily into an operating setup retaining wasteful commutes to get vehicles into and out of service, especially on the 509, 510, 511 and 512 routes.

Absurdly grandiose stations  on the Toronto York Spadina Subway Extension were part of the reason the project is late and far more expensive than it should be. David Gunn warned us about the problem six years ago, but KPMG didn't bother to interview him.

Absurdly grandiose stations on the Toronto York Spadina Subway Extension were part of the reason the project is late and far more expensive than it should be. David Gunn warned us about the problem six years ago, but KPMG didn’t bother to interview him.

As for that too-good-to-be-true $1 site, a commercial real estate executive with the company then known as Barnicke told McMahon’s people the most it was worth – “if level, clean, approved and desirable for commercial redevelopment” – was $15-million. Cushman & Wakefield, the real estate consultants the Port Authority hired to assess the worth of the site put the value at $1, if it was left fallow for future parkland (trying to develop it would bring hugely costly liabilities into the equation).

In the end, the TTC paid more than 10 times the best-case $15-million price just to make the site usable. Connecting tracks alone cost 7.5 times the estimate the TTC used to justify the site choice.

KPMG states that costs escalated because of delays in awarding contracts; the hard truth is that costs soared because of haste to award contracts for an ill-conceived plan. There was a concerted effort to ignore people raising red flags.

On the TYSSE, some warned at the conceptual stage that it was nuts to push subway into Vaughan and bore deep tunnels through low-density areas. GO trains on the surface would have better served York Region’s rush-hour commuter rail needs. (You can read about the backroom politics that put the TYSSE into play in former provincial cabinet member Greg Sorbara’s memoirs).

So, how did KPMG investigate? It interviewed “68 key personnel and stakeholders at the City of Toronto, the TTC and from external organizations, including key personnel for each of the projects” – most, we can assume, are people with vested interests in minimizing the embarrassment that should accompany projects gone awry.

The report even includes a disclaimer that KPMG “neither warrants nor represents that the information contained in this document is accurate [or] complete.” (Imagine a newspaper that relies solely on the veracity of news releases and PR people?)

There is some good advice in KPMG’s 200-plus-page report, but it ignores a crucial truth: The world’s best project management cannot save bad projects.

Or, as Gunn put it: “There’s no magic to this stuff. You need a small, strong, informed group of managers, and the person at the top has to have the balls to stand up to politicians when they insist you do stupid stuff.”

Edinburgh in February? It might be the best time to visit

The Scottish capital is a wonderful, walkable city that everyone should visit at least once, and if you abhor lineups or need a little space to yourself, you just might find that visiting in the off-season makes most sense. February was good.

About 2,000 visitors were expected on the gorgeous February day when I visited Edinburgh Castle. The thought of 10,000+ in peak season seems a tad scary.

About 2,000 visitors were expected on the gorgeous February day when I visited Edinburgh Castle. The thought of 10,000+ in peak season seems a tad scary.

By STEPHEN WICKENS, EDINBURGH

Zo Sasaki planned his return visit to Scotland’s capital for three decades, and in all that time he was certain of one thing: he would make the trip in the off-season.

Back in the mid-1980s, he and his wife, Mari, did a European tour in June for their honeymoon. “Almost perfect,” Mr. Sasaki told me, while we ate ice creams on a gorgeous February day in Holyrood Park at the foot of Arthur’s Seat.

There was a lineup for ice cream, in February in Edinburgh's Holyrood Park at the foot of Arthur's Seat.

There was a lineup for ice cream, in February in Holyrood Park at the foot of Arthur’s Seat.

Yes, ice creams. For while, there was even a lineup for the ice cream truck – in Edinburgh – in February.

“Such a beautiful city, lots to see,” the Tokyo resident said, “but last time Edinburgh Castle (was) way too crowded. Holyrood Palace? Closed. Queen Elizabeth (was) living there. Summer visit? I say wrong month.”

This time, the Sasakis visited both the landmarks, which anchor the ends of the Royal Mile, which is central to the old town. Much to Sasaki’s surprise, even his climb to Arthur’s Seat (a small but special mountain overlooking Holyrood) was more pleasant in winter, thanks to calm and sunny weather.

“Last time, rainy, windy, cold – in June!”

Mr. Sasaki, a civil engineer, then told me something I’d never considered when planning my trip from Canada: Depending on location, February is the driest or second-least rainy month in Britain (something a little light Googling seems to confirm).

Add in the fact that flights and hotel rooms are cheaper in February – especially this year with the Brexit-battered pound – and you might have a good alternative to the usual sun and sand vacation.

At Edinburgh Castle, our guide told us only about 2,000 people were expected on a sunny Sunday. It was 8 C (about average for late February) and the daffodils and crocuses were in bloom. That 2,000 turnout was still healthy – enough to make the thought of 10,000+ on days in peak season a tad scary. “And there are big queues in summer for the honours (crown jewels) and some of the more popular areas of the castle,” our guide said.

Arthur's Seat lies in the distance, seen from the abbey ruins behind  Holyrood Castle.

Arthur’s Seat lies in the distance, seen from the abbey ruins behind Holyrood Castle.

