Seminal subway lessons from the Toronto transit time tunnel

Instead of funding, premier Leslie Frost arrived at the 1959 ground-breaking ceremony with only an ill-fitting hard hat and a speech warning local politicians not to get too deeply into debt for their University-Bloor-Danforth subway project. (Toronto Telegram fonds ASC07444)

Once upon a time, a much smaller and poorer place called Toronto went ahead and built subways without any funding assistance from Ottawa or Queen’s Park

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star on Feb. 3, 2012. All photos were taken by Toronto Telegram photographer Peter Ward and are published here courtesy of the York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections.


Torontonians have seen countless transit plans in recent years, but even the wildest fantasy versions haven’t considered time travel — and maybe that’s a shame.

If we could all hop a Red Rocket to Nov. 16, 1959, and get off at University Avenue and Edward Street, we could witness an event locals might consider unbelievable. And if planners and politicians were among the time travellers, local transit talk might be more relevant and productive, even before the ride back to 2012.

TTC chairman and former mayor Allan Lamport addressed the gathering on a cold, blustery 1959 day, when a smaller, poorer Toronto demonstrated an independence and self-confidence not seen since. (Toronto Telegram fonds ASC07445)


The guy in the ill-fitting red hard hat operating the steam shovel for the sod-turning ceremony is Leslie Frost, premier since 1949. Mayor Nathan Phillips is among the dignitaries, along with “Big Daddy” Fred Gardiner, the Metro chairman who would prefer that expressways get priority. Allan Lamport, a former mayor who successfully argued that subways would be a better long-term investment, will take a turn with the earth-moving equipment after Frost is done.

Observant guests from the 21st century might note the absence of any giant cheque for the photo-op. And there is no spin-doctor’s slogan on a lectern placard, no printed backdrop screens lauding Queen’s Park for creating jobs or tackling gridlock. Of course, Frost has good reason to not blow his horn: he doesn’t bring a penny to the project. Instead, he delivers only a speech, a stern warning to municipal politicians that they’re on their own, that they’d better not get mired in debt for this $200-million University-Bloor-Danforth subway plan — 25 stations over 16 kilometres.


By now, you know the job got done, and it was accomplished on budget in just six years and three months.

“It was a remarkable feat,” says veteran civil engineer and consultant Ed Levy, who has written a forthcoming book on Toronto’s transportation history. “It took guts to go ahead without provincial funding, especially when you consider this was a much smaller and poorer city, and tunnelling technology was relatively primitive.

“The truth seems unbelievable today, after decades of paralysis and sickening blunders on the rare occasions when Queen’s Park has provided funding.”

In 1959, it had been five years since the original Yonge line from Union to Eglinton had opened (funded largely by fare-box surpluses) and Toronto was eager to get building again, even if the province wouldn’t help.

To figure out how we did it, Levy says several factors must be considered. We were willing to put a surcharge on property taxes, though the towns of Mimico and Long Branch objected. But the biggest factor is almost certainly that “the economics are pretty well guaranteed to work when you put subways in the right places ” — already dense, transit-supportive parts of the city.

“We don’t have a lot of that and, obviously, we can’t build only downtown, but it was madness to stop building subways in old Toronto in the 1960s,” says Levy, whose first engineering job involved plans for shoring up buildings for the University line tunnels.

“Look at cities that have been able to keep expanding; they’ve all built steadily from the middle out. London’s tubes go a long way out, but all go through the core. [And though few tourists may realize it, 55 per cent of London Underground is actually above ground, and when Toronto was good at building subways on time and on budget, we went open trench through low-density areas north of Bloor on the Yonge line, or above ground once the subway rolled into Scarborough at Victoria Park.]

“We might yet be able to make the economics work in the suburbs, but it will take big changes to our whole approach, lots of up-zoning and big increases in the densities of those areas.”

Fifty-five per cent of the tab for the University and Bloor-Danforth lines came from property taxes levied by Metropolitan Toronto, a senior local government abolished in the 1998 amalgamation. The Toronto Transit Commission, which didn’t need taxpayer subsidies for operations until the early 1970s, was profitable enough under its zone-fare system and a primarily urban operations area to pay 45 per cent. Eventually, under Frost’s successor, John Robarts, Queen’s Park guaranteed a $60 million loan, allowing a work speed-up that saw the line from Woodbine to Keele open in 1966 rather than 1969.

