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!).

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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?

 

 

 

 

The better way to honour Sam Sniderman and help the TTC

A Toronto museum is a great idea, but putting the iconic spinning-disc signs from Sam The Record Man’s flagship store in such a place would insult the creativity he promoted in life. Sam’s spirit should be surrounded by life and music, and in doing so we could take care of one of the TTC’s outstanding headaches.

samSam Sniderman was a music man, and one thing to know about music is that, unlike man, it has the potential for immortality.

I love the idea of a Toronto museum, but recent suggestions in the Star and Post that we hang Sam The Record Man’s homeless signs in such a place would insult the creativity he promoted in life — not just in the city he loved, but across Canada.

Gratuitously affixing the spinning discs to the Ryerson building rising on the site of Sam’s store would be nearly as bad, though it feels as if my alma mater deserves some such punishment for cheesing out in this affair.

samsign2But opportunity to do Sniderman proud, make someone some money and contribute mightily to the Yonge Street strip and the city beyond, lies just south, on the other side of Gould Street. The spirit of Sam and the signs in question deserve a space with music and life, a healthy mix of uses to keep things happening at all hours. The site of the old Empress Hotel is perfect on several levels.

Sadly, we’ll never have the Empress back. It was allowed to slide into disrepair during Yonge’s seediest days. It was then destabilized in 2010 and torched a year later.

I mostly recall the red-brick 1888 landmark as Music World, a latter-day Sam’s competitor. In the early 1980s, when I was a Ryerson student, there was also a dingy second-floor burger joint with uneven floors. The baskets of fries were huge and filling. I loved them drenched in vinegar, with beer on the side.

MUSICBut having grown up in Toronto, I somehow knew the place had been Edison Hotel in the ’60s. I was aware of the former buzz — maybe from radio ads of my boyhood, maybe from osmosis, or maybe from co-workers old enough to legitimately spin tales of the great nights on Yonge. They’d seen the Hawks (later The Band), the Ugly Ducklings, the Mandala, Sparrow (pre-Steppenwolf) and the Mynah Birds; they’d frequented the Le Coq d’Or, The Embassy, The Colonial and The Hawk’s Nest.

The tales made me feel I’d been born too late.

Sam was an essential part of that Yonge Street — and Yorkville and much more. Most of the big names from the second half of the 20th century owe much to the efforts he made, especially in the years before CanCon legislation (though he was also instrumental in getting Ottawa to ensure Canadian broadcasters played Canadian music). He was much more than a retailer with charisma and a catchy sign, he helped get Canadian talent onto  the world stage.

According to longtime Maclean’s music critic Nick Jennings, author of a great 1997 book called Before The Gold Rush, Sniderman “built a reputation as the greatest promoter of domestic talent that Canadian music ever had.” 

Veteran music journalist Larry LeBlanc lists the Guess Who, Gordon Lightfoot, Anne Murray, Bachman Turner Overdrive, Rush, Triumph, Stompin’ Tom Connors, Raffil, Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan, Liona Boyd, Loreena McKennitt, Sloan, Barenaked Ladies and many others as artists indebted to Sniderman.

Not every music fan closed the deal at Sam’s. I often went home with a yellow bag from A&A’s, two doors up the street (only Steele’s Tavern separated the rivals). But every trip to that part of downtown included a visit Sam’s, and we’d often see Sam in person.

Recent commercial property transactions and current condo developments mean big changes and a lot more life are coming to Yonge. I kind of sense a new golden age in the works. With luck, it will bring enough life to support some good new club-style live-music venues. The place to start is at the fenced-off Empress/Edison site, now being used as a staging ground for the Ryerson construction.

As an urbanist, I don’t much care specifically what goes on the upper floors there, though it should be a primary use other than residential. That’s because the lower floors need a big space for bands, dancing and the Sam’s signs, spinning for people who will appreciate them and their Yonge Street context.

But wait, if we exercise a little foresight, we can turn the basement and part of the ground floor of this building into part of the long-overdue north entrance to Dundas Station, which somehow slipped behind Castle Frank and Donlands in the TTC’s controversial and conceptually challenged second-exits program.

Done properly — in conjunction with a larger development — a second entrance for Dundas can be accomplished at a very favourable price (and, of course, Dundas was an essential stepping-off point for so many of Sam’s customers). Ryerson and the TTC had been in talks to work the north entrance into the Student Learning Centre that’s under construction, but we’re told that talks fell apart.

If the Empress site has to be expropriated, so be it. The public badly needs it to bring the sixth busiest TTC station up to the most basic standards of fire safety, not to mention allowing it to connect better with a rapidly growing university. And it’s not as if we were shy about expropriation tactics at sleepy Greenwood and Donlands a few years back.

Maybe, if necessary, we can have Build Toronto carry the public interest from there. Maybe BT can work in conjunction the current owner, Lalani Group, to ensure a solid economic case and an attractive and appropriate structure rