TAO and the politics of transit ideas in Ontario

Backers of an electrified GO-based Scarborough Rapid Transit replacement plan  may be a test for Rob Prichard’s assertion that it’s never too late for good ideas

Metrolinx chair Rob Prichard answers a reporter's question after the Sept. 10 board meeting, while president Bruce McCuaig looks on.

Metrolinx chair Rob Prichard answers a reporter’s question after the Sept. 10 board meeting, while president Bruce McCuaig looks on. Prichard indicated that he and the folks at Metrolinx view the transportation minister’s stripped-down subway idea as “fresh thinking.”

“Usually, the thing that’s in shortest supply in life is good ideas,” Rob Prichard told reporters after the Metrolinx’s Sept. 10 board meeting.

“When a new idea comes into play, our job is to take it seriously, do due diligence and see if it works,” the the transit agency’s chair said, apparently under the impression that Glen Murray’s Scarborough subway idea qualifies as fresh thinking.

“It’s never too late for great ideas.”

Well, those words may soon be put the test.

Folks at Transport Action Ontario, a respected transit activist group, believe they have the great idea for the Scarborough rapid transit replacement project as part of their Regional Rapid Rail Report, released last month.

Even if it’s only a good idea, it appears to have major advantages over the two subway proposals transit bureaucrats have been forced to take seriously in recent weeks. It also appears to have a significant edge over the light-rail plan that would divert the Eglinton Transit City line up to the Scarborough Town Centre, as per the much-vaunted Master Agreement ™ between Metrolinx and the city.

The biggest question is, will those in power seriously consider the idea in time?

The good news for TAO is that their report is on Metrolinx’s radar, though Prichard seemed surprised when it was mentioned in relation to the Scarborough situation – an hour or so earlier, during the seemingly scripted part of the Metrolinx meeting, he sought assurance from one of his VPs that TAO’s report would be considered as part of a Downtown Relief Line study.

In a nutshell, TAO sees the GO rail network as badly under-utilized in a metropolitan area desperately short of time, funding and transit infrastructure. TAO figures if we seriously speed up Metrolinx’s long-range plan to electrify GO’s network, we can get subway-quality service akin the S-Bahns of Germany for $55-million a kilometre – that’s less than LRT.

Key to the plan would be electric multiple-unit trains, which would be bi-level like current GO rolling stock, but would have traction motors in every other car. Rather than use a third rail, these EMUs draw current from overhead wires. According to Karl Junkin, the main author of the TAO report, EMU trains would be cheaper to run than ones hauled by diesel locomotives, with estimated savings of nearly $500-million a year. EMUs can also accelerate and brake like subways, allowing for a near doubling of the number of GO stations without slowing overall travel times. In combination with frequent service, this is massive in that it doubles the number areas where people can walk to a station and multiplies the number periods in which the stations are useful. That in turn can seriously improve efficiencies for transit operators all across the region.

“We’re talking trains every four minutes during the rush hour and every 15 minutes off peak,” Junkin says.

TAO argues the EMUs would provide faster service from downtown to Kennedy, Scarborough and beyond than either of the subway options – a city/TTC proposal for Eglinton and McCowan up to Sheppard for $2.3-billion (plus or minus 30 per cent), and Transportation Minister Glen Murray’s two-stop idea that would largely follow the current SRT corridor. Also, instead of adding ridership to the Bloor-Danforth, which is already at capacity in the morning rush, TAO’s EMU line would actually divert customers – acting as a sort of Downtown and Bloor-Danforth Relief Line.

“I have to emphasize that our plan would not eliminate the need for a DRL, Junkin says. “Not even close, but it buys us time, especially on the Richmond Hill and Scarborough corridors.”

Another potential advantage TAO’s idea has over the Murray plan, and the LRT proposed for the SRT corridor, is that the shutdown period could be shorter than three years, and the shuttle bus service needed during construction would only have to be from STC to Ellesmere, rather than STC to Warden or Kennedy stations.

In creative societies – a concept championed by Richard Florida and former premier Dalton McGuinty – rare good ideas are deemed valuable and creative people are encouraged to get them into circulation. But getting good or even great transit ideas “into play” in this province is nearly impossible if you’re not a well-placed politician. Even our transit agencies are taking their cues from politicians and seem shy about using their many talented people to truly seek and suggest best alternatives.

Prichard tells us Metrolinx will be unbiased in carrying out “confirmatory studies” of Murray’s plan. The provincial agency that was to depoliticize the transit planning process is clearly fixated on a corridor that has failed to produce transit-oriented development or urbanism despite nearly three decades of extremely costly rapid transit service. Those who’ve followed the Scarborough saga for decades can tell you the corridor wasn’t anybody’s first choice 35 years ago, but because it has been a default part of so many plans over the years, it now seems to have been accorded some kind of precedent status.

The TTC, meanwhile, also seems as beholden to politicians who are supposed to oversee the commission, a perversion of the intent when the board was reconstituted about 20 years ago. When asked if the TTC is even considering other options, WorldWideWickens was told the mandate is to study the two options that politicians have suggested. That’s reminds us of quip from Richard Soberman, one of the deans of the local transportation advisory business: “Getting advice from politicians on transit makes as much sense as going to the dentist for a colonoscopy.”

Anyway, it will astonish many, including a few within TTC HQ, but according to Andy Byford’s column in Metro on Sept. 13, the Eglinton-McCowan routing is “supported by myself and TTC staff.”

Soberman, by the way isn’t totally enamored with TAO’s plan. He says Junkin should have taken a more demand-oriented approach and he thinks the technical feasibility and cost estimates are “very optimistic.” Ed Levy, another of the wise local transit elders and author of Transit in Toronto, A Century of Plans, Progress, Politics and Paralysis, has written an endorsement that appears on the home page for TAO’s 400-page opus.

For what it’s worth, I had been supporting a subway plan that appears to be much better than either of the two on the table, but TAO’s report won me over in early August.

Merit aside, Junkin and senior TAO people know there will be resistance to any new proposals that appear to clutter an either-or subway race. They know they need a political champion to put their idea “into play,” to use Prichard’s terminology. TAO people have been meeting with senior planners and politicians throughout the region in recent weeks, and I caught up with them at City Hall on Thursday, during a meeting with Ward 32 Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon.

TAO report author Karl Junkin discusses the GO electrification proposal with Ward 32 Councillor Mary Margaret McMahon during a presentation at City Hall.

TAO report author Karl Junkin discusses the GO Regional Rapid Rail proposal with Ward 32 Councillor Mary Margaret McMahon during a presentation at City Hall.

Not that seniority is likely to help, but it’s worth noting that TAO’s plan actually came out before the July City Council meeting at which the expensive Eglinton-McCowan subway option was approved (It seems to still be under the radar for most politicians despite a good story about by the Star’s transportation reporter Tess Kalinowski). Murray’s suggestion, meanwhile, which most figure has the inside track, apparently wasn’t even a germ until after council voted for a subway less than two months ago.

“This project is about a region-wide network, but the whole Scarborough debate has suddenly made things urgent,” TAO president Peter Miasek admits. “But I think a lot of people are going to be angry down the road if politicians overlook what is clearly the best overall option for all concerned.”

These guys pray Prichard is right about one thing, that it’s never too late for great ideas.

Leave a Reply