Can hiking property taxes make a difference?

The Toronto Board of Trade estimates we’d get only $22 million a year if we raised residential rates 1 per cent, but considering most people in 905 pay at least 25 per cent more in property taxes, it may be an option.

Transit advocate and blogger Steve Munro says one thing working against us now is that all construction costs have risen faster than the rate of inflation. It’s tough to quantify this, but he appears to be correct. The Bank of Canada says $200 million in 1959 is worth roughly $1.6 billion today, and there’s no way we could build those lines and the Greenwood maintenance and storage facility for the latter figure.

“We also used cheaper cut-and-cover box tunnels, rather than the current deep bore approach,” Munro says. “The stations were rudimentary, often with only one exit. It also didn’t hurt that, 40 years earlier, people thought long-term and built that lower deck on the Bloor viaduct, not that anyone would have considered tunnelling under the Don River in the 1960s.”

But Munro, like everyone else interviewed for this article, comes back to the relationship between land use and transit and the need to reconnect mutually supportive forces if we’re ever to make costly infrastructure pay and keep expansion ongoing.

“Some will argue that, ‘You don’t see lots of towers along the original Bloor-Danforth,’” Munro says. “But it worked because transit demand was already well-established for kilometres north and south of the new subway. The street could probably use redevelopment now, but it serves as a great example that effective urban form doesn’t have to include high-rises.”

Transport and energy consultant, author and former city councillor Richard Gilbert made a similar point in a 2006 paper titled “Building Subways Without Subsidies.” In it, he calculated a combined 30,000 to 40,000 jobs and residential units within a square kilometre of each station on the $2.6 billion Spadina-York subway extension would allow it to pay for itself in 35 years.

“You could do all that without going over seven storeys,” he says, adding there has been little development on the Spadina line in 35 years of operation. This extension into York shows few signs of paying back any better. People have to understand that subsidies are a substitute for density, and that’s fine if money is no object,” he says. “We’re making the same mistake again on Eglinton. We’re blasting more than $8 billion at it and the province hasn’t set any performance-based conditions. There’s not a single requirement about density around and above the stations.

“If we don’t fix this, if we don’t put some real effort into figuring out how the public can get back even some of this money, we have no hope of obtaining real value for the $50 billion Metrolinx is supposed to spend on the Big Move.”

Eric Miller, director of the Cities Centre at the University of Toronto, says “we’ve been fooling ourselves for decades” with the idea that development and urbanization will automatically follow subways in places first developed around the car.

“It was always a well-crafted myth that the TTC and others generated,” Miller says. “Building heavy rail is a necessary but not sufficient condition to generate high density in the suburbs. We have to get really serious about ensuring that density, walkability and rich mixes of land uses happen and we can’t waste time.”

In January, TTC vice-chair Peter Milczyn made an encouraging but generally unreported announcement at the city planning and growth management committee meeting. He said he and TTC chair Karen Stintz would work to ensure all future stations had at least some development upstairs from the start. But some see this and initiatives such as Metrolinx’s Mobility Hub concept as mere timid steps in the right direction; that small islands of urbanity in ever-growing seas of car dependence won’t do and that the full costs of sprawl must be identified and recaptured.

John Sewell, former Toronto mayor and author of The Shape of the Suburbs, argues the entire GTA had better come to grips with the urgency because Metrolinx’s investments in the 905 area are even less likely to pay for themselves than the subsidy-driven services we pushed into the older 416 suburbs beginning in the late 1960s.

“The GTA has to compete globally, and we’re guaranteeing ourselves negative real returns on a grand scale,” Sewell says, adding the financial burden will almost certainly further erode long-term political will to properly fund transit, even in places where transit is cost-effective.

“Because of the way we’ve built the outer suburbs, any type of transit we put out there will require massive subsidies for operations,” Sewell says. “That’s the problem with suburban form; sprawl is unsustainable — literally, financially unsustainable. Mississauga is just learning this now.”

