Has the SmartTrack plan left the station at Coxwell?

An earlier version of this post erroneously said Coxwell-Monarch Park was cut from consideration when the list of stations for consideration went from 120+ to 50+: Mea culpa. C-MP was not cut until the next phase, but it nevertheless was deemed unworthy of an initial business case, which remains unthinkable (and some at Metrolinx quietly agree, even if that’s an uncomfortable position for their bosses).

The following post illustrates potential flaws in the SmartTrack and Regional Express Rail planning and assessment process by looking at the case of an almost certainly vital station site that appears to have been overlooked altogether. This note was prepared as feedback for the public consultation process and was submitted In August 2018. Today, Sept. 25, 2018, I received by email a form letter from the office of Environment Minister Rod Phillips dated Sept. 19, basically saying my concerns are frivolous. Judge for yourself. Anybody interested in seeing the PDF files of the 2014 TTC report, the Ministry’s “Confidential” SuperGO report from the 1970s or the Environment Minister’s letter should contact me by email at stephen.j.wickens@gmail.com. 

I’ve held off posting this until now to give the province an opportunity to reply. The main point is that our process for evaluating and planning transit infrastructure is broken and that this should be a major concern for all levels of government, especially a new government that has promised to change things. The decision not to seriously tackle our transportation problems has had, and will continue have, a massively negative effect on Ontario and the Toronto’s area’s competitiveness and livability, while undermining the confidence of people in our democratic processes. 


August 20, 2018

Feedback including objections regarding negative impacts of the current station plan for SmartTrack:

Submitted to:

– Jade Hoskins Senior Public Consultation Co-ordinator, City of Toronto (SmartTrack@toronto.ca)

– Georgina Collymore, Senior Adviser, Communications and Stakeholder Relations at Metrolinx (newstations@metrolinx.com)

Cindy Batista (Special Project Officer, Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (Environmental Assessment and Permissions Branch) (cindy.batista@ontario.ca)

From Stephen Wickens, East-end Toronto resident and semi-retired journalist with a lifelong interest in transportation and commercial real estate matters. (stephen.j.wickens@gmail.com)

 

Thirty spokes are made one by holes in a hub,

by vacancies joining them for a wheel’s use.

The use of clay in moulding pitchers

comes from the hollow of the pitchers’ absence.

Doors and windows in a house

are used for their emptiness.

Thus we are helped by what is not

to use what is. 

– Laotze


A little background: As I’ve written on a few occasions (in newspaper columns, in email and face-to-face discussions with private- and public-sector transportation professionals and on social media), there is the germ of a very good idea in the SmartTrack (ST) plan and much opportunity in how it can piggyback onto Metrolinx’s Regional Express Rail (RER) initiative. But for reasons that appear to include political intransigence and interference at inappropriate places in the planning process, an inability to think long term and an unwillingness to seriously consider international best practices, both plans appear set to fall considerably short of their potential in terms of service provision and value for the public’s investment dollar, as well as in serving established provincial policies on the social-equity, environmental and regional-planning fronts.

I’ll confine today’s comments primarily to how the process so far has somehow eliminated – apparently without any serious or documented study – a station that is clearly among the most necessary if SmartTrack is to seriously attract new transit users and provide at least some short- to mid-term relief to the overcrowded parts of Toronto’s subway system. But to make the case properly, I’ll have to stray a little and I hope you’ll bear with me.

Two more points before getting to the meat of the matter:

  1. While I don’t have formal education on public transportation matters, public transit locally and internationally is a file I’ve followed closely since the 1960s. For decades, some of the most respected transportation professionals in these parts have generously kept me in their loops, sometimes even seeking my opinions or help in answering questions (usually on matters of historical detail).
  2. Among the most important things I learned when writing about transportation matters for Toronto newspapers is that unnamed sources are essential to getting at the truth because bureaucrats and private-sector professionals alike are often uncomfortable speaking truth to power or candidly on-the-record with journalists, at least until they’re retired https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/what-went-wrong-since-the-golden-age-of-toronto-transit/article34321708/. For this note, I’ve tried through official “communications” channels to obtain relevant information that was lacking in the public realm, but I was forced again to have several off-the-record discussions with past and present Metrolinx employees, city staffers, Toronto Transit Commission staff and people working for consulting and engineering firms the city and province use. Because I can’t reveal identities of some people who’ve helped me, I’ve decided not to use names of anyone (though some identities may be revealed upon request). This is not about people or embarrassing anyone, it’s about getting good results in this specific case and, possibly, improving processes so we can start getting better transit decision-making over all in future. Without that, Toronto and Ontario will continue at a serious competitive disadvantage in an increasingly globalized world.

Mind the gaps

One of the primary selling points of the SmartTrack plan is that frequent, somewhat-subway-like service on an existing above-ground corridor at a TTC fare could deliver a bit of relief to the overloaded core of Toronto’s subway system far sooner than the never-today/always-tomorrow Relief Line subway can ever be built (let alone funded). Yet, for reasons that seem not to exist in any available documentation, the area of the proposed SmartTrack route with almost certainly the greatest potential to deliver that relief to the subway is being left with the longest gaps between stations.

While much of the ST route calls for two-kilometre station spacing, it’s a full four kilometres from the proposed station at Gerrard Square (where SmartTrack might eventually connect with the proposed relief subway line) to the next station east, GO Danforth. (And the next station heading east from GO Danforth is another five kilometres.) The subject came up over dinner with some transit-planner friends a couple of years ago and it was agreed that Coxwell Avenue, roughly 2 km from both GO Danforth and the proposed Gerrard-Square station, seems to be an ideal location for addressing this void. Little did some of us realize that upon looking at the situation more closely we would discover the case for a Coxwell-Monarch Park SmartTrack stop was much stronger than the cases for nearly all of the approved ST and RER stations.


Can something as big as a railway station fall through the cracks?

A few months after that dinner, in August 2016, Metrolinx contacted the Danforth East Community Association about setting up a meeting with community members regarding plans for upgrades to the GO corridor (the southern boundary of DECA’s area). The meeting with DECA’s visioning committee (which I co-chair) took place on Sept. 13, 2016, in the basement of Gerrard Pizza (near Danforth and Coxwell). As expected, area residents raised concerns about noise associated with increased train frequency. And some wanted to know why we were already having to add a fourth track when “it seems like only yesterday” that GO was keeping them up all night with construction to add a third track (it was actually about a decade ago). One woman added: “Why couldn’t they get it right the first time?” (As we’ll see toward the end of this note, there are also valid reasons to question the commitment to getting this bit of the Lakeshore East corridor upgrades right the second time.)

Some meeting attendees, sick of crowding and unreliable service on the TTC, also had some “what’s in it for us?” questions. Possibly seeing an opportunity to deliver good news, the man leading the three-person Metrolinx entourage, eagerly mentioned the proposed Gerrard Square station. He and the other Metrolinx staffers appeared quite surprised when it was pointed out that a station at Gerrard Square – like the TTC’s relief-subway proposal – would be too far west to do much for people who already can’t rely on being able to squeeze into jammed subway trains at Woodbine, Coxwell, Greenwood and Donlands in the a.m. rush.

When asked about the possibility of an ST station at Coxwell, the lead Metrolinx representative replied that he was certain the site had been studied using “strict criteria” and that the idea must have been rejected by experts.

I then asked him to provide me with the reports from that study process, particularly with regard to Coxwell-Monarch Park or a station in the long no-man’s land between Gerrard Square and GO Danforth. He said he would be happy to send me the details and that I should email him a reminder. Thus began a long back and forth for which Metrolinx – nearly two years later – remains unable to provide any such documentation, detailed or otherwise.