Seasonal popularity is a similar story at Holyrood Palace and, indeed, there is still a week each June each when it’s shut for the Queen’s annual visit – as the Sasakis discovered. This time Mr. Sasaki loved Holyrood and the surrounding abbey ruins. And the lure of a return hike up Arthur’s Seat was too strong to resist (though not for Mari, who returned to their hotel for a nap).

“It’s so beautiful from the top,” Mr. Sasaki said. “Perfect.”

It must be pointed out that Mr. Sasaki would again give his overall trip only an “almost perfect,”  pointing out that some galleries are closed on Sundays in winter (and explaining that the nasty black eye he was sporting came from the elbow of a woman who was taking off her jacket while passengers took their seats on the plane at Narita).

My trip is almost perfect, too, having picked a good hotel, the Carlton (which was being refurbished at the time). It’s both on the Royal Mile and next to Waverley, the main train station (handy since I’d arrived by train from London, after a few lovely days in York).

I also saw a couple of very good bands just down the street at a gritty club called Whistle Binkie’s (live music seven nights a week).

What might have made my visit perfect?

Edinburgh’s not a big city, but it certainly deserves much, much more than 48 hours (in fact, when I do the return trip I plan to give Scotland as a whole some real time). I also wish I’d known earlier on, the evening before I had to leave, that – even in off-season – reservations are a must at Mother India, a restaurant that several people recommended.

FIVE EDINBURGH TIPS FROM MY LIMITED EXPERIENCE

Fish and chips with a fine local ale at the Word's End on the Royal Mile is combines quality and quantity.

Fish and chips and an ale at the Word’s End on the Royal Mile is combines quality and quantity.

Food and drink: I’m more of a halibut man in Canada, but the haddock and chips at The World’s End on the Royal Mile was great both in quality and quantity; perfect with a local ale. Lots of places offer haggis, neeps and tatties: the traditional ground-lamb dish with turnips and potatoes, both mashed. Try it. And, even if you think you don’t like scotch, try one or two. There are many styles; one might be just right for you.

Footwear: Among the craziest things I saw – two nights in a row, even – were women (locals I believe) who choose high heels for an alcohol-fuelled night out on the cobblestones. Don’t try it, even sober. This is a town for comfortable shoes and hiking. It’s hilly, but getting around on foot is the way to go here. It took me about 30 minutes to climb to Arthur’s Seat, much of the time thinking about my long-gone dad’s recollections of doing the same hike with his dad while on school holidays back in the late 1920s. (They arrived on The Flying Scotsman, granddad doing double duty, driving for the London and North Eastern Railway and minding a 10-year-old on the footplate of the iconic locomotive in an era long before the advent of workplace-safety bureaucracies).

Advance reading: Though it contains sloppy mistakes, Arthur Herman’s How The Scots Invented The Modern World is an excellent and entertaining primer that will allow you to appreciate the many monuments to Scotland’s Enlightenment luminaries (I may reread it before I go back). Ian Rankin detective stories and a little Walter Scott may help you set the mood. Films such as Trainspotting and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie might help to attune your ears.

Architecture tours: I regret that time ran out before I could fit one in, but I’m very glad I got over to New Town, a very walkable pioneer in the field of urban planning, and a crucible for the Georgian style that spread around the globe.

Sleeper attraction: Camera Obscura is apparently the oldest purpose-built tourist attraction in Scotland, dating back to 1835 and in its current spot since 1853. It would have been high-tech originally, but its use of mirrors optical illusions and its incredible collection of mind-altering phenomena is clearly impressive and fun for people of all ages. No wonder I saw a group of youngsters smoking a joint before paying their admission fees.

Why not remove the Scarborough subway stops altogether?

Something lost on most tourist is that 55% of London Underground is actually above ground, and for good reason

Something lost on most tourists is that 55 per cent of London Underground is actually above ground, and for good reason. Toronto seems to have forgotten why it usually makes little sense to tunnel for subways in low-density areas; we didn’t even tunnel between Bloor and Eglinton in the era when we were good at planning and building subways.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

If eliminating subway stations to save money is the way to go, why haven’t we pondered going all the way? Why not a no-stop Bloor-Danforth extension in Scarborough?

I’ve been asked repeatedly what I think of the January 2016 transit compromises (and some have also asked whether the plan might give us the world’s longest stretch between stations on a tunnelled subway).

I love the idea of cutting unnecessary expenditures, and I fully back the reallocation of resources to Eglinton-Crosstown extensions. But the one-stop subway idea requires serious re-examination.

Extra long access-free underground corridors, though rare, are useful and are used in extremely special cases. The question is: What makes Scarborough so special?

Moscow has a 6.6-kilometre tunnelled stretch with no intermediate stations between Krylatskoye and Strogino on the Arbatsko-Pokrovskaya (Line 3). That’s 900 metres longer than the uninterrupted stretch proposed as a Bloor-Danforth extension from Kennedy to Scaborough Centre under Eglinton Avenue and McCowan Road, but it is used to protect Serebryany Bor forest on the city’s western flank.

Geography also explains the 9.6-km ride from Embarcadero to Oakland 12th Street on the BART. That’s two-thirds longer than our Scarborough gambit, but not even the looniest Toronto politician would consider stations under San Francisco Bay – or would they?

