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.

 

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 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