And, incredibly, it’s still not too late for Ford to look like a genius on the Scarborough transit file

By STEPHEN WICKENS

“To offer riders a more convenient route and alleviate potential budget pressures …”

Leading with those words, provincial transit agency Metrolinx issued a news release last week justifying the Ontario government’s decision to kill the Hurontario light-rail line’s two-kilometre loop through downtown Mississauga.

It’s hard to argue with a declaration that the most attractive routes at the best possible prices are a priority, though the degree to which this adjusted plan is likely to succeed in Mississauga prompted considerable debate – debate that continues even if it has since been drowned out by Tuesday night’s news that Premier Doug Ford has decreed big changes are in the works for four Toronto transit projects.

Some are still questioning how the changes to the Hurontario plan can be more convenient for people whose journey includes Mississauga Centre – surely a big proportion of potential ridership. At least the line is to be built in a way that allows the loop to be resurrected later.

As for cost savings: Although the line is now to be 10 per cent shorter with three fewer stations, the estimate remains $1.4-billion, same as in 2014, meaning “budget pressures” is basically PR-speak for cost overruns, even if the ‘project scope’ has changed. The overruns are mostly the result of “important design and engineering needs” not identified until 2017, Metrolinx spokeswoman Amanda Ferguson said in an e-mail.

Fair enough. Let’s hope everything pans out better than advertised.

But if Mr. Ford and his subway-upload-plan advisers really are serious about “more convenient” routes and alleviating “budget pressures,” the obvious starting point would have been big changes in Scarborough, and not by adding stations to the ill-conceived subway project.

At a time when the government is rightly making noise about the deficits and debt it inherited, plans for extending the Toronto Transit Commission’s Line 2 and the eastern stretches of Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack plan have us on track for a double-whammy of spectacular waste and suboptimal services.

There has long been a much better plan, and Mr. Tory knows about it.

It’s an option that should have appealed to the Premier in that it doesn’t involve LRTs or reverting to the nearly fabled seven-stop light-rail route that is an article of faith in some circles, including on the opposition benches at Queen’s Park.

Scarborough does deserve much better than its faltering SRT line (foisted on the TTC in the 1980s by a previous provincial government). And, fortunately, the groundwork for the better plan has been salvaged with the Ford government’s apparent willingness to largely continue with Metrolinx’s Regional Express Rail network (recently rebranded “GO Expansion”). In simple terms, GO-E adds track capacity on most Metrolinx corridors, with more stations and, probably, electrified operations that permit much more frequent service.

Conveniently, one of those corridors – the one serving Markham and Stouffville – passes just 1.5 kilometres from Scarborough Town Centre. As a bonus, much of the land needed to build a spur line between STC and GO’s corridor is already publicly owned. If we let GO serve Markham and divert SmartTrack service to STC, we don’t need to tunnel a six-km subway for $4-billion, or $6-billion or more.

Better still, transit users would get a faster, more direct trip downtown from Scarborough than they would by subway – seven stops to Union in one seat, rather than 22 with a change of trains at perpetually overcrowded Bloor-Yonge station. In fact, SmartSpur would allow SmartTrack relieve a bit of the crowding on Toronto’s subway, rather than aggravating it as the current Line 2-extension plan would.

The SmartSpur idea first showed up in a 518-page report about electrifying GO’s rail system, released in 2013 by Transport Action Ontario (a volunteer group that, among other things, lets transit professionals do work other than what’s assigned in their day jobs). It was a serious plan produced and reviewed by serious transit people. The biggest knock against it has been that it kills any case for a Scarborough subway extension, which was little more that a vote-buying promise that underpinned former premier Kathleen Wynne’s support for Mr. Tory in the 2014 mayoral race (against Mr. Ford).

SmartSpur is based largely on the fact that upgrades – already under way – to double-track the Stouffville corridor and add a fourth track to the Lakeshore East line offer more capacity than GO and SmartTrack need for the foreseeable future. Running subway-like frequencies will require a state-of-the-art signalling system, not cheap, but overall potential savings were estimated to be in excess of $2-billion, and that was before the subway-option’s tunnelling and station cost estimates soared.

We know the Premier prefers underground trains (and is talking now about going underground on Eglinton West, too), but his advisers should have pointed out forcefully that cities getting transit built – the great metropolises with those enviable subway maps – rarely bore costly tunnels beyond their dense downtowns (55 per cent of London Underground is above ground, as is 62 per cent of Hong Kong’s system).

Going the SmartSpur route offered Mr. Ford a dual opportunity: to tackle an embarrassingly wasteful commitment made by the former premier, while showing his former mayoral-race opponent, Mr. Tory, how to do SmartTrack right.

Whether the Premier is big enough to backtrack now is an open question, as is whether Mr. Ford is receiving quality advice.

He could still look like a genius in Scarborough, reinvesting savings to push SmartSpur out to Malvern via Centennial College, or extending the Eglinton Crosstown east from Kennedy. Of course, Mr. Ford could also reallocate funds to a Relief subway, the most urgent transit need in Toronto and the GTA.

As for Mississauga, maybe Mayor Bonnie Crombie can persuade her city to fund its loop. Toronto had to pay for its subways when it was still building them downtown.

 

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.