A definitive list of global examples on this scale would be short, but the fact we’re considering joining the club without a geographic barrier says lots about the perceived level of political crisis over Scarborough, as well as the strange obsession some locals have with tunnelled transit.

Widely spaced stations on the world’s great systems aren’t rare in themselves, it’s just that they’re almost always above ground, such as the 6.3-km stretch between Chesham and Chalfont & Latimer on London’s Metropolitan line (upper-left corner of your Tube map).

Sane cities rarely tunnel once their subway tentacles spread beyond dense cores. Fifty-five per cent of the London Underground is actually above ground. Honest!

MTR Corp. of Hong Kong, which in recent decades has been the international gold standard in terms of combining an urban transit business model with great service and continual system expansion, is 62 per cent above ground.

Our ancestors – Torontonians who who survived the Great Depression and helped win World War II – got this, and their wisdom and sacrifices left us the basics of a very good system (at least in North American terms).

Their Toronto was much smaller and poorer, yet they built good subways – and did so without funding from Queen’s Park or Ottawa. They opted for open trenches between Bloor and Eglinton on the Yonge line (since covered between Summerhill and St. Clair). They used shallow cut-and-cover box tunnels to keep costs down on most of the rest of the early system – the parts that now need relief.

Now, we’re too good or too rich for such economy measures. Cut and cover is messier and often requires expropriations, but it allowed our ancestors to hit budgets and deadlines. They built the University and Bloor-Danforth lines (Woodbine to Keele), 16 kms and 25 stations in just 75 months. That’s less time than we’ve spent so far on the 8.6-km six-stop, wildly over-budget Spadina-York extension.

The generation that survived the Depression and helped win the Second World War, came home and made more sacrifices for future generations by ripping up Yonge Street for a subway we all need and need to relieve. TORONTO ARCHIVES PHOTO

The generation that survived the Depression and helped win the Second World War, came home and made more sacrifices for future generations by ripping up Yonge Street for a subway we all need and need to relieve. TORONTO ARCHIVES PHOTO

The wise elders only considered corridors that could justify lots of stations. The one-stop Scarborough idea is about the same distance as Queen to Eglinton on the Yonge line, and Woodbine to Yonge on the Bloor-Danforth, stretches that comprise 10 stations, eight of them intermediate. Yonge to Keele, also about 6 kms, has 11 and nine of them intermediate.

Of course, once subway tunnels get very long, they require emergency exits, one for every 762 metres. TTC admits this Scarborough idea would need eight of them, and while they’re cheaper than stations, they’re very expensive. (The extension will also go under West Highland Creek three times and have the deepest station on the TTC system, incredibly wasteful design). Those who ran Toronto in the 1950s and ’60s would tell us that if three stations are too many for the Scarborough plan, it’s not a logical subway idea in the first place (whether it costs $3.56-billion with three station or $2.1 billion with one … and certain to start rising again).

And our ancestors come to those conclusions even if there weren’t a cheaper option in replacing the SRT rolling stock and rebuilding the bend, or massive potential at a good price in the Scarborough ExpressRail/SmartSpur option – which the city is now afraid to study because it would undercut the sacrosanct subway plan. See the Star’s Royson James.

Our ancestors would also warn us that it’s crazy to even start on Bloor-Danforth or Yonge extensions until after the Relief Line and/or some variation of SmartTrack is up and running (tiny, cramped Bloor-Yonge station is dangerously crowded, handling 30% more riders daily than the busiest stop on the London Underground (three-line Oxford Circus station).

A no-stop subway? Obviously it’s an absurd idea, but only slightly more-so than the one-stop proposal considered sacrosanct by politicians eager to saddle us with yet another public transit blunder.

We have better options, and the best way to thank those who left us a great legacy is to do great things for our descendants, people who’ll need to get around Toronto and its suburbs long after we’re gone.

Stephen Wickens is a veteran journalist and transportation researcher.

We can give Scarborough even more rapid transit for less money by tweaking SmartTrack

Strategically piggybacking onto Metrolinx’s upgrades will help us better nurture urbanization at Scarborough Centre while freeing up capacity on the overloaded inner-city subway system. Extending the Bloor-Danforth, no matter how many stations we include, aggravates the crowding in its best-case scenario.

Scarborough ExpressRail

By STEPHEN WICKENS, ED LEVY and STEVE FRY

—————————————————————————————————-

NOTE: Even though the SmartSpur/SER option would make Mayor Tory’s SmartTrack idea far more useful to east Toronto than in its originally conceived form, it proved to be such a threat to the one-stop Scarborough subway’s viability that all study of SmartSpur was killed on March 31, 2016, at city council after some backroom arm-twisting.

—————————————————————————————————-

One city councillor declared peace in our time and if we weren’t well into the 21st century a hat-tossing ticker-tape parade might have seemed appropriate.

Maybe a tad premature, but what a month January 2016 has been on the transit file: The mayor accepted evidence that SmartTrack’s western spur doesn’t make sense, while city planning said it will study a transitway on King Street. In Scarborough, planners and politicians claim to have found $1-billion to reinvest in Eglinton-Crosstown LRT extensions – west toward the airport and east from Kennedy to the U of T campus. (Environmental assessments are already done for those extensions, meaning plans could be shovel-ready in time to qualify for the new federal government’s promised infrastructure program.)

Can it get any better?

Excuse our sunny ways, but yes it can if John Tory is willing to re-examine how SmartTrack best piggybacks onto Metrolinx’s Regional ExpressRail in Scarborough. According to well-placed sources who’ve contributed to a new report, RER upgrades in the works will permit at the very least 14 trains an hour in each direction between Union Station and Markham. RER needs only four trains; what can we do with the other 10 or even 12?

Before SmartTrack was a gleam in the mayor’s eye, transportation researcher Karl Junkin was examining GO electrification possibilities for think tank Transport Action Ontario (the Star’s Tess Kalinowski wrote about his work in 2013). Further study now confirms one piece of TAO’s report, branching a line off Metrolinx’s tracks east to Scarborough Town Centre (almost following the current, near-defunct SRT corridor), is not just doable but can be done for $1.1-billion. That’s $1.4-billion less than the estimate for the one-stop subway idea that made news last week – $2.4-billion less than the previous three-stop plan.

Junkin’s idea, known to some as SmartSpur but now rebranded as Scarborough Express Rail (SER), can make the east part of SmartTrack smarter than the mayor ever dreamed. Aside from saving money, benefits are huge for many stakeholders if we link Kennedy to STC using GO’s corridor instead of tunnelling under Eglinton Avenue and McCowan Road.

– Scarborough residents would have a one-seat ride downtown from STC without transfers at Kennedy or Bloor-Yonge. Time savings to Union could be as much as 20 minutes. SER would include Lawrence and Ellesmere stations (and could add ones at Birchmount and Coxwell-Monarch Park).

– Residents of East York and the old city who have trouble boarding jammed Bloor-Danforth trains in the morning rush hour at stops west of Main Street would get more capacity. Thousands fewer would squeeze through overcrowed Bloor-Yonge station onto the otherwise unrelieved lower Yonge line. Compare that with making the Bloor-Danforth longer, which would only aggravate crowding for all concerned (if it doesn’t drive more people out into other modes of transportation).

– Short term, for those working to urbanize Scarborough Centre, SER’s one-seat ride to the core provides only a small advantage over a direct tunneled link via the Bloor-Danforth. But SER has much greater long-term potential as it can easily be extended north and east to Malvern on the route previously reserved for LRT ($1.4-billion can certainly get us  to Centennial College’s Progress Campus).

Toronto’s playing catch up, but urgency may finally be focusing minds in high places. We now have a mayor big enough to admit when he’s wrong, while city staff have taken over transit planning from the TTC and appear open to creativity (criticize the one-stop subway idea all your want, but if nothing else it has broken a political logjam). Maybe Metrolinx will get aboard and save us another $500-million by keeping the Crosstown LRT on the surface, rather than tunneling into and out of Kennedy station.

Yes, capacity at Union will be seriously constrained by RER and SER, further increasing the urgency of another subway through the core and up into Don Mills (the long-dreamed-of Relief Line). In the wake of the Spadina-York extension fiasco, Toronto needs a total rethink of the business and design models used for subways. We also fear the province’s RER’s operating costs will be dangerously high if we don’t soon get serious about turning suburban GO station lands into multi-use destinations, but even on that front real estate presents revenue-tool opportunities.

We have big challenges, but we’re suddenly on a bit of a roll, exhibiting flashes of creativity and civic self-confidence not seen in a half-century. Let’s keep the momentum going.

Stephen Wickens is a veteran Toronto journalist and transportation researcher. @stephenwickens1

Ed Levy PEng and transportation planner, co-founded the BA Consulting Group and is the author of Rapid Transit in Toronto, a century of plans, projects, politics and paralysis

Steve Fry is president of Pacific Links, which connects Asian, European and North American entrepreneurs and investors. His consulting work has involved infrastructure project funding in Asia. pacificlinks.ca

 

Creating feasible options for Davenport will be a true test of urbanist creativity

It’d be great if there were a way to make a north-south tunnel work for Metrolinx’s Bradford/Barrie corridor in the Junction, but it appears as if it’s time to move on and make the most of the infrastructure and train traffic from the inevitable and largely supportable Regional Express Rail proposals

STEPHEN WICKENS

Residents of the Junction are like cousins to us here on the East Danforth; we experience many of the same conditions. There may be much less grime, odour and noise since industry moved out to the sprawl lands in the second half of the 20th century, but our secondary mixes of land use never really recovered from the loss of jobs.

You can see the unintended consequences on our main streets – too many empty storefronts, too many commercial tenants that aren’t a great fit for a hood that seeks better. Neither area was ever a really pretty, but when lots people could walk to work, or when many people came from other parts of town to work in our areas, the shopping and the services and the opportunities for socializing and play just kind of happened. Local merchants and restaurateurs got many more reliably productive hours out of each day.

That’s when urbanity’s beauty is tough to ignore. Our future may now rest heavily on office jobs, but we shouldn’t forget ancestors who gladly made homes next to the smokestacks.

The Junction and the East Danforth were both healthy blue-collar neighbourhoods back when rails lured factories. Now, the tracks are mostly barriers to pedestrian-scale connectivity, fenced off for our safety but undercutting local economic activity. They don’t carry much freight any more and GO’s unnecessarily loud diesel locomotives pull or push trains through without stopping (or when they do stop the fares aren’t competitive).

Metrolinx now owns these tracks and they are slated, rightly, to make possible GO’s Regional Express Rail plan, complete with quieter, cleaner electrified trains that make many more stations possible without slowing the service. The former industrial neighbourhoods of this city would be wise to find ways to make the best of this situation, and smart politicians and bureaucrats will find ways to help us.

Options for Davenport (@Opt4Davenport) and Ward 18 Councillor Ana Bailao (@anabailaoTO), have led the charge to convince city council that we should study a tunnel option on GO’s Barrie corridor rather than meekly accede to plans for 1.4 kilometres of elevated track to get the line past a dangerous and constrictive rail-on-rail level crossing with CP’s east-west corridor.

I get it and I’m sympathetic for a couple of reasons.

1) RER will also bring huge amounts of rail traffic to areas along the East Danforth, upwards of 300 East Lakeshore, Unionville and SmartTrack trains a day along an embankment that divides our communities. That’s more than twice the traffic the Junction will face and it’s about a block from my house (GO trains sometimes rattle the picture frames on my bedroom walls);

2)  I remember the shock and passion from talking with Junction residents when I wrote about the GO’s Barrie corridor plans for The Globe and Mail in September, 2003.

Twelve years and three months later, politicians, bureaucrats, residents and planners seem to be acting as if this proposal is something new. Suddenly, its an emergency and we apparently don’t have time to consider our options.

The tunnel that city council voted to study on Dec. 10, 2015, probably doesn’t stand a chance, though I’d love to be wrong.

Two of the GTA’s most respected transportation engineers examined the The Bradford Corridor Planning Study Final Report (dated March of 2002) for me in 2003 and they agreed with Delcan’s conclusion that the tunnel option wasn’t feasible. Not only would the underground portion have to start south of Bloor to get the GO trains under the Bloor-Danforth subway, rising topography due to the old Lake Iroquois shoreline would mean the tunnel would have to be very long and costly north of Bloor.

One of the engineers suggested that co-ordinating the West Toronto Diamond work with Davenport Diamond might be the best solution (for everybody but Canadian Pacific Railway). But West Toronto Diamond, which was still in the planning stages then, has now been built and the potential opportunity has been lost.

But maybe we can find solutions to make this inevitable elevated line much more than palatable. Maybe, with GO’s electrified trains encased in some funky overground tubes there might be room for porous and lively spaces below — places that can lure pedestrians for many reasons at different times of the day to what is at present a community-deadening barrier.

Maybe it’s an opportunity for an international design competition. In the digital age launching a global brainstorming initiative should be easier than ever, and  it’s not as if creative people aren’t right under our noses here in the Junction and on the East Danforth.

Let’s make sure politicians and bureaucrats help us out.

 

GO Transit plan jolts Junction residents

Huge rail overpass in west-central area would carve strip out of many backyards

This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on Saturday, September 20, 2003

By STEPHEN WICKENS
Residents of some west-central Toronto neighbourhoods are on a collision course with GO Transit if plans are approved for a huge project involving construction of an elevated railway bridge.

A report produced for GO —  which has not been made public — calls for a bridge of up to two kilometres in length and the expropriation of property to make room for additional and reconfigured track from Wallace Avenue (north of Bloor Street) to Innes Avenue (south of Rogers Road)

The project would form part of a plan to bring all-day GO service to towns north of the city.

The Bradford Corridor Planning Study Final Report, dated March of 2002, came to light at an Ontario Municipal Board prehearing session last week. The Globe and Mail had an opportunity to examine the document after it was turned over to representatives of a developer appealing the city’s rejection of plans to construct residential buildings near the tracks, south of Dupont Street.

Residents of the affected neighbourhoods expressed shock about the existence of the plans.

“Nobody consulted us, but that’s the way these guys work,” said Carey Rookwod of Prescott Avenue, before going to get a neighbour to view a copy of plans that would carve a strip out of their back yards.

Neither of the city councillors who represent the affected areas is familiar with the plans either.

“I heard about a report, but I never saw anything,” Ward 17 Councillor Fred Dominelli said.

Ward 18 Councillor Mario Silva said he has heard nothing about the existence of such a report or any talk about a railway bridge or expropriation. “I’m supportive of GO Transit, but this sounds outrageous. I’ll be asking the city planners what they know.”

GO Transit managing director Gary McNeil denies there has been any attempt to suppress the report. “I’m not sure if this report has been made, quote, public. It’s more a study of how you can physically get to all-day service in the corridor, so if we get infrastructure money to build some of this stuff we know roughly the money we’re looking at for what we’re required to do. It’s probably a crossing that’s in the 15- to 20-year time frame. There’s no need to get people’s concern up when it might not even happen.”

Mr. Rookwod expressed concern about noise. “High-speed trains right in my back yard – that’s going to be loud,” he said.

Some barely finished townhomes on Rankin Crescent and a 10-metre-wide strip of the Campbell Avenue Playground are recommended for expropriation – prompting an Antler Street resident, who would give his name only as Mike, to say, “This neighbourhood has changed a lot since the Holly Jones murder. These guys sound like they want to pick a fight with the wrong people.”

The plan recommends expropriations and a bridge near Steeles Avenue and in York Region as well as in the west-central area.

The big problem in the inner city is a railway-level crossing near Dupont Street that reduces capacity and forces trains to slow on both the north-south Canadian National and east-west Canadian Pacific tracks.

Delcan Corp., an international engineering and consulting firm that produced the report, lists two options for the elevation of the north-south tracks used by GO trains, but acknowledges in one case that “the height and length of the structure will be a significant visual intrusion for approximately two kilometres [beginning south of Bloor].”

The other elevated option calls for a shorter, steeper bridge that would “significantly increase locomotive noise,” according to a transit planner and engineer who viewed the documents at The Globe’s request.

The Delcan report also lists two options involving tunnels but says each appears impractical.

“They want to tear down the Gardiner Expressway in one part of town, and put up essentially the same thing up here,” said Ted Davidson, a consultant for Ridgevest Developments Ltd., the appellant in the OMB case. “You don’t think they would try to ram something like this through in a wealthier neighbourhood, do you?”

Mr. McNeil, of GO Transit, called the Gardiner comparison unfair. “It’s like a scare tactic,” he said. “This would be the width of a two-lane road. There are lots of things we can do — we can put in pedestrian connections.”

Lawyer Alan Heisey, who represents GO Transit and CN in the OMB case, cautioned last week that the GO expansion might not happen for several years. “The planning horizon is 30 years,” he said. “The important thing is that we protect the rail corridors for the public good. It’s part of the city’s official plan.”

While many fixate on the Unilever site, our Kennedy lands languish in purgatory

An aerial prospective of Kennedy station from the crosstown.ca website.

An aerial prospective of Kennedy station from the crosstown.ca website. The site cautions that “the renderings are subject to change and may not reflect the final design.” Let us pray.

Our traditional approach to public real estate, especially properties at our major transit stations, involves giving away huge amounts of value to private developers (or wasting it on surface parking), while world leaders are working to master land-value capture and land-value trade relationships.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

What if First Gulf controlled the land surrounding Kennedy station, 25 publicly owned acres that for decades have been served by subway, SRT, GO trains and multiple bus routes. It’s a site whose potential value has soared recently, what with the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT to open in a few years and a reasonable likelihood a Scarborough subway extension and the Mayor’s SmartTrack will roll too.

Add in tracts of nearby, largely undeveloped private lands, and the Kennedy site’s size rivals First Gulf’s Unilever (now renamed East Harbour), which sits behind various moats – river, highway, rail corridor, monolithic land uses and long blocks. Unilever might eventually get lots of transit, but even if Broadview is extended south and a bridge to the West Donlands is added, stitching that site into the urban east-downtown fabric effectively will be a massive challenge.

The comparison’s timely because one site needs urgent attention – and despite media coverage and city hall chatter, it is not Unilever. Kennedy was the natural site for a “downtown” or “centre” in Scarborough and transformation on several levels should be inevitable: It already has one-seat rides to Union, Bloor-Yonge, Scarborough Centre and Markham Centre, and soon will offer one-seat rides to Yonge-Eglinton and the airport.   But it’s a hub without a champion. It lacks institutional support or gainfully employed minds offering vision. Shame on us, not just our politicians, bureaucrats and media.

Aside from an opportunity for profitable development to partly offset infrastructure costs and boost ridership enough to justify costly rapid transit priority for low-density Scarborough, Kennedy could pay back for generations if it’s the place that finally gets GTA decision-makers to understand public real estate in ways that underpin sustainable funding for the world’s leading urban transportation entities (almost all in east Asia).

But time’s running out at this hub: Options disappear every time politicians make absurd promises and every time Metrolinx and the TTC award contracts. The greatest urgency stems from the fact that plans still call for the Crosstown to dive underground at Ionview Road, nearly a kilometre west of Kennedy station. Tunneling made sense when the LRT was to swing north into the Scarborough Rapid Transit corridor and functionally replace the SRT as our de facto subway extension to Scarborough Town Centre – albeit with transfer for Bloor-Danforth riders. But although one-seat service to STC by subway now looks like a lock, station plans weren’t adjusted.

Short term, keeping the LRT on the surface and scrapping the tunnels saves us far more than the roughly $85-million the city owes Metrolinx for wasted work since council dumped the old LRT plan in 2013. Long-term, we’ll end up extending the Crosstown east and keeping the LRT on the surface from the west also eliminates the need for costly tunnels to the east. In fact, if we extend the LRT east, kill the tunnels and use SmartSpur (a plan with so much potential that those who promised the Scarborough subway have forbidden city staff from studying it properly) to connect with STC, we’d be able to eventually use a shorter more efficient route than any subway option planners have studied recently – if or when we can ever honestly justify a subway extension.

SmartSpur, branching of SmartTrack, could provide fast one-seat service between STC and Union for about $2-billion less than the subway options the city is pondering.