Planner Ken Greenberg thinks our slide into bad habits began even before the Bloor-Danforth opened. “One great mistake of that era is that we started detaching land use from infrastructure investment. On Yonge, at St. Clair, Davisville and Eglinton, you have, in effect, little cities. Lots of people live and work near those subway stops. For the most part, such is not the case on the Bloor-Danforth and Spadina. Something was suddenly and fundamentally off kilter and it took Toronto out of the realm of what other cities have been doing consistently.”

Levy and Gilbert also point to other trends that were developing by the late 1960s. “People will be irritated by my saying this, but our transit problems began when the suburbs began dominating at Metro,” Levy says. “Some of it may be coincidence, but the loss of the zone fares and the way Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York developed means subways may never pay for themselves there, and Vaughan is another story altogether. They don’t have the density, but they have the votes.” [The Toronto-East York community council area, 6,348 people per square kilometre, is more than twice as dense as Scarborough and Etobicoke, and 63 per cent denser than North York.]

University of Toronto historian Richard White makes the case that suburbanites did contribute because a building boom in Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York made the Metro tax surcharge particularly lucrative, but he agrees the suburban form in those former boroughs and the end of the zone-fare system made public transit expensive.

Gilbert, former research director at the Centre for Sustainable Transportation, says even the much-pined-for funding formula started in the 1970s by former premier Bill Davis — a 75 per cent subsidy for new infrastructure and 50 per cent toward operating deficits — probably worsened our problems long-term. “Those subsidies obscured the true cost of providing urban transit in suburban places, so it’s no surprise that they keep getting larger. This is a classic case of a perverse subsidy.”

That brings us to planner Pamela Blais, who has spent at least 15 years studying how hidden “perverse” subsidies encourage sprawl much more effectively than planning guidelines and growth boundaries fight it. But the author of Perverse Cities makes clear she would prefer bigger transit subsidies from senior governments because the public service role justifies them.

She says that if we want to get on with building transit infrastructure and delivering good service across the GTA, we must address the fact that the lower the density and the more we segregate land uses, the more expensive it is to deliver all network services, and that includes gas, hydro, mail, sewers, water, and telecommunications.

“When everybody pays the same average price, rather than the marginal cost of service provision, people in the densest areas overpay to subsidize people further out, where they largely don’t pay their fair share. Trying to outlaw sprawl won’t work, but if we properly identify the hidden cross-subsidies and get the pricing signals right, people will make the right decisions,” she says, citing development charges and the market-value assessment approach to property taxes as areas in need of reform.

Paul Bedford was Toronto’s chief planner when the city produced its first official plan after amalgamation, and linking transit and land use was central to that mission. He hopes we can find “consistent leadership over time, so plans don’t keep changing with each municipal election.

“The other key is that the Metrolinx development strategy has to be really bold, not just with planning new infrastructure, but with funding sources for operations and maintenance,” says Bedford, who is still waiting to learn if he will be reappointed to the Metrolinx board. “We need the funding plan this year,” he says, adding he thinks plans for a downtown subway should be moved up the priority list. “We’re at least 30 years behind, and we’re going to be adding the equivalent of Greater Montreal in the next 25 years. Heaven help us if we allow much of it to be car-dependent sprawl.”

But Greenberg points out that sprawl is marching on. “Yes, we’re having trouble getting transit infrastructure built, but our problem is more land use than transportation,” he says. “We’re getting some intensification in a few places, but go to King City or Uxbridge, places like that on the fringes, it’s still ongoing, full, industrial-strength, traditional sprawl. More and more people living in environments where they have no practical choice but to drive everywhere. We have policies intended to fight it, but way too many incentives to continue as is. We’re sucking and blowing at the same time and the illusion is that we’re wealthy enough to afford it.”

Sewell, meanwhile, is skeptical that we can remake the suburbs. “It’s really hard to retrofit any place built for the car, they haven’t been evolving into urban places. If it’s going to work, it’s going to take a lot more than density. We need that real mix of land uses and short blocks. Planners have to keep the pedestrian in mind at all times and we need the financial incentives.

“If it’s going to happen, it’s going to take a really long time and I don’t know that we have it. Maybe if we took that train back to 1959 we could warn them, but I don’t know if that would help, either.”