What Metrolinx was able to tell us

Anyone who has studied Metrolinx’s many official online reports regarding RER, SmartTrack and the station-selection processes will have read repeatedly that “An initial identification of over 120 potential station sites was narrowed to 56 (it’s 50 in some reports) with supportive infrastructure through a high-level evaluation of transport connectivity, planning and land use and technical feasibility.” Coxwell was listed as a potential station on an initial Metrolinx compilation of 120 potential stops. Coxwell was also under consideration after the list had been winnowed to 50 (or 56, depending the document). At some point after that, but before the initial business case studies began, Coxwell disappears from the list. That’s about the extent of it … unless you consider what I was told by one former Metrolinx staffer (who had yet to leave when the cut-down process and/or any early-stage studies would have taken place), including:

  • I asked the same question of MX Planning [about criteria and results used for eliminating stations early on], as they engaged us in Economic Analysis shortly before they started stage 6 (the business cases) for the short list.  They didn’t do any modeling for the lists of 120 or 50 stations, the decision was subjective …
  • “Remember what [XXXX] said to me during my exit interview: ‘Let’s face it, everyone fabricates the evidence, the city does it, we do it. The new-stations process was always going to be political.’ ” 

The former staffer, as well as two current ones, also mentioned in recent years that even when Metrolinx got around to modeling business cases for the short list, some key criteria that were used were chosen with suburban commuter rail in mind and was thoroughly inappropriate for the urban areas to be served by SmartTrack. They’ve also pointed out that at least one of the technical feasibility rules regarding stations on curves was broken for stations that politicians in positions of power were demanding.

Meanwhile, two senior bureaucrats, one with the city and one formerly with the TTC, have told me that the only stations considered for SmartTrack and for study by Metrolinx were chosen – not through a rigorous professional process – but by advisers to the winning campaign in Toronto’s 2014 mayoral race. And while the current mayor’s office eventually gave in on an obvious flaw in the initial ST plan (the since-killed western spur under Eglinton), it seems apparent that no serious second thought was ever given to addressing potential flaws or better solutions in the SmartTrack plan for the old city’s east end and Scarborough.


The broad east-end transit context

My discussions in recent years with city staff regarding several issues (including the Danforth Avenue Planning Study, the Main Street Planning Study, two individual high-rise development plans for Main and Danforth, Metrolinx’s RER-ST corridor upgrades and SmartTrack itself) have often indicated that the official view from 60 Queen Street West is that the east end of the old city is very well served by transit, and that a relief subway (aimed primarily a dealing with dangerous and off-putting crowding on the Yonge subway and at Bloor-Yonge station) would solve any possible east-end concerns – even if the line comes only as far east as Pape.

And that received wisdom might seem valid if you don’t look much beyond simple maps. But a close look at long-term transit-usage trends in Planning District 6 (the four pre-2018 city wards abutting the Bloor-Danforth subway between Victoria Park and Broadview) indicates otherwise. Most of the key details on this point can be found in these two 2016 columns I wrote for the Beach Metro News:

(Though newer Transportation Tomorrow Survey data have been released since these columns were written, sources tell me there’s a strong chance the data are suspect (with only a 7-per-cent response rate), so I’m hesitant to put stock in the new numbers until a trusted transit data analyst I’ve worked with previously has a chance to seriously study them).


Five key points for understanding the east-end context include:

  1. PD6, despite being an inner-ring planning district that should be easy to serve by relatively low-cost transit for trips to the nearby downtown, has seen transit lose so much market share for such trips that, as of 2011, it had the lowest percentage of transit use for downtown a.m. peak trips of any Toronto/416 planning district (yes, that includes Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York). And, all the while, car usage was on the rise for downtown trips from PD6.
  2. PD6 is the second biggest generator of trips to the core of any GTHA planning district – it’s a market that really matters with major potential for major ridership gains without huge investments;
  3. Since the Scarborough Rapid Transit (SRT) line opened to Scarborough Town Centre in 1985, Bloor-Danforth subway trains have filled up east of PD6, while crowding at the Bloor-Yonge pinch-point becomes increasingly dangerous. And if the proposed multibillion-dollar Scarborough Subway Extension succeeds in attracting more riders to line, the problem will only get worse. A 2014 TTC report shows that the seven stations from Warden to Donlands, inclusive, have been losing ridership in the a.m. peak over the past 30 years, likely due to crowding that won’t be resolved even if a relief subway is ever built.
  4. Areas east of the Don River have only two trunk east-west streetcar lines between the lake and Danforth Avenue, unlike the areas further west, which have five, including major TTC routes on King, Dundas and Wellesley-Harbord (I’d add Queens Quay, but that’s not fair). Furthermore, the two lines that penetrate the east end, the Queen 501 and the 506 Carlton (which largely runs on Gerrard in the east end), have seen service cuts over the past three decades that have resulted in big ridership losses (without helping helping the TTC balance sheet). Because its bordered by the Don Valley on the west and north, PD6’s road connections to the rest of the city are also limited.
  5. GO trains roll through the east end (largely empty outside of the rush hours) without stopping in enough convenient places while charging uncompetitive transit fares. For many east enders, GO trains serve only to disrupt sleep or force conversation breaks when they roar past.

The narrow Coxwell-Monarch Park context

For me, a brisk walker, it’s 25 minutes on foot from the bridge that carries GO trains across Coxwell Avenue to both GO Danforth and the proposed SmartTrack station at Gerrard Square. Taking the TTC to those stations isn’t much faster, at least if my unscientifically small sampling counts for anything. My five weekday trips to or from GO Danforth took 19.5 minutes on average; three test trips to Gerrard and Carlaw averaged 20 minutes and 16 seconds – and, of course, once at those stations another separate fare would be required to travel farther. (Two of the four trips to GO Danforth included nine-minute walks to Coxwell subway station because the No. 22 bus was unable to pick me up before I got to the subway).

Despite talk of SmartTrack offering some relief, station location choices made by the Toronto mayor’s office seemed overly focused from the start on proximity to large development sites and not focused enough on pent-up demand (it was also weird that the initial ST plan would ignore existing need/low-hanging fruit in the mayor’s own city while putting terminal stations in Markham and Mississauga). Some of the errant focus appears to have been spurred by misguided advice that tax-increment financing would be a significant source of revenue for the SmartTrack project. And while politically connected developers aren’t likely to enrich themselves spectacularly in the Coxwell-Monarch Park catchment zone, ingredients essential to the any station’s success (criteria that were to be key in Metrolinx’s short-list screening process) are readily available, including the promise of growth and modest but near-guaranteed development.


Five reasons why Coxwell-Monarch Park is a great ST station location

  1. The Coxwell-Monarch Park catchment zone provides real, existing people-and-jobs-per-hectare numbers that are better than five of the six new stations chosen for SmartTrack, with more growth in the works.

 

C-MP also fared well when compared with stations Metrolinx and/or politicians at Queen’s Park selected for RER.

The Coxwell-Monarch Park catchment zone’s

  • 16,385 residents total is more than in 37 of Metrolinx’s 51 mobility hubs;
  • 2,132 jobs are more than in nine of the 51 mobility hubs;
  • 18,517 residents and jobs combined, is 85% more than Metrolinx’s 2031 goal for a Gateway mobility hub.
  1. The Coxwell-Monarch Park catchment zone provides development and growth potential. While no “P+H/ha projected” figure is provided for C-MP in the tables above, there is increasing mid-rise development pressures along Danforth Avenue, which prompted the recently completed Danforth Avenues Planning Study. A mid-rise co-op development is already in the works for Coxwell and Upper Gerrard. Also, plans for a second significant employment node on Coxwell Avenue, led by CreateTO, are in the works for the nearly five-acre TTC site at Danforth, including TTC offices, a mega-police station and community amenities. (The first Coxwell node is slightly north of the C-MP catchment zone, and includes 5,000-plus jobs between Michael Garron Hospital and the Toronto-East York Civic Centre). On both sides of Coxwell, directly south of where the station would be, there are two underutilized half-acre sites, depots for U-Haul and a building-materials retailer (and we’re told Ottawa is looking at ways to make it easier to develop such sites adjacent to railway tracks at stations on passenger-only rail lines). We should also add that large numbers of visitors to and from the sports dome and high school immediately northwest of the C-MP station site have caused enough traffic and parking headaches that a study was commissioned (even though it glossed over the need for transit improvements). The study, completed by WSP in July 2017, is here: http://www.tdsb.on.ca/Portals/ward15/docs/1610692701REPMonachPark09062017v12rsrs.pdf
  2. A Coxwell-Monarch Park station would address social equity concerns. There’s a significant amount of nearby assisted-living projects, including – right next to where the station would go – Toronto Community Housing buildings and seniors homes on Coatsworth Crescent and Amik Plaza’s residences for Indigenous Canadians. (Amik Plaza is operated by Wigwamen, which has other residences in the C-MP catchment zone http://www.wigwamen.com/housing/locations/ and has most of its properties in the east end). Wigwamen has written letter in support of a C-MP station. Further away, but still within the pedestrian catchment zone is Tobias House at Danforth, and there are more seniors buildings just west of Monarch Park. We’re talking about lots of low-income people who tend to be transit “captives.”
  3. A Coxwell-Monarch Park station is sited well for transit connectivity: Especially if SmartTrack offers service at TTC fares with TTC transferability, this would be a solid location from Day 1 with good long-term growth potential. At present, the two bus routes that serve Coxwell Avenue handle 55% more riders than the entire Oakville Transit system*. There’s a case for combining the two routes to provide one-seat service all the way from the Beach area, via this proposed ST station and Coxwell subway station, through the hospital/civic centre employment node and all the way up to Eglinton. The case gets stronger as of 2021 when this combined route can eventually link the Eglinton-Crosstown with the Line 2 subway at Coxwell and SmartTrack, likely the only spot in the east end where one bus route could join all three of those key rapid-transit lines.  *Using 2015 data, Oakville Transit carried 2.83 million riders a year. The two TTC routes serving Coxwell (Nos. 22 and 70), handle 14,300 riders on an average weekday, which the TTC multiplies by 306 to get an annual figure, in this case, 4.38 million.
  4. Coxwell-Monarch Park was chosen by experts for the Super GO electrification plan – and that report was produced by transportation professionals – its station-location choices were based on study, not political priorities.

In summary

We have a new provincial government and new ministers of Environment and Transportation, both of whom are people who should see the need to restore the public’s faith in transportation-planning processes. Ontario’s competitiveness and sustainability hinge to a significant degree on regaining a trust damaged by politicians at all levels who interfered with the public service’s ability to fearlessly prepare menus of options, objectively pull together and analyze evidence, and use their professional expertise to speak truth to power. The case of Coxwell-Monarch Park appears to be strong and appears to have fallen through the cracks because of flaws and corruptions in the process. While it would be inappropriate to ask for politicians to demand that this station be added to the SmartTrack project – despite the strong evidence – it’s a crucial matter of provincial interest (municipal and federal, too) that thorough study be done that a) examines the merits of this specific potential station and b) looks seriously at how it could possibly have been overlooked so we can learn from our mistakes and get better results from the processes in the future. And while the lack of a station at Coxwell-Monarch Park might not have a negative impact on a “constitutionally protected Aboriginal or treaty right,” as the criteria at this stage of the process word things, it’s clear that the process has failed people who need better transit and live in the immediate pedestrian catchment zone of this proposed station, including Aboriginal people of Toronto. 


Five quick supplementary points we should make in closing

  1. While SmartTrack has cost and time-frame advantages to offer in a city and metro area that is way behind in building transit infrastructure, it in no way obviates the need to get on with a major new rapid-transit line through Toronto’s core that does not add to the crowding at the Canada’s two busiest transit stations, Bloor-Yonge (415,000 daily platform movements) and Union (275,000). This new major line would most likely be the so-called relief line that has been talked about for more than a century and which has been the top priority of knowledgeable transit people on and off for 50 years. At best, we should be looking at SmartTrack as a plan for borrowing capacity that can temporarily be made available on Metrolinx’s surface corridors and at Union to address urgent needs, understanding that Metrolinx must deal with huge regional growth and will almost certainly need it back.
  2. We should be thinking long-term with regard to the corridor upgrades, looking to what its maximum capacity can be and planning to ensure we can scale up to achieve it at the best price. Metrolinx has been taking an incremental approach, adding a third track on LSE to Scarborough last decade and preparing to add a fourth now. While my sources are not unanimous on this, it would seem they think we should be looking at how we’re going to get to five tracks from Union to Scarborough if we end up with a not-unlikely runaway success akin to London Overground. One respected Metrolinx source says we can do all the local and express service we need with four tracks, while others (Metrolinx and outside), say a fifth track is almost certainly going to be needed sooner or later because the corridor has to serve Via, provide redundancy and anticipate demand growth, and that preparing for it now is better for taxpayers and the residents who have to endure construction in their neighbourhoods. It’s worth noting that the 1974 SuperGO electrification report was calling for five tracks Union to Scarborough.
  3. It’s time to get serious about making the vast swaths of asphalt surrounding outer GO stations into destinations for much more than parking. If we don’t give people many good reasons to be on outbound trains in the a.m., RER’s new operating costs are going to swamp its revenues. Some elements of MTRC’s land-plus-property business model is likely the route to take, allowing a Crown corporation to professionally manage a massive real estate portfolio and earn returns for Metrolinx on the public’s investments. Done right, we can defray transit capital costs while expediting operating efficiencies. These lands also need to be the top/only choices for new developments with a public interest such as universities, colleges, hospitals, casinos, etc.
  4. In the period leading up to the rollout of RER, it’s worth doing a pilot project whereby all transit trips that begin and end within any one GTA municipality have fares capped at that municipality’s single fare. Because it would allow GO and the various local transit agencies to start fully supporting each other, the potential ridership increases might offset the revenue losses to a greater degree than might be expected. We can gain valuable real-world information about the transportation market and how transit can work more efficiently. It should help us to do fare integration intelligently. It should also offer significant rewards at a low risk because, as a pilot, it would have a termination date, if necessary.
  5. Though I’ve focused on Coxwell, the City of Toronto would be wise to look at how the Birchmount area can be developed. It’s numbers are decent, and it’s an area not at all well-served by transit at present. There are also huge underutilized sites. An ST station there (or near Warden and Danforth as proposed in the 1974 SuperGO report) could be a useful catalyst.


Notes on the contexts for some of the proposed new ST and RER stations

Lawrence-Kennedy is in PD 13, the eighth-biggest market for trips to PD1 (downtown). Transit already has a 75% market share of the trips to PD1, with 11% of the trips being made on GO. The station’s importance rests to a significant degree on the fact the Scarborough Subway Extension plan does not include a station at Lawrence, connecting with Lawrence bus. Prospects for creating new transit riders for trips to PD1 appear limited, though the station has been approved for ST even if the broken out business case has been questioned and was rated “low performing”.

Finch-Kennedy is in PD 16, the ninth-biggest market for trips to PD1. Transit already has a 79% market share, with 16% of trips made on GO. Prospects for creating new transit riders for trips to PD1 are  limited in the short term, though Milliken Square Mall and a Public Storage facility present lots of longer-term development land. The station has been approved even if the broken-out business case has been questioned (costs outweigh benefits).

Coxwell-Monarch Park is in PD6, Toronto’s second-biggest market for trips to PD1 (downtown), though transit has only a 52% market share – the lowest of all Toronto planning districts. Less than 0.5% the trips to PD1 are made using GO’s corridor, which runs PD6’s full length. PD6 generates 19% more PD1 trips than PDs 13 and 16 combined, while transit in PD6 has a 31% lower market share of PD1 trips. Not building a station leaves a 4-km gap in an area where SmartTrack may have its best potential to relieve Line 1 and Line 2 crowding. With a 700-metre extension of the TTC’s No. 70 bus, C-MP would connect directly with two routes that carry 55% more daily riders than the entire Oakville Transit system and would link C-MP with an employment hub (5,000+ jobs) at Michael Garron Hospital/East York Civic Centre. This C-MP station would also be 300 metres from a stop on the 506 Carlton streetcar, which carries 40k riders daily. C-MP should score well on Social Inclusivity and Accessibility, having a large TCHC development immediately to the northeast and assisted housing to the immediate south. The site has several development sites within its 800-metre radius area, including Danforth Garage, a.k.a. Coxwell Barns (five acres at Danforth currently undergoing a master-planning process under the aegis of CreateTO), a new building approved at Upper Gerrard and Coxwell, a 0.6-acre site next to station being used for U-Haul vehicle storage and a 0.5-acre building materials site where station entrance would be. How C-MP missed the list of 50 stations that qualified for IBC screening, let alone the short list, is a mystery (even to some Metrolinx staffers who cannot speak on the record). With high current density, travel patterns and low transit-market-share penetration, prospects for creating new transit ridership for trips to PD1 and helping relief effort appear to be very strong at C-MP station.

Birchmount is on the PD13-PD14 boundary. PD13 is the seventh largest generator of trips to PD1 and transit captures 75% of them, in part because it contains Kennedy station, probably the GTA’s second best transit-served hub. PD14 is the 11th biggest generator of trips to downtown, so the market is smaller than average. But there is considerable room for growth as transit captures only 55% of the market share for PD1 trips (third lowest of all PDs), and 30% of the transit trips to PD1 are by GO. Current density in the 800-metre radius is fairly low (but greater than nine of Metrolinx’s 51 mobility hubs). There’s lots of nearby developable and underutilized land, though much of it is exclusively “employment” meaning it would be a challenge to create the mixed-use urbanism in the short term. Birchmount is also within 800 metres of a Neighbourhood Improvement Area, one of the criteria Toronto wanted considered for ST consideration. Prospects for creating new transit ridership are moderate short term, but the potential could be big with zoning changes that allow for development of the Birchmount strip between Danforth Avenue and Danforth Road. Not having a station here leaves 5-km station gap, far too long for connectivity in an area that has transit needs. PD14, in particular, is starved for transit to PD1

St. Clair-Old Weston is in PD3, the fifth-biggest market for trips to PD1. Transit has a 62% market share, but less than 0.5% of trips made on GO. Site borders on huge amounts of former stockyards lands that have been converted to car-dependent big-box retail. Despite current low density, prospects for creating new transit riders for trips to PD1 appear good short term due to apparently unsatisfied demand in PD3. The developable Stockyards land (RioCan property) would require major rezoning and total urbanizing, something that could be done, though our record on such initiatives in Toronto is poor.

Park Lawn is in PD7, the 11th-biggest of 15 markets for trips to PD1. Transit has a 59% market share, and 35% of the trips are made on GO. People-plus-jobs density is not high, at least using the 2011 data that’s referred to in Metrolinx’s reports. But residential density will likely continue to grow considerably for a few years. There are concerns a new station would cannibalize ridership at Mimico and that a replacement of Mimico (especially after recent investments in Mimico station) would be a waste. The closeness of the stations should not be a major concern in that 1-km station spacing (along with flat and transferable TTC fares) may eventually prove to be essential to getting SmartTrack to its full potential. Prospects for creating new ridership for trips to PD1 look moderate, but they’re probably very good long term. The proximity of Mimico station and the lack of office-employment prospects on the old Christie bakery site would seem to indicate there there’s no rush to build this station. Trying to track down 2016 census data because things are changing fast.

Mulock In 2011, the population and employment density within 800 m of the potential Mulock station was estimated to be 32.6 people and jobs per hectare (P+J/ha). The job figures would have included the Magna facility, which is now closed, eliminating 850 jobs. There are two active development applications located within proximity of the potential Mulock station, both of which are minor in nature and do not represent a significant increase in density or change in land use: A new Shoppers Drug Mart store proposed for the northeast corner of Yonge Street and Savage Road; and 28 townhouses proposed on Silken Laumann Road.

Breslau This station was deemed to be high performing in Metrolinx’s rankings, but this report raises questions about how it could possibly have achieved such a label.

http://www.metrolinx.com/en/regionalplanning/newstations/IBC_Breslau_EN.pdf

The report says on page 14: “In 2011, the population and employment density within 800m of the potential Breslau station is estimated to be 0.1 people and jobs per hectare (P+J/ha). The lands surrounding the potential station are currently rural/agricultural and contain only a few houses, a church and a few businesses. Figure 4-1 illustrates the current land use permissions for the proposed station site and surrounding area. In 2006, an estimated 72 residents and 43 jobs were located within 800 metres of the potential Breslau Station. Projections from the Ministry of Transportation Greater Golden Horseshoe Model suggest that by 2031 the population and employment within the Station area may reach 334 and 209 respectively. [1] However, recent changes to policy and planning objectives have resulted in substantially higher population and employment forecasts for the Breslau area. Figure 4-2 shows where recent development has occurred and where development is anticipated within the Secondary Plan Area. The Draft Plan of Subdivision submitted to the Township by Thomasfield Homes shows that in addition to a new GO station, the following will be accommodated on its 94.9 net developable ha of land: 2,535 people; and 2,830 jobs (i.e. 24.6 acres Employment Land (2,450 jobs), 3.7 acres Commercial (116 jobs), 4.9 acres Mixed-Use Commercial (153 jobs) and 3 acres Institutional (40 jobs).” … “Given that the potential Breslau station is located within an undeveloped area, there are no ‘soft sites’ within 800 m of the potential station. Soft sites are considered to be parcels with a relatively high potential for change, such as parking lots and under-utilized sites given current zoning and the Official Plan designations. A new residential subdivision is being completed approximately one km east of the potential station site and considerable new development is underway or planned elsewhere within the Township and the larger Region of Waterloo.

https://observerxtra.com/2016/11/24/omb-upholds-woolwichs-staging-plan-breslau-subdivision/ Breslau plans would bring 6,710 people + jobs to the catchment, roughly 31 per hectare. Strangely promotional language in a Metrolinx document about Waterloo’s connections with Toronto. http://www.metrolinx.com/en/greaterregion/regions/waterloo-wellington.aspx

Innisfil This station is also deemed to be high performing, apparently based on some longer-term projects. From Page 13 of this report

http://www.metrolinx.com/en/regionalplanning/newstations/IBC_Innisfil_EN.pdf

“The existing population and employment density within 800 metres (m) of the potential Innisfil station is estimated to be 5 people and jobs per hectare (P+J/ha). While currently the area does not meet Metrolinx Mobility Hub. Guidelines for rapid transit, significant population and employment growth is anticipated for the South Alcona area. The draft Secondary Plan, which is under appeal, shows a Phase 1 population of 7,200 people and 1,100 jobs. Growth projections for Phase 2 will be subject to each five-year review of the Town’s Official Plan in the future. Figure 4-1 illustrates the land designations from the draft South Alcona Secondary Plan. Surrounding lands are largely designated ‘Agricultural Area’ and will not contribute to the local area density. When fully built, the South Alcona area is intended to have an overall gross density of 67 P+J/ha. Some of the proposed medium density and commercial areas are slightly outside the 800 m station radius. Assuming full buildout future densities within 800 m of the Innisfil station would be 40 to 60 P+J/ha.

My 2013 submissions to Metrolinx and Toronto’s “feeling congested” process

FEEDBACK PROVIDED IN 2013 FOR:

– Toronto Planning’s “Feeling Congested” initiative (or why I circled only four of the 14 suggested funding tools instead of the requested five)

– Metrolinx’s Big Move funding options

ABOUT ME: Journalist and urbanist who worked nearly 40 years at four Toronto newspapers, mostly as an editor. I’ve written many times on transit matters and have frequently interviewed local and international transit officials and academics. I’ve followed local transit and development issues seriously since the 1960s and have recently been a commercial real estate reporter. I provided detailed (and, as it turns out, somewhat prescient) feedback on the Official Plan nearly a decade ago. I also provided a detailed critique of the Metrolinx’s Green and White papers, which appears to have been ignored.

Dear Feedback reviewers:

I’ve little to add regarding most of the Metrolinx and City consultation processes. Property tax increases and regional parking, gas and sales taxes will be needed for much of the revenue-gathering process. I’m eager to pay my share. But I have a few key concerns, mostly about our apparent unwillingness to even start looking seriously at the full economic potential of linking transit and land use through real world real estate leverage. Get that stuff right, and you’ll have a much easier time persuading the public to pay taxes and tolls, and our transit systems’ operations sides will be that much more effective day-in, day-out. 

TOLLS AND CONGESTION CHARGES:

It’s nice to see that talk of tolls and congestion charges hasn’t been as divisive and controversial as many had predicted, though that might change once politicians have to debate recommendations. Unfortunately, tolls and/or congestion charges likely won’t be very useful to us until we have enough transit-based alternatives for those living and/or working in largely car-dependent environments, and until we stop adding new sprawl in the region. As it stands, the TTC is overcrowded. Also, as ex-Transport for London vice-chair Dave Wetzel told me in 2006, that city’s congestion zone was much more effective in shaping behaviour than raising funds (He called the actual congestion revenue “a drop in the bucket.”) He also doubted the overall program would have worked without London’s massive rail networks, something we lack.

MENU OF REVENUE TOOLS:

It was also encouraging, at least from media coverage I’ve seen, that there’s fairly broad support for a fairly wide range of revenue tools. We’ve long talked about transit as an investment, but have still tended to act as if it’s an expense. We get hung up on initial outlay costs and don’t seem to pay any real attention to return-on-investment opportunities. Wise investors diversify the portfolio and we’d be wise to diversify the income sources. But the real key to investing is to focus on ROI. In recent decades, we’ve fallen down in this area, and it seems the revenue-tools discussion has ignored the need to nurture self-regenerating income sources.

BEWARE OF UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES:

Reliance on development charges, “benefit assessment districts” and value-capture levies can be tempting and might seem fair on first thought. Unfortunately, if we’re serious about properly linking land-use and transportation planning (and we’d better be), we have to be wary of disincentives to growth in the station catchment areas. We have a longstanding and serious problem in the GTHA with perverse subsidies that inadvertently encourage the same sprawl that public policymakers are grappling with. So many accepted norms of the past century, including our property tax system, need to be re-examined if we want to direct growth to locations where it’s desired. This process has to focus not only on raising the bucks needed to fund transit expansion, but also on finding ways to give the public the best bang for their bucks. Often that won’t mean simplistic short-term strategies such as merely choosing less-expensive transportation technologies (though LRT will almost certainly turn out to be best tool for many priority applications we’ve identified).

LAND USE, TRANSIT PLANNING AND REAL ESTATE:

Somewhere in a space between the loons and hucksters who tell us we can have subways for free and the extremists who seem eager to silence any discussions about involving private-sector developers in transit capital projects, lies a significant funding tool largely ignored and/or forgotten on this continent.

      From what I can see, neither the city nor Metrolinx have given the Rail + Property directed-value-capture model (or Rail + Property value-trade) any thought while compiling their lists of potential tools, though in one-on-one discussions, I get the sense a few senior people in these parts know it’s out there. It may be that in the wake of fantastical recent claims from the Toronto mayor’s office (and problems 20 to 25 years ago involving Canada Square, Penta Stolp and early plans for Mel Lastman’s Sheppard subway), that directed value capture (not to be confused in any way with the value-capture levy mentioned in the city’s “Feeling Congested” documentation) is still seen as potentially more controversial than tolls and congestion charges. The thing is, we’re not just decades behind on building transit infrastructure, we’re way overdue for a discussion of how to fully unlock the potential of real estate development in contributing to the process.

     Directed value capture was an essential part of the business model in the Far Past, before the public took over transit operations, back when private operators had a fiduciary duty to approach all spending as proper and necessary investments. Duties to investors and shareholders forced private transit operators to be directly involved in the development of properties along their tramlines, often as amusement parks, main street commercial strips and residential subdivisions. They needed to capture much of the value they created for capital and operating investment returns, and they couldn’t wait passively for the process to start playing itself out.

     Directed value capture was also crucial to the success of Japanese railway companies beginning in the 1920s, led by Tokyu and Hankyu. Not only did they create profitable real estate-transit relationships in dense cities, they created many new towns involving rapid transit and all forms of real estate. That latter point is essential to understand because so much of the GTHA is suburban in form, rather than truly urban (and decades after establishment, even our older suburbs are not really urbanizing).

     And directed value capture, inspired in large part by the Japanese models, is the heart of Hong Kong MTR Corp.’s Rail + Property business model, which has made both transit-system construction and transit operations profitable since the 1970s, largely because MTR is also a major property developer. MTR was 100% publicly owned until 2000, when it became 23% publicly traded. It’s a strong performer on the Hang Seng Index and is now expanding by exporting its expertise (Melbourne, London and Stockholm). The Rail + Property model is also essential to ambitious current transit expansion plans in Paris.

      Yes, we fully realize Hong Kong is far denser than Toronto, and that government entities there have far more leeway to do as they please, and that Hong Kong has a very different property ownership regime – points usually trotted out by North Americans determined to shut down any such conversation and revert to simpler but much-tougher-to-sustain tax-and-toll revenue collection tools. But there are significant lessons we can learn from the MTR experience as well as tools we can adapt for the Ontario-specific context. If we get them right we not only raise significant funds for transit capital projects, but we improve operational efficiencies and provide the working tools for the transit and land-use planners who’ve awakened in recent decades to the mutually-supportive nature of their missions. Even better, if we prove to the electorate that we’re doing a really good job of fully leveraging the worth of our transit entities’ real estate assets, we’ll have a much easier time persuading the citizenry to cough up a bit more with the traditional revenue tools in the current discussion.

    How much could a directed value-capture program raise? The only truthful answer within the North American context is, who knows? As Martin Wachs, a long-distinguished California-based planning professor and expert on transit funding puts it: “This form of public-private partnership is not even in the lexicon. I don’t know about Canada, but in the U.S., imitation plays an essential role and until there is a proven example here, few people will take it seriously.” Wachs tells an interesting tale of one attempt to get such a plan rolling for the 1924 L.A. subway plan, but in the wake of the then-recent Russian Revolution, public involvement in land development was shot down as a communist idea. One of Wachs’s former PhD students, Prof. Robert Cervero of UC Berkeley has written extensively on the Far East models, and we should bring him to Toronto to talk about MTR. Robert and I are playing telephone tag right now.

   By some measures and accounts, Hong Kong does get its subways for free (though straight construction-outlay costs are similar to ours on a per-kilometre basis) and three extensions are currently approved or under construction (also, unlike Toronto, Hong Kong and London, for that matter, don’t tunnel in low-density areas). In a 2004 discussion with an MTR executive, interviewed for a Globe and Mail story, I was told that in North America, it should be realistic to expect that we at least get our stations for free. The logic was that if we can’t even get that much return on a subway project, we’re putting the stations in the wrong places and/or the funding model is broken. Free stations on the Spadina-York extension, based on capturing and leveraging their development potential, would have saved about $860M, or about 33% of the up-front capital costs, not to mention significantly improving operating revenues from Day 1. Instead, we opted for standalone stations that stifle most of the value they create. But even if 33% is overstating the potential, and that’s likely in the initial stages, when we’d still be experimenting with the adaptations for Toronto (and getting the crucial oversight and moral-hazard puzzles worked out), significant potential exists.

      Oversimplified, of course, Rail + Property directed value capture requires that the development goals and real estate potential be fully considered right from the start of the planning process. If we wait to consider station development and then try to collect levies or air rights or increased tax-base benefits that might accrue over time from the catchment area of an operating station, the public collects far less than it should and has to wait a long time to capture the value. Several decades-old TTC stations serve as unpleasant exhibits of what can happen, especially when you expand urban transit tools into suburban areas without a real plan. It’s important to note that Japanese railcos and DC’s WMATA have found that the serious development premium opportunities drop off dramatically after about 100 metres of the turnstiles. 

     Hugely important for us in considering Toronto-model possibilities, is the MTR view that it’s impossible to fully leverage crucial space potential atop operating stations if planning for significant development wasn’t included right from the conceptual stages of the station project. Tunnels and tracks are always expensive, but stations can be gold mines if you do them properly. And stations can and should have great catalyst effects for entire catchment areas, both financially and in the creation of vibrant urbanism. Essential to the exploitable efficiencies is the sharing of excavation and foundation costs. Next time you walk past a condo or office tower construction site, linger a while to take in the scale of the below-ground work. Then consider this MTR logic, that the marginal costs of adding a station (fully up to standards set and enforced by public sector experts) should be far less than the premiums available to landlords (private or public) whose commercial and residential tenants or condo holders can walk to platforms or other daily primary uses without ever having to go outside. Various land-tenure arrangements should be workable, and some flexibility might be needed, depending on needs of partners and the context of the site over time. MTR isn’t always eliciting presale/prelease interest from developers, but its stations are built to underpin development from the start, and they’ve found that in some parts of the market cycle it’s a good investment to sit on such sites for a few years. It’s a forward-thinking investment strategy that brings great returns to the public, but requires considerable private sector input and expertise.

      Part of the reason we can never get anywhere close to matching MTR’s return levels is that we have to factor in land-acquisition costs. However, we have huge swaths of strategically placed, publicly owned land that is significantly underleveraged (not just in the hands of our transportation authorities). At least one stretch of land would holds remarkable potential for a project that should be on the radar for the TTC and Metrolinx (a variation on it was yanked from the Chong report last year, at the last minute, just before it was leaked to the Star). We often talk of selling off public land, but it’s a much better deal for all concerned if we first try to leverage its full potential worth. Selling it off is akin to burning the furniture to heat the family home.

     I could go on, but won’t … for now.

A COUPLE OF CLOSING POINTS:

       Something akin to a REIT or real estate investment trust, may be needed to ensure Metrolinx’s land holdings are properly leveraged. Metrolinx faces a tricky balancing act, keeping the stations as connected as possible with current car-dependent suburbs, but shepherding a difficult transition toward transit-friendly urbanism. Obviously, serious thought is going into the process through Mobility Hubs planning for the station catchment zones, and my sources throughout the world of commercial real estate indicate that discussions are active throughout the region. But, Metrolinx has huge untapped outbound morning-rush GO capacity that will be needed soon because we can’t build new GTHA-wide transit capacity fast enough for the impending growth, especially after at least three decades of neglect. We need to make GO stations, whenever possible, into the centres of all-day destinations, places that local transit systems have to serve well, further reducing the need for parking at the stations.

       We have lots of existing public properties within Toronto that have potential but cannot be leveraged well because Build Toronto can only get access to them if the TTC or the city deems them surplus. We have to rethink and tweak this relationship.

 

Good luck. This mission is crucial to Toronto’s survival.

Steve

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.”

 

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.

 

Metrolinx dips a toe into a pool of Eastern transit wisdom, and Toronto is all aflutter

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.

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. Space above the station will be difficult to redevelop profitably, though the parking lots could eventually deliver much potential through land value capture.

I’d expected the social media messages and emails to die down today after a flood in response to a story I did for yesterday’s Globe and Mail, regarding Metrolinx’s move to seek RFPs on four Eglinton-Crosstown station properties. Instead, it took all morning to work through comments related to the Globe’s follow-up story.

For the most part, I’d tell people to relax. These are still early days in an important and long-overdue discussion. In the interests of brevity, I’ll address only three key but recurring  points from the feedback.

1. Build Toronto cannot take over or redevelop TTC stations unless they’re declared surplus, and we’ll be needing these stations for the foreseeable future. This isn’t such a bad thing because Build Toronto was set up badly on a few levels and, as currently structured, would not be an appropriate entity to take on rail-plus-property style land value capture (LVC). Existing TTC stations, except the ones surrounded by lots of land won’t yield much anyway because to capitalize properly, you need prepare for redevelopment while excavating for the stations. Many opportunities have long since been blown.

2. Andy Byford is right to point out that Toronto is not Hong Kong, just as Steve Fry and Richard Gilbert did in the original story on Tuesday. A Hong Kong comparison requires a nuanced understanding of the differences. Most who poo-poo the possibilities don’t know what they’re talking about. Aside from the obvious density contrasts, how land is owned and how the public accepts top-down decision-making are points people could make to further argue that Toronto cannot do what MTR does. However, such arguments affect only the scale of likely returns. None undercuts the fact we can profit mightily from big lessons learned over recent decades in Asia. We can’t adopt MTR”s model as is, but, with a few wise adaptations, transit will work much better for Toronto and the region at a significantly lower cost, and that should in turn nurture the will of voters and politicians to fund transit properly. (I’d add that, contrary to popular misconception, about two-thirds of MTR’s developments are midrise, not highrise.)

3. Though Steve Munro and I disagree on occasion, I respect him and all of us in this town should pay attention to what he says. His warning, “that the idea of developing transit stations sounds good but might not generate as much as proponents believe,” is absolutely fair. The words may have been poorly chosen in that they have many Globe readers today believing he has lumped realistic LVC proponents in with Ford supporters. Alas, calm rational discussions are too rare in the city scarred by absurdly divisive LRT-versus-subway debates.  Hucksters promoting free subways have done much to short-circuit important discussions about getting real returns on our transit investments. Gilbert and Fry, quoted in Tuesday’s story because they are knowledgeable and reasonable, don’t expect free subways to happen in North American cities in the foreseeable future. But they would ask: What’s wrong with saving a half-billion dollars on a transit project, or even a billion, especially if it gets more people living and working sooner at new stations? And even if we get back only, say $200-million on our first foray, that too can buy a lot of buses.

 

 

SmartTrack can only buy us time; we still need a DRL or whatever you want to call it

After letting four thoroughly jammed trains pass on Nov. 24, 2014, late in the afternoon, I ditched the politeness and squeezed aboard one. The day began with having to let two jammed trains go at Coxwell, and we left large crowds on nearly every platform west to Yonge.

After letting four thoroughly jammed trains pass on Nov. 24, 2014, late in the afternoon, I ditched the politeness and squeezed aboard one. The day began with having to let two jammed trains go at Coxwell, and we left large crowds on nearly every platform west to Yonge.

After Tweeting and FB-posting about horror-show subway crowding yesterday, I was asked why I hadn’t written a recent blog posting on the need for a new subway line through Toronto’s core, and whether John Tory‘s SmartTrack plan will be enough.

The fact is, this op-ed piece for the Toronto Star done back in July pretty much covers it.