SmartSpur, the pink line branching off SmartTrack, could provide fast one-seat service between STC and Union for about $2-billion less than the subway options the city is pondering. As an added bonus, it can provide a modicum of relief for the Bloor-Danforth, Bloor-Yonge station and Yonge trains south of Bloor. Leading with a subway extension would aggravate crowding.

But the biggest long-term benefit will come if Kennedy station’s real estate can catalyze a long-overdue revolution in North American transit funding and planning. Kennedy’s special: We own the land; we can be that greedy developer reaping the profits. This is the basis of rail-plus-property, a business model that has played a huge role in making Hong Kong’s transit builder/operator a profitable company for 35-plus years (even if it isn’t perfect and people kvetch about transit there, too).

Historically, in Toronto, we give away land-value premiums to those who own sites near stations, some of which is unavoidable (we also twist transit plans and grasp for logic to justify alignments that mostly serve influential private interests and pension funds). MTRC of Hong Kong, trades its infrastructure spending for land-value through development and property management. Yes, we know Hong Kong is denser and their land-ownership regime is different, as are public-consultation sensibilities. But the big lessons of MTRC’s model can apply here if we’re smart enough in how we adapt the governance.

A huge but largely overlooked hurdle in our planning process is our lack of a publicly controlled entity for managing our transit-related real estate, working within a private-sector set of precepts to maximize its worth. This entity needs an empowered seat at the table from the earliest transit planning discussions and must be free to operate at an arm’s length from politicians and even transit operators. Rail-plus-property cannot remedy all our process flaws, but in its basest form it would generate significant revenue to defray capital costs, help us expedite operating efficiencies and earn the goodwill needed to allow those with taxing powers to use “funding tools” and “revenue tools” considered politically risky.

So if rail-plus-property is such a no-brainer, why haven’t we acted? We’re a riven town, trying to tame a political whipsaw. The right and some foolish mayors, going back at least a decade prior to amalgamation, have damaged the land-value-capture concept with laughable promises of free subways. The ideological left, meanwhile, tends to be fearful of anything that smacks of public-private partnerships, willfully ignoring how some competing international metropolises are getting things done. In 2003, the TTC was asked to study rail-plus-property (councillor David Miller got a motion passed at my urging, but the study was quietly ditched when he became mayor). Provincial and city reports on funding strategies in recent years have demonstrated a thin understanding of LVC. An August 2013 discussion paper commissioned by Metrolinx was somewhat encouraging (though hopes there are waning since the provincial entity quietly shut down its business-case department in the spring of 2016).

Recent off-the-record discussions with sources indicate some of our bureaucrats are waking up, though for now, we continue to rip ourselves off. We talk about transit being an investment, forgetting that real investors aggressively seek ROI.

The lands surrounding Kennedy station provide 1,000 parking spaces, the equivalent of filling one subway train for one trip a day.

The lands surrounding Kennedy station provide 1,000 parking spaces, the equivalent of filling one subway train for one trip a day. The terminal building in the background is an impediment to transit-oriented development on a site that desperately needs TOD.

Viewed through a rail-plus-property lens, current plans for Kennedy would have us asking:

– Why does the TTC cling to the quaint but expensive notion that stations are costs while cities capable of continuous building increasingly view them as revenue properties with trains rolling through the basement? At Kennedy, our thinking manifests itself in an unsubstantiated assumption that there’s net benefit in retaining a big bus terminal, even though it’s an impediment to transit-oriented development on a site that needs TOD. It makes even less sense if you consider that when the LRT is extended east, we won’t need a bus terminal at all.

– Why tie up swaths of valuable real estate for surface parking? The 1,000 or so spaces at Kennedy allow us to fill the equivalent of just one subway train for one round trip per day. Parking can and will be replaced in other formats via redevelopment – if it makes economic sense within a mix of uses that could include offices, shops, condos, schools, public services and recreation facilities. We need destinations around and atop our stations, a doubly crucial lesson for land-rich Metrolinx to learn, especially now that it should be preparing to strategically offset soaring operating costs from the Regional Express Rail all-day, two-way service promise.

– What thought is going into creating easy and pleasant pedestrian links between the Kennedy station zone and the surrounding areas? We think a lot about bus connections, a very good thing, but subways work best when the pedestrian is king of the catchment zones.

– Why aren’t the surrounding private land holders prominent in discussions at this end of the transit planning? Has there even been a public Kennedy station precinct planning process? Given the right lattice of incentive and disincentive, private developers will eagerly help us earn returns on investments and assets.

So, where are our bureaucrats?

Actually, contrary to popular misconception, most are at least okay. In Year 5 of his term, I’m concluding Andy Byford was probably a good hire and he seems to understand much of what I usually prattle on about. But he’s rightly focused first on turning around the TTC’s operating culture. He has some good people working for him on the capital planning side, but the parameters on their thinking appear to be constricted by assumptions desperately in need of re-examination. They lack the tools and direction required re-earn the public’s confidence (some TTC staff come across as chastened, bracing for further hits on the Spadina-York extension cost overruns and hugely wasteful standalone stations).

People at city planning have been good to talk to in recent years and seem to be awakening to the fact that established approaches are inadequate for such issues of organized complexity. Some seem to see the need for an entity that can wisely manage public land assets in the quest to make good on some of the excellent aims of the official plan, now more than a decade old (though spring-summer 2016 developments on the Scarborough subway front indicate the politics is trumping logic).

And the city is doing a real estate review, but the discussions seem to be on the overly secretive side.

Metrolinx dipped a toe in the waters of sanity by auctioning off Crosstown station sites – prior to excavation, no less – (though we’re hearing the first wave of RFPs were so restrictive that developer interest was disappointing). More disappointing is that rail-plus-property has apparently disappeared from the radar after recent behind-the-scenes moves that cost Metrolinx some of its brightest staff members.

So, again, imagine that First Gulf owns this Kennedy site, which may one day rival Union Station for the best, rapid-transit-served location in the GTA. At Unilever, First Gulf talks of 50,000 jobs and development investments worth $6-biillion (and let’s hope it succeeds). It’s obvious that First Gulf has worked hard to get the ear of the mayor’s office, just as Oxford Properties has at Scarborough Centre.

Maybe we, as a voters and residents, should try to do the same.

Last chance for sanity on the Scarborough transit file

scarbsubway3

So we now have a short list of three Scarborough subway extension proposals, none of which makes sense. It’s tempting to conclude that we’ve been presented with a couple of hopeless straw-man options that serve only to make the indefensible but politically popular Eglinton-McCowan alignment look good by comparison.

But let’s forestall the usual Torontoish blackthought, especially considering at least one excellent alternative hasn’t yet been stifled by politicians or the wasteful last-century assumptions that often still guide otherwise bright and well-meaning transit bureaucrats in these parts.

Though the last-chance-for-sanity option doesn’t involve actual subway, it should be the most attractive option of all, even in Scarborough’s subway-or-bust circles, offering fast one-seat service to Union station and easy links to the Bloor-Danforth subway and the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT at Kennedy station far sooner than any subway proposal can.

The idea, to my knowledge, first appeared in an excellent but largely overlooked 400-page regional rail report published by Transport Action Ontario in July 2013. The Star’s Tess Kalinowski was one of the few to clue in, and she wrote about it back before we’d heard the term SmartTrack, before the strange subway-centred by-election in Scarborough-Guildwood, and before then-transportation minister Glen Murray proposed his two-stop subway extension from Kennedy station to Scarborough Town Centre using the existing SRT corridor.

The TAO idea enhances the worth of SmartTrack, rather than siphoning ridership from it, so it might have a political hope, especially in the mayor’s office (if minds haven’t closed there). SmartSpur, as we might call it, can be built faster than any other option and at an attractive price. Costs of the connection to STC from the SmartTrack line, using the east-west part of the current SRT corridor, were calculated at $425-million in 2010 dollars, with the full route to Malvern via Centennial College’s Progress Campus for around $1.7-billion. I’d guess it will cost more than that, but it should still be at least $2-billion less than the Eglinton-McCowan subway idea no matter how many stations it contains (some Scarborough councillors are calling for a fourth station at Danforth Road and Eglinton).

karlsmap

The ideal Eglinton-Crosstown approach to Kennedy station would now be on the surface to make an extension east toward Kingston Road easier and less expensive.

Just think what we could do with an extra $2-billion – putting it toward the decades-overdue relief line comes to mind, as do Eglinton-Crosstown LRT extensions east of Kennedy or west of Mount Dennis (and those EAs are already done).

On the downside, shuttle buses would likely be needed to briefly replace the SRT during parts of the construction and the TAO estimate does not include SRT demolition costs. And, of course, SmartTrack will eat up finite capacity at Union Station and on the Lakeshore East GO lines. But while all the subway extension ideas would aggravate crowding on the Bloor-Danforth, which is already at capacity westbound from Main Street in the morning rush, SmartSpur would provide a little temporary relief both on the line and at the dangerously overcrowded Bloor-Yonge transfer point.

Some (including a few in the mayor’s office, I’m told), fear SmartTrack would cannibalize potential ridership on a subway extension, projections for which are already dubious. Instead, they should open their minds and be looking at having SmartTrack/SmartSpur cannibalize it altogether, with subway-like frequency and TTC fares on the GO corridor. It’s what the mayor promised in the election campaign, but taken to a logical conclusion.

Of course, this is Toronto and there’s the possibility the idea makes too much sense.

Simple and brilliant as SmartSpur may be, it was my second choice for most of the past two years: A 10th subway alignment – shorter, more direct and with major value-capture possibilities from publicly owned real estate – would almost certainly have delivered the best value long-term. But Alignment 10 died behind the scenes at City Hall in recent weeks and didn’t even make city planning’s menu of nine, likely because transit entities and bureaucrats still don’t seem ready to wrap their heads around international best practice for funding and achieving returns on subway investments. They also have a costly and irrational aversion to open-cut and cut-and-cover subways, which though messier to build, are far less expensive (see the Yonge line, Bloor to Eglinton).

Anyway, for now, there’s a ray of hope, and I’m calling it SmartSpur.

Here's the branch line in the broader context, and we've taken the liberty of fixing the SmartTrack station spacing in east Toronto to improve the line's ability to relieve subway crowding.

Here’s the branch line in the broader context, and we’ve taken the liberty of fixing the SmartTrack station spacing in east Toronto to improve the line’s ability to relieve subway crowding.