In what was viewed as a burying-the-hatchet moment, subway advocate Allan Lamport pins a flower on the lapel of Metro Chairman Fred Gardiner, who wanted spending on expressways to be the priority. The two battled each other throughout the ’50s. (Toronto Telegram fonds ASC07446)

Ready or not, it’s Cho time in the Sheppard LRT-subway debate


Toronto’s desperate for brilliance on the transit file.

And if we get more than a flash of it for Sheppard Avenue in coming years, we may be indebted to an immigration officer who visited Seoul in 1965. Such are the wonderful chains of events available when looking back over longer lives – not that we’re calling Raymond Cho old.

Without that bureaucrat, Cho wouldn’t have been talked into coming to Canada. And, without Cho, the next phase of this interminable and painful Sheppard debate would almost certainly be more of the same. But after more than 20 years on council, Cho’s suddenly a rookie TTC commissioner. His background is in social work. He has a master’s, a PhD and a sense of humour.

He also has a big problem.

Cho represents Ward 42, Toronto’s northeast corner, and it’s the likely plight of his constituents that best highlights a gaping hole in the discussion.

Even with a new light-rail line — the recommendation of an “expert” panel that reviewed a narrow menu of options for council — transit will be messy for voters in Cho’s ward.

Consider a Ward 42 resident attending York University or Humber College, or working on Finch West or at Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. The trek might start with a walk to a stop and a wait for the Neilson, Morningside or Progress bus to get to the new line.

LRT would provide service to Don Mills station and another transfer point, this time for a five-stop subway ride to Yonge. From there, it could be two more stations on a northbound train to pick up the Finch West bus for a ride over to another LRT starting at Keele. Or it might make sense at Sheppard-Yonge station to grab a bus to Downsview, before transferring to a northbound Spadina train to York or Vaughan or the Finch LRT.

Round-trip, that’s up to 12 transfers, and studies have found transit riders’ wait-time perceptions are often out by a factor of three.

Apparently, since the March 5 council meeting, we’re back heeding transit experts, and experts say minimizing transfers is a key to public transit’s competitiveness with private cars.

Respected transit people — including David Gunn, Richard Soberman and Ed Levy — made this point at a 2008 symposium put on by the Residential and Civil Construction Alliance of Ontario. None of those who spoke is anti-LRT or pro-subway, but all felt Transit City, which council seems eager to re-embrace, had big flaws, starting with Sheppard-Finch corridor disconnects. They indicated that if we put LRT lines on Sheppard east and Finch west, we better find a way to make them one, even if it means converting the Sheppard subway to light-rail.

TTC planners may have listened because, for a brief period, Transit City was augmented to link the lines via Don Mills Road and Finch East, though that solution isolates the Sheppard stub, wasting a billion sunk-cost dollars.

Cho didn’t ask for this mess, but then it wasn’t his idea to move to Canada. His brother was the would-be immigrant, but brought Raymond along as an interpreter. That’s when the Canadian official persuaded Cho to apply, setting in motion the events that have landed him on the Sheppard hot seat.

Cho offers a thoughtful “hmmm,” when it’s pointed out that, simultaneously, we talk of seamless Metrolinx-led transit across the GTA while preparing to lock into a series of time-wasting hurdles for east-west travel within the city. “The question is a very valid one,” Cho says when asked what he’ll tell constituents. “This is one area I’ll take a very close look at.”

Of course, at council, Cho must endure lobbying from pro-subway and pro-LRT zealots. It will test his claim to have risen above the left-right rift that has deprived Toronto of sanity since amalgamation. But Cho must know something about resolve, growing up in Japanese-occupied Korea, losing his dad in a cholera epidemic and, as a teen, keeping out of the line of fire in the Korean War. And though Canada wasn’t welcoming when he arrived, he became a great immigration success story.

“I remember asking, why did I come to this stupid country?” he says, recalling racial intolerance and long shifts as a dishwasher, waiter, miner and janitor. “At one point, I even picked worms. It was hard, but it was a great education, much more valuable than my doctoral degree. I learned to listen. I learned how to talk to anyone.”

He says by the early 1970s, once he’d brought his fiancé from South Korea and settled in Toronto, he fell in love with Canada.

“I knew this was my country.”

Now, at 75, does he have the energy for such a baptismal firefight in the unfamiliar transit portfolio?

“C’mon, compared to Hazel McCallion, I’m a teenager,” he says.

Councillor Cho has since announced he will support the panel’s LRT recommendation. No word yet on what he’s telling his constituents.

High Anxiety

The story first appeared in the Globe and Mail on Jan 8, 2005. The Dover Square tower never got built, though the city has seen an incredible high-rise boom ever since.


Luis Berroa vows not to take sides, but says he can’t avoid neighbourhood talk about plans for a new apartment tower south of Bloor Street West on Dovercourt Road.

“Everyone talks high-rise now; this fight will be ferocious,” the drywaller/roofer says while eating breakfast at the counter in Billy’s Souvlaki Place on Dovercourt.

“The people are against the building. Me? I’m torn. I like all construction. It’s good for the economy.” But Mr. Berroa says he knows why his neighbours are angry. “Nobody wants tall buildings close to their house.

“If I owned [my home], I’d be mad, too.”

The battle he speaks of stems from Sterling Karamar Property Management’s plan to add a 285-unit building to the three Dover Square towers that went up in the 1960s.

The Dufferin Grove Residents Association, formed in response to the Dover Square plan, says the 13-storey building would eat up nearly half the immediate community’s green space, overburden amenities and lower property values.

Members of the residents association plastered notices aimed at bolstering opposition with a dramatic rallying cry: “Save our neighbourhood! Don’t wait until it’s too late. . . . Do we want another St. James Town?”

Elsewhere in the city, similar fights are becoming increasingly common. The Minto Place tower now being built at Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue prompted probably the city’s nastiest high-rise squabble in recent years. North Toronto resident Raymond Tong remains so upset over the Ontario Municipal Board’s decision to allow the building that he has been lending support to the Dufferin Grove residents. Those fighting Dover Square are also supported by Mike Kilpatrick, who is battling proposals to add high-rise towers in the Warden corridor of southwest Scarborough. And residents at the south end of Church Street are battling to stop a development at 40 The Esplanade.

According to the website, about 100 residential buildings of 30 storeys or more are currently proposed, approved or under construction in the GTA. As Toronto prepares to grow by an estimated three million residents over the next three decades, is there any way to avoid acrimony?

Former mayor John Sewell says yes, but suggests that much of the conflict stems from the official plan itself, even though it hasn’t been officially implemented yet. The new plan, which will replace seven plans from pre-amalgamation Toronto, encourages more intensive, transit-supportive land use.

“It seems to say intensification is good, no matter what form it takes,” he says. “People generally agree intensification is a smart thing, but they object to buildings that are entirely inappropriate for where they are planned.”

He says much of the acrimony would be unnecessary if people understood that we can have high density in a low-rise format.

“The densest development in the city is the St. Lawrence community [100 units an acre]. Nothing in it is higher than 10 storeys. It really works. People like living there. But just up the road, a developer — and the city — want to give us an awful high-rise,” he says of Cityzen Urban Lifestyle’s plan for 40 Esplanade. He also blasts Ted Tyndorf for supporting it.

Mr. Tyndorf, the city’s new chief planner, blasts back, calling Mr. Sewell’s statements “simply not true.”

“What you’re seeing is not the product of a document and a policy paper. It’s the product of a market demand and the maturity of a large urban centre. High-rise is not the only form [needed to meet the city’s intensification goals],” Mr. Tyndorf adds, before mentioning some of the same low- and mid-rise successes that Mr. Sewell cites.

But he defends Cityzen’s plan, saying “it’s really on the edge of downtown, and across the street from an existing 35-storey building. It’s not an inappropriate context.”

Mr. Tyndorf says early public consultation — ideally, before a developer has even made an application — is the key to wise and peaceful resolutions. An example he raises involved a year of meetings that led to plans for a proposed high-rise project at the old Eglinton subway bus terminal. “It has the approval of the same ratepayers and the same city councillor [Michael Walker] who fought the Minto application so hard.”

Although it’s been more than two years since Minto got OMB approval to exceed the densities and heights set out in the old official plan, anger lingers. Mr. Tong, who opposed the project, thinks the OMB is much too understanding of the developer’s position. “Why do we elect city councils or go to the trouble and expense of producing official plans if the OMB is going to ignore them?”

