Last chance for sanity on the Scarborough transit file

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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).

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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.

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.

More Scarborough Transit Indignity

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Few will mourn the unreliable orphan foisted on us by provincial bureaucrats who claimed ICTS technology would be a low-cost alternative to subways. But it turns out the troubled RT didn’t just cost more than light rail, it almost certainly cost us more than a subway would have in the first place.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

If there’s a heaven, and if Gus Harris gained entry, you can bet he’s put the harp lessons on hold to follow the Scarborough transit fiasco.

Harris, Scarborough’s mayor for much of the 1980s, opposed the once-futuristic Intermediate Capacity Transit System (ICTS), designed to be a low-cost alternative to traditional subways, which were proving too expensive for suburban applications (at least in the absence of real world-class land-value-capture systems).

In 1981, when Scarborough council snubbed Harris to back a switch from conventional light rail to the province’s unproven technology, he dubbed it “The Toonerville Trolley.” When Metro council finalized the switch weeks later, he said, “I don’t think Scarborough should be guinea pigs for this.”

Minister of transportation James Snow and Kirk Foley, head of the province’s Urban Transit Development Corp., had led Queen’s Park’s hard sell that spring. Future mayor Joyce Trimmer led the majority Scarborough council faction. They were feted by UTDC and flown to Kingston to see it on a test track. They quickly bought in on a promise that ICTS would be a huge step up from the then-new streetcars that had been expected to ply the Kennedy-Scarborough Centre corridor as per a 1977 plan approved by Metro Council.

ICTS was to cost $134-million, 24 per cent more than the streetcar option, whose estimate had risen to $108-million by 1981. But Cabinet at Queen’s Park, eager for a working line to showcase UTDC’s driverless ICTS trains to the world, vowed to pick up all extra costs.

So what could possibly go wrong?

A year later, the TTC – a diplomatically reluctant partner in the ICTS plan – announced costs had soared to $181-million. Minutes of an internal meeting available at the archives show the bad news was known months earlier and that the eventual announcement played down the escalation estimates, which had actually reached $193-million.

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To the odd person, me, who remembered the subway extensions from Islington to Kipling and Warden to Kennedy had opened in 1980, under budget at a combined cost of $127-million, even the low-balled $181-million RT tab raised red flags.

Might a subway cost less?

It was a simpler time. I simply phoned the main TTC number and was put straight through to a man named Stan Lawrence, who was heading up the RT project. He was friendly when asked if a subway option had been considered. Of course it had, he said, adding that costs and potential alignments had been studied and that the determination was that the best subway would cost slightly more than twice as much as the streetcar option (estimated at $68-million in 1977, likely the last year a subway estimate would have been calculated). When I asked for a specific subway cost and to see the studies, he shut the conversation down, saying the report wouldn’t be made public because only light-rail and the ICTS plan were on the table.

I then called Mayor Harris’s office, and he got back to me about a week later.  I told him if Scarborough’s downtown dream was to ever become reality, it probably needed a single-seat connection to Toronto’s core some day. It seemed this was a natural one-technology subway corridor extension of the Bloor-Danforth that shouldn’t be broken up for ICTS or streetcars. (I’ve always liked what light rail can do and I had no problem with a UTDC demonstration line, as long as it went into a fresh corridor elsewhere.)

The original Scarborough light-rail proposal used the old Canadian Northern Orono subdivision (a plan killed when it ran into opposition that could literally be called Not In My Back Yard). There's a strong chance the original  and relatively inexpensive subway idea also used this route, though we'll never know without the lost report.

The original Scarborough light-rail proposal used the old Canadian Northern Orono subdivision (a plan killed when it ran into opposition that could literally be called Not In My Back Yard). There’s a strong chance the original and relatively inexpensive subway idea also used this route and its Pythagorean directness, though we’ll never know without the lost report.  MAP COMES FROM STEVE MUNRO’S FILES

Harris made clear it was too late to for changes. The Scarborough city council and Metro had made their decisions; the province had taken charge of the file and was footing the bill. There would be no turning back, though Harris, who had backed light-rail all along, suddenly sounded keen to know what a subway would have cost.

Weeks later, Harris called and suggested we go for coffee. He didn’t have much more to say than that he’d been talking with TTC engineering staff who told him a subway extension from Kennedy to Scarborough Centre had indeed been studied and that the cost estimate was between $150-million and $175-million. He also said that some day, “maybe in five, 10 or 20 years, we’ll get to say I told you so.”

SRT problems made frequent headlines in the early years of operation and costs eventually topped $220-million as major modifications were needed. Internally, TTC staff had joked that ICTS stood for, It Can’t Traverse Snow. Harris called it “Lada transit at limo prices,” when I ran into him on Queen Street one day.

In 1989, Harris, no longer Scarborough’s mayor, phoned me with a scoop that there was a serious behind-the-scenes push at the TTC and Metro to scrap the SRT just five years after it opened. Queen’s Park had heard about it and was leaning on politicians and staff to shut up because UTDC had pending sales in Asia. (Neither Asian deal panned out, and the Star’s Peter Howell got the scoop because I was working at a national business paper uninterested in Toronto transit stories.)

It’s total coincidence but highly appropriate that I was reading Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly on my first SRT ride in the spring of 1985. The sound of the surprisingly noisy vehicles also left an impression.

A few weeks after that initial SRT ride, the TTC and the city released an ambitious rapid transit expansion plan called Network 2011, calling for a Downtown Relief Line and subways on Eglinton and Sheppard. Shortly thereafter, I got to discuss Network 2011 with a senior TTC man, who told me very interesting stuff after he got me to promise that our talk was all off the record. This was, at most, three months after the SRT opened, and he said firmly the TTC would never consider ICTS again. Also of note was that the DRL was the TTC’s clear priority, even if the official story, for political reasons, was that Sheppard should come first.

As for Gus Harris’s $150-million to $175-million estimate for a subway from Kennedy to Scarborough Centre, he said those numbers were accurate, confirming that the province’s low-cost alternative almost certainly cost more than a  subway would have in the first place – a particularly galling thought now that it’s near the end of its life just three decades later.

When I suggested the cost-comparison might be the reason for the TTC’s reluctance to release its work on the subway option, he said, again with a warning this was off the record, that the SRT cost was Queen’s Park’s embarrassment. The TTC was probably more worried about public reaction to the fact that extending the subway cost-effectively would require mothballing Kennedy station, which was then just five years old.

Anyway, during the summer of 2013, as the Scarborough debate took bizarre twists, friendly staff at the TTC and City Archives tried, without success, to help me track down that never-released document, probably more than 35 years old, assessing the subway option. Maybe the fact it was never released made it okay to file it by way of a shredder.

I’m dying to see it, in part because there’s a far better alignment than any of the subway options that have been under consideration. There’s a significant chance the TTC had found that better way decades ago.

So, we’re still digging, and the Toonerville Trolley rolls on … for now.

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