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

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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.

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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 usĀ  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

 

Where I’m coming from

I was drawing pictures at the kitchen table of 51 Woodlawn Avenue East when news broke that JFK had been shot. If I hadn’t been ill (and I doubt I was faking that day), I’d have been sitting in Sister Annette’s Grade 1 class at Our Lady of Perpetual Help school.

That much, I know.

I think my mum had been ironing and was upstairs getting hangers when the bulletin interrupted programming on radio station CFRB. By the time she was back in the room, music had resumed and she briefly didn’t believe me when I mentioned the news flash.

She became angry, thinking I must have conjured a spectacularly large little-boy lie. Then she was very apologetic.

I remember staring at a multicoloured push-button panel on the stove, trying to imagine the chaos in Dallas.

I mention this because it has long felt my real life began that Friday, even if I had nearly 79 months under my belt. I have clear memories going back to at least January 1960. Even a few favourite songs predatedĀ November 22, 1963, and the British Invasion that was just about to get started. Pre-Beatles favourites included Walk Right In by the Rooftop Singers and Hey Baby by Bruce Channel.

I’m sure this sense of life starting well into my seventh year is linked to a personal discovery in the days right after the assassination: I could pretty well read the newspaper and it felt liberating. For better or worse, my life’s path might have been set.

Even as Kennedy-related stories subsided, other matters kept me hooked — Beatlemania, the Maple Leafs and construction of the Bloor-Danforth subway were the biggies in my world. We were a morning Globe and Mail household, but in following years, I encouraged my dad to look for an evening Telegram or Star on the streetcar after work.

The spring of 1964 saw my family — mum, dad and seven of the eight kids still living at home — move to the Beach/Beaches neighbourhood. I’ve lived in the East End most of my life since, and now reside nearer the Danforth, a strip that seemed exotic and dangerous in my youth. I went to Balmy Beach, Glen Ames, Malvern, but got a lot of my education from newspapers. I delivered papers, too.

Through the late 1960s and early ’70s, I found stories about unrest in American cities, the Vietnam war and Watergate gripping, but no more interesting than coverage of the Toronto Transit Commission, city hall and development battles here in Toronto — a booming, hopeful, exciting but insecure town that wasn’t yet Canada’s biggest. Subway construction was ongoing, skyscrapers were sprouting and nobody seemed to have any idea that the Maple Leafs would go decades without even reaching a Stanley Cup final.

I left high school and the family home at 17 and stumbled, luckily, into an office boy job at the Star. It was there that I would begin and — after tours at the Financial Post, Sun and The Globe and Mail — end a 35-plus year newspaper career, mostly as an editor. There was also a brief experiment with life in Peterborough, working at the Examiner, but it only made me realize I’m fully a Torontonian — something rather repulsive to many Canadians.

These days I’m freelance writing to pay the bills, while trying to relax, ride a bike, paddle a kayak, play guitar and make sense of this strange alliance — expertise and intransigent stupidity — that governs much of our lives.

I continue to follow transit matters closely via media, discussions with plugged-in people and official documents. I love reading old newspapers via the Toronto Public Library’s website, as well as books on planning and land use.

I have no time for binary left-right politics. It’s causing great damage at all levels.

I’m frivolous, too. I like music, beer and sunshine, and I’ve happily wasted a lot of my life in the vortex of spectator sports. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to cheer for the Leafs. I’m a baseball fan, and for years the Red Sox were my team, probably because their triple-A team was Toronto-based in my boyhood. I began cheering for the Blue Jays about the time Dave Stieb arrived (and his 37 should have been the franchise’s first retired number).

Obviously, WorldWideWickens.com is an absurd, grandiose name for my blog, but I hope I can bring enough irony and self-deprecation to the project to justify the choice.