Anne Johnston, a 30-year city councillor who lost her seat in 2003 largely because of her support for the Minto deal, shares concerns that the OMB has too much power, but also suggests city residents who want to avoid high-density living altogether are being unrealistic. “A lot of people, call them NIMBYs if you will, fear or hate all growth. They don’t understand that a city is not healthy unless there’s steady growth.”

Karl Jaffary, a lawyer who represents developers and residents groups (including those who fought Minto and some Yorkville high-rises), has noticed the recent rise in neighbourhood battles, and he doesn’t sound optimistic that peace will break out any time soon.

“The existing official plan seems to have little meaning for the city planning staff, and the new plan would do nothing to restrain them in any event,” says Mr. Jaffary, who served alongside Mr. Sewell as a city councillor in the early 1970s. “We seem to be back very much to a let’s-make-a-deal sort of planning,” he says of a system that allows developers to exceed official plans in exchange for funding other ventures, such as seniors’ housing or parks. “The city seems to be flying by the seat of its pants.”

Dovercourt and Bloor is a hive of activity on New Year’s eve afternoon, and only 11 people have to be questioned to find 10 with an opinion on Dover Square — seven against, two in favour, and the “torn” Mr. Berroa.

Mario Calderon calls Dover Square opponents “nuts.”

“Sure the rents are high,” the west-tower tenant says, “but the buildings are well maintained. Maybe if more apartments are built, landlords will have to lower the rent.” Mr. Calderon also says that “except when the ice-cream truck comes, or when the landlord has the free barbecue,” the green space is not that well used.

A few days later, Andrew Munger is unhappy to hear Mr. Calderon’s views. “On a warm June or July evening, there will be 100 to 150 people there,” he says. “And there’s a constant stream of pedestrians all year on the path through the site.”

Mr. Munger, president of the Dufferin Grove Residents’ Association, likes Mr. Tyndorf’s idea about getting residents involved early in the planning. But he says, “That’s exactly what did not happen here. We were more or less shut out of the process.

“We’re not against intensification and not totally against high-rise, but you have to be careful not to overwhelm a community,” he says. “The existing complex is high-rise, but it’s integrated with the community. All plans we’ve seen [from the developer] would encroach significantly on the green space.”

Marvin Sadowski of Sterling Karamar replies that “some green space will go, but it will be minimal,” and “many of those who talk about the loss of green space are people who also complain regularly about the noise of kids playing there.” He adds that the original plan called for a taller building that would have taken up less space, but the city and neighbours said it was too high. And although the number of units did go from 187 to 285, they’re smaller units.

The citywide fighting is all “a NIMBY thing,” he says. “I think a lot of it is precipitated by people who have been, perhaps, coached as to what to say at public meetings.”

And so the war continues.
Mr. Jaffary will be representing Sterling Karamar.

Mr. Munger says his group now has to settle on a strategy. “Is there an acceptable compromise to be had? Do we gamble on the OMB?”

The next official round in the fight is Feb. 1 at an OMB pre-hearing session.


City planning chief Ted Tyndorf and former mayor John Sewell disagree about some controversial high-rises, but both cite the success in east downtown of the St. Lawrence community, the city’s densest development.

At 100 units an acre, it doesn’t have any buildings taller than 10 storeys. And St. Lawrence may not be an aberration.

Census data and statistics provided by the city indicate that Dover Square, central to one ongoing high-rise battle, is in Ward 18, which has Toronto’s densest population: 10,347 people per square kilometre. But only 16.2 per cent of Ward 18’s households are in buildings of five or more storeys, compared to a city average of 37.6 per cent.

And while high-rises are common in some dense areas of Toronto, Ward 17, which has the city’s lowest percentage of households in buildings of five or more storeys (5.8 per cent), is the third-densest of the 44 wards at 8,180 people per square km.

Mr. Tyndorf says the numbers indicate that the city has to look at all options to make intensification work, but also that Ward 18 may not face such a shortage of green space with more high-rises.

Marvin Sadowski, executive vice-president of developer Sterling Karamar, says it comes down to profit. “We provide good housing at what we think is a fair price, but we don’t provide social housing. Based on economics, if it’s going to be rental, it has to be high-rise.”