 

 

A Reality Check on MP Doug Holyday’s Transit History Lecture

Lauding the Tories’ record makes only slightly more sense than thanking her royal highness, Queen Elizabeth, for Toronto’s subway system

Prime Minister Lester Pearson rides the Bloor-Danforth on opening day in 1966, possibly the only time he ever rode Toronto's subway. Like all senior governments, his was guilty of fare evasion.

Prime Minister Lester Pearson rides the Bloor-Danforth on opening day in 1966, possibly the only time he ever rode Toronto’s subway. Like all senior governments, his was guilty of fare evasion.

According to 680News on Wednesday (Sept. 18), new MP Doug Holyday said that under Conservative leadership, 64 subway stops have opened in Toronto, and that “in the last 10 years, under Liberal leadership, we’ve not opened up any.”

He’s correct, though it’s a factoid that cries out for explanation.

And before we go further, I should make clear I have no rooting interest at Queen’s Park. The Liberals, NDP and Tories all have  fingerprints on the transit mess that plagues the GTA.

So, as for Holyday’s take on history, it’s worth noting both senior levels of government refused to fund the subway projects that produced our first 38 stations, Eglinton to St. George and Keele to Woodbine. Holyday, the Tories’ new GTA subways and gridlock critic, should know that that’s 60 per cent of the stations, and that they’re all in locations where subway actually makes sense on all levels, from land-use to economics to basic travel demand.

Tory premier Leslie Miscampbell Frost showed up penniless in 1959 for the University-Bloor-Danforth groundbreaking. All he brought was a speech warning Metro and the TTC not to get buried in debt for the project. Toronto went ahead and built, using a property tax surcharge, and we’re still living off the foresight of that generation’s decision.

Frost’s successor, John Parmenter Robarts (and we’re not making up these middle names), eventually guaranteed Metro’s loans, allowing work to be expedited and advance the Bloor-Danforth opening to February 1966 (25 stations and 16 kilometres in 75 months!).

1968_image_3

There were eventually some small grants thrown in, but it’s fair to say the province didn’t get into transit funding until we pushed the Bloor-Danforth into Scarborough and Etobicoke in 1968, and the Yonge line into North York in the mid-1970s.And that’s when we seemed to lose control of transit planning.

The next premier, William Grenville Davis, gave us a funding formula many still pine for, but along with a new suburban dominance on Metro council, delivered an ill-conceived line with stations marooned in the median of the Spadina Expressway.

After less than a decade with the funding model, whereby the province would pay 75 per cent of capital costs and 50 per cent of operating shortfalls, Queen’s Park’s will to back transit withered. One-station Bloor-Danforth extensions to Kipling and Kennedy, opened in 1980, would be our last new subway for 16 years.

By then, Davis’s Tories, unaware that sprawl, not technology, was the root problem, were scrambling for something cheaper than subways to use in suburbia. They lost their minds and bet heavily on the Intermediate Capacity Transit System, developed by the Crown’s Urban Transit Development Corp. That, along with lots of arm-twisting, gave us the SRT that we now need to replace after less than three decades. It’s almost certain the SRT cost us more than a subway would have in the first place, something Holyday and others conveniently neglect to mention.

It’s easy to rip the Michael Deane Harris Tories for officially killing the Davis funding formula and for filling in tunnels that had been started for the Eglinton West subway (and the imposing amalgamation that makes Toronto impossible to govern). But few remember David Robert Peterson‘s Liberals unofficially put an end to urban transit funding at a critical time for the GTA.

Some commemorate June 3, 1971, when Davis killed the Spadina Expressway, as the start of some golden era of transit. But May 24, 1988, was as significant for 21st-century Ontarians in that Liberal transportation minister Ed Fulton announced the province would have nothing to do with Network 2011, the TTC and Metro’s plan for transit expansion.

Fulton, in announcing a 10-year plan for the GTA, shifted funding and emphasis from transit to extending and widening 400-series highways. New transit money largely went toward acquisition of land for “Gateways,” surface parking at GO stations in what we now call the 905. It was a monkey trap from which GO has yet to extricate its paws (though, as land banks, that asphalt holds great potential if anyone on Anne Golden’s new funding panel is smart enough to seriously consider adaptations of the Rail + Property model.

Many Metro councillors pointed out 25 years ago that the Peterson-Fulton legacy would be a massive boost to unsustainable sprawl, and they were bang on. Many of the headaches we now face are due to the fact that landscapes designed for drivers make the delivery of quality transit (and most other municipal services) extremely expensive, possibly in perpetuity.

And what about the NDP?

Three months before Peterson’s snap election call in the summer of 1990, he announced an apparent change of heart on transit with the Let’s Move plan, a disjointed but ambitious collection of lines. The NDP, led by Robert Keith Rae, promptly undercut any Liberal political advantage by backing the plan, but when they won a surprise major majority in September, they froze. Though some lines were of dubious transit value, they might have been good stimulus projects for the deep early-1990s recession. Rae’s NDP had barely started on transit when they were bounced by Harris’s Tories in 1995, and we all know the damage done by that crew in the following years.

But the biggest NDP damage occurred in 1986 at the municipal level.

Behind the scenes in the 1980s, the TTC and transit planners made clear that if we didn’t get started on the DRL soon, the economic health of Toronto’s core and its transit system would suffer, while runaway sprawl would get a big boost in York, Peel and Durham.

The TTC realized that at suburban-dominated Metro, it would have to compromise, so it agreed to allow the DRL to get second billing. Top priority would be a line on Sheppard (even if demand projections would need heavy torquing). Besides, the idea meshed with Metro planning’s hubris, a belief we could effectively decentralize growth by creating instant downtowns in Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York.

But even second priority for the DRL didn’t sit well with downtown NDP aldermen Jack Layton and Dale Martin, who feared “Manhattanization” and increased density in the core. They worked with suburban counterparts and planning staff to get the DRL dropped below Eglinton on Network 2011’s list, effectively killing the TTC’s top priority altogether. They backed us into a corner where now, every transit expansion plan that ignores the DRL’s urgency, whether it’s Transit City or subways to Richmond Hill or Scarborough Centre, aggravates overloading on the inner network and advances an imminent crisis.

For what it’s worth, Holyday’s right: all 64 subway stations opened while the Tories held power at Queen’s Park, but we might as well accord similar credit to the Queen.

Meanwhile, six more stops — wasteful grandiose, expensive, standalone stations — are slated to open between Downsview and Vaughan in 2016. Anyone posting odds on who will be in power? Does it matter?

 

 

 

 

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.

Why Ignore Our Best Scarborough Transit Options?

It should distress everyone in Ontario that the only two official options on Toronto city council’s menu – the Eglinton-based LRT/SRT replacement and a strange, three-station preliminary subway plan – are third rate, at best

For more than three decades, the swaths of land at Kennedy station have provided little return to its owners, the public. But with the Rail + Property model, we could maximize the worth of this real estate, make transit operations more efficient and take profits to reinvest in infrastructure.

(This post was written before the Sept. 4 news that the province has another idea for building this Scarborough subway. Queen’s Park’s latest idea would be fifth best among options considered below.)

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Among the emails awaiting me after a recent offline break in the north woods were requests from some of the usual suspects for my take on the Scarborough transit saga.

For a change, I’ll admit the plan I’d favoured just weeks ago is probably now second best – a realization I hit upon while studying a report by Transport Action Ontario analyzing the GO rail system’s potential – if electrification is tackled promptly and intelligently. Released in July, it’s must reading for all who care about the GTA’s economic health and quality of life.

