Ten Years To Retrofit The SRT For A Scarborough Subway?

Instead of funding, premier Leslie Frost arrived at the November 1959 ground-breaking ceremony with only a red hard hat and a speech warning local politicians not to go too far into debt for their ambitious University-Bloor-Danforth subway project.

Instead of providing any funding, Premier Leslie Frost arrived at the November 1959 ground-breaking ceremony with only a red hard hat and a speech warning local politicians not to go too far into debt for their ambitious Bloor-Danforth-University subway project. Torontonians went ahead anyway and got digging. (Toronto Telegram fonds ASCO7444)

By STEPHEN WICKENS

So, according to the Star on Friday consultants who are undoubtedly well-paid by you and me have told Metrolinx it will take 10 years to retrofit the Scarborough Rapid Transit line for the province’s Kennedy-to-Scarborough Center subway extension. Maybe that makes sense in a town where it takes a good four years to renovate Pape station.

When I read pieces like these, I think of the Torontonians from that post-Second-World-War generation. Yes, bigotry, provincialism, second-hand smoke and reluctance to party were among the notable but often cliched downsides to Blue Law Hogtown. But Toronto was a hive of energy, optimism and overall levels of goodness to easily match our often smug cosmopolitanism.

Like us, those Torontonians squabbled over subways. They couldn’t even settle on Bloor versus Queen until January 1958.  But even though our city was a much smaller and poorer place, those Torontonians weren’t going to use the province’s refusal to kick in any funding as an excuse to procrastinate.

In 2013 we’re told it will take five years just to plan this SRT retrofit.

For some reason, our old-school slide-rule engineers were much more efficient than their latter-day counterparts and their technology. Maybe they had better bosses and were freer to do their jobs.

Shovels had already hit the ground by November 1959 on what was known as the Bloor-Danforth-University Subway Project. A little more than six years later — despite having problems with soil conditions, underground streams and dense urban webs of unmapped utility infrastructure to relocate or work around — the whole thing, from Union to St. George and Woodbine to Keele, 25 stations and more than 16 kilometres, was up and running.

bloordanforth

The project also made it within the $200-million budget.

You could even claim they got the Bloor-Danforth open a couple of years early, but that’s because the province finally consented to guarantee Metro’s loans.

Then the Torontonians celebrated their victory by hauling the giant hollow horse into the city … or or something like that.

PS: Despite the sometimes flippant tone of this post, we recognize and honour the sacrifices of John Blaney, Edgar Ostkamp, Albert Low, Rosaire Beaudry, Lauri Karkas, Tommy Kerr, Attilio Tricinci, Frank LaPlante and Larry Linyck. All nine lost their lives during construction of the Bloor-Danforth subway.

PPS: The Leslie Frost photo was taken by the Telegram’s Peter Ward and is published courtesy of York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives & Special Collections.

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.

 

Seminal subway lessons from the Toronto transit time tunnel

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

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

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

By STEPHEN WICKENS

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can hiking property taxes make a difference?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Toronto’s desperate for brilliance on the transit file.

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

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

He also has a big problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I knew this was my country.”

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

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

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

TTC forced to mop up when planners and architects fail

Even if Variety Village’s isolated design was painfully ironic, it can make an otherwise complex transit service and funding conundrum accessible to all

Variety Village was originally dumped between two four-lane highways, then rebuilt in the early 1980s with its impregnable backside largely hidden but facing the TTC's longstanding stop on Kingston Road. Now that most buses are diverting to serve the other side of the building, residents of the Glen Everest neighbourhood have absorbed the headache.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

On the surface, Variety Village’s nearly 30-year push for a somewhat convenient bus stop was a no-brainer, but this is one case where blaming the Toronto Transit Commission is flat out unfair.

Sure, I had fun with tabloid journalism during a stint at the Toronto Sun in the 1990s, so I can understand the World War III-sized headlines and the crusading rhetoric the paper used last year to label TTC “drones” as “heartless” and the commission’s initial decision to merely study a route modification as “a kick in the teeth” for the disabled.

But there’s much more to the story and understanding the genesis of this battle matters to everyone in Greater Toronto. This is one of those rare examples that make a complex public policy problem reasonably comprehensible.

The Variety Village mess is rooted in the 1940s, when the province donated to the cause some land left over from construction of an interchange for Highways 2 and 5, better known these days as Kingston Rd. and Danforth Ave. Premier George Drew undoubtedly had good intentions, but when his people determined the original facility would be built on a steep slope between two four-lane highways, he may as well have been telling disabled kids to go play in traffic.

Although we didn’t start buying low-floor buses until the 1990s, there was a chance to address the accessibility disconnect in the late ’70s, when Variety Village shifted away from its role as a vocational training centre. The new focus on the physical, recreational and mobility needs of the disabled required a rebuilding program, which, with a little thought, could have created a connection with the surroundings.

Instead, when Premier Bill Davis opened the new facilities, media were told about wonders such as “adjustable disembarking ramps” for wheelchair vans. Nothing was said about those who would get there by TTC. “The building was designed so a person with any kind of disability can move and function without help or embarrassment,” officials boasted.

That’s likely still the case — once you’re safely on the island.

The new structures may be Toronto’s finest example of architectural irony. The “model of accessibility,” a place dedicated to helping the disabled fit seamlessly into our community, looks and functions more like a fortress on a hill. A walk from the long-standing Kingston Road bus stop to the entrance is a good four-minute climb over tough terrain — for a fully mobile adult, in good weather.

Variety Village may not have been able to hire the best architects, but shouldn’t those who okayed the plans have given primary consideration to an entrance close to and level with the Kingston Road bus, the only TTC route serving the property?

With hindsight, it’s obvious the new building should have gone atop or next to a subway stop, even if it cost more initially. It’s painful to think that Kennedy station, still surrounded by underused lands 30 years on, was built the same time as Variety Village.

It’s more painful to consider this is far from an isolated case and there’s no end of stupidity in sight. Post-secondary students often can’t afford cars, but since World War II we’ve marooned most new campuses where quality cost-effective transit is impossible. We put York University on farmland north of the city, then spent 50-plus years discussing an incredibly expensive subway extension to fix the mistake. We did it again recently with the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, which could have helped revitalize Oshawa’s downtown or gone atop the GO station and its acres of parking. Instead, UOIT is in the city’s car-dependent north.

A wave of boomers is about to retire and many will end up unable to drive, but living in places designed for cars. Our kids are victims of unnecessary inaccessibility, forcing us to spend fortunes in time and money ferrying them to school and other activities.

Variety Village is a world-renowned contributor to our community – an institution whose fund-raising has been killed in recent years by lotteries and casinos. Even if it has contributed to some of its own problems, it deserves good transit access and our support. It’s nice to see that the TTC has applied a Band-Aid — though transit-dependent residents of the Glen Everest neighbourhood probably disagree.

But the larger lesson for all of us is, greenbelt or not, if governments allow or inadvertently promote office parks, big-box malls, colleges, subdivisions and condo towers where cars are essential, we guarantee taxpayers will get far less bang for the billions of bucks that may or may not eventually flow through the TTC and Metrolinx.