We’ll examine the 400-page report, titled GTHA Regional Rapid Rail: A Vision For The Future, in a separate post, but we should note here that it makes a strong case for electric-mulitple-unit technology, which among many possibilities, could quickly deliver near-subway-level service from downtown, through Kennedy station to Scarborough Town Centre, Malvern and beyond for less than Metrolinx’s allegedly funded LRT option. Too bad TAO’s report didn’t appear sooner because, as important as many of the recommendations are, they likely can’t become part of mainstream discussion in time. Through the grapevine, we hear some GTA planners and decision-makers are suddenly intrigued by this report but, so far, the Star has been the only major media outlet to clue in.

Anyway, we’re talking Scarborough transit here, and as humbling as it is that my idea – an alternate subway alignment with emphasis on the Rail + Property funding model – might now be second best, it should distress everyone that the only two official options on city council’s menu – the Eglinton-based LRT/SRT replacement and a strange, three-station preliminary subway plan – are no better than third rate.

In this part of the world, we have a history of making bad transit decisions, sometimes because we cling to any ideas that have traction, fearing that if we step back and think for a moment we mightn’t get anything done at all. But dumb decisions are among the things that have killed the public’s will to properly fund transit in recent decades. The RT may be Exhibit A. It’s bad enough that we have to junk a transit line that’s not even 30 years old. Really galling, however, is the significant likelihood we spent more on this politically driven, allegedly low-cost alternative to subway than we would have spent on an actual subway in the first place – and all the while we did not realizing the RT would be temporary.

More obvious to some of us in the early 1980s, was that any serious transit line linking STC with central Toronto via Kennedy station was a natural extension of the Bloor-Danforth and that forcing an en route transfer – especially with Kennedy station lacking any destination qualities – was foolish. In 2013, it’s still a bad idea to build in a transfer for riders going into town via Danforth and Bloor, no matter how much more convenient it may be than the current station setup and no matter how much we’re concerned that the westbound Bloor-Danforth is now at capacity in the morning rush. Encouraging more city-bound Scarborough, Durham and eastern York Region riders to use Eglinton and the already overcrowded Yonge line makes no sense at all. If you consider that an Environmental Assessement is already approved for extending the Eglinton LRT east to Kingston Road and out to Morningside Mall, it’s a bad idea to divert this line to serve northeast Scarborough. Eglinton was one part of Transit City that made sense, on nearly all counts.

As for city council’s now-favoured $2.3-billion subway option, which would provide that all-desirable one-seat service from downtown to the STC (when seats are available), the preliminary alignment, apparent funding assumptions, station spacing and the lack of regard for capitalizing on surrounding real estate are all horrible. The silos that promote or tolerate this kind of “thinking” must be smashed. The only planners who could seriously consider deep-bore tunneling east under Eglinton and north under a dead stretch of McCowan – with three more wasteful standalone stations – are yes-men or yes-women working under duress.

The only comparative benefit of the Scarborough subway plan that was before city council last month is that it would allow the SRT to continue operating while the new rapid transit is built. That’s a tiny gain for the huge amounts of waste that model would entail – at a time when transit funding is scarce. Transportation minister Glen Murray said Aug. 28 that a more firm route preference will be revealed in a few weeks. Let’s hope the powers that be come to their senses in the interim.

If we are going to build a Bloor-Danforth extension to the STC, let’s seize upon it as the long-awaited golden opportunity to demonstrate the worth of the Rail + Property (R+P) business model on this continent. It can deliver far more than big savings on a one-off transit project. R+P is the international gold standard, the model best practice for subway development that proactively links transit and land-use for economic and urban planning objectives.

For some reason, decision-makers in these parts seem hostile to R+P, which has been essential to making transit funding sustainable in Far East metropolises and has kept MTR Corp. in Hong Kong profitable for decades. Adaptation and experimentation will be required for a GTA context, but the Scarborough case presents a special opportunity because the public owns so much underutilized land in the best subway corridor.

R+P considers stations as mixed-use profit centres integrated into their surroundings, while the Toronto model treats stations as cost centres, delivering wasteful standalone buildings that repel development. Don’t confuse R+P with the Ford brothers’ dreams of free private sector subways, or with the narrow and superficial consideration of value capture contained in reports from our transit funding discussions earlier this year.

There’s no way of honestly estimating how much profit potential is available – short or long term – by employing the R+P model to real estate on this route. But then the official $2.3-billion subway extension estimate being bandied about is also vague, and necessarily so. It’s a plus-or-minus 30% number, meaning anything from $1.6-billion to $3-billion (which makes this side spat with the province over $400-million seem absurd).

If R+P is considered from the start, we’d unshackle the thought process. We consider the seemingly radical demolition of the current Kennedy station, which real estate experts agree is a major impediment to transit-oriented development in such a key, potentially urban location – where the Bloor-Danforth subway, GO rail and the Eglinton LRT will meet. The focus needs to be broadened from building a transit facility at Kennedy to fully leveraging our massive publicly owned land holdings surrounding and above the station, through Build Toronto or a new but similar entity.

R+P would require a cultural adjustment for Torontonians. Rather than decrying the unearned value granted lucky or well-connected landholders in station catchment areas, we, the people, would be in position to profit and reinvest. We own that land and should be demanding that our politicians do all they can to maximize returns from our assets and infrastructure investments. Long term, the example of efficiency would also likely nurture the political will to fund transit properly, and that’s important because R+P cannot come close to doing it alone in the North American context.

R+P for the Scarborough extension might also be a great opportunity for a provincial government trying to revive its image after the gas-plants scandal. And if the province were really smart, it would create a Build Toronto-like Crown corporation to bring in private-sector expertise for maximizing the worth of lands surrounding our GO stations. Metrolinx has quite the portfolio of underutilized land.

Making the Scarborough subway extension work economically would require adjusting the alignment through a new Kennedy station and briefly into the old SRT space before turning into the main Gatineau hydro corridor, at least to Brimley and Lawrence. That would allow us to use much-less-expensive cut-and-cover tunneling (and don’t forget that cut and cover was and is plenty good for most of the original Yonge, University and Bloor-Danforth subways). It would mean a bit more traffic disruption during construction, but if it significantly increases the chances that Scarborough residents get their subway – and get a more useful subway with more stations at a better price – it will be tolerated. Brimley is also quite dead, but it is better suited to subway than McCowan, and would allow us to reach the STC via the west side with less underground work.

Burying high-voltage wires and removing the towers while digging cut-and-cover subway tunnels can open up huge amounts of valuable real estate at station sites, such as this spot here where the Gatineau hydro corridor crosses Midland.

Better still, with hydro infrastructure buried in the Gatineau corridor during tunnel construction – a surprisingly inexpensive process – stations at Midland and at Brimley-Lawrence could be designed as the hearts transit villages on newly freed-up lands. The hydro corridor acreage is huge and we would have to get the province to transfer the lands from Hydro One to Build Toronto. But if we blend in office, residential, retail, educational and service uses, and if we focus on the pedestrian, we’d ensure subway-worthy ridership before the long-term and obviate the need for high-rises.

Even where we don’t own the land, at Scarborough Town Centre, R+P can come into play as Oxford Properties should find it worthwhile to provide a station  as part of the basement/foundation of new developments. Where R+P is used, it’s understood the marginal cost of station infrastructure tends to be much less than the upstairs premium available to the developer if the excavation, foundation and platform work is done at once.

Alas, while I love this second-best plan because it can get us past the absurd idea that Toronto cannot afford subways, it would increase Bloor-Danforth line ridership, which is a problem with all the Scarborough rapid-transit options other than the one presented in the TAO report. It’s sad, but as Toronto Transit Commission CEO Andy Byford and transit planning veteran Ed Levy point out, we’re short of good network options because the Downtown Relief Line is so overdue for the entire region.

I hold out little hope that the transit bureaucracies and politicians will wake up to the possibilities in time, and that’s a shame. This is a rare and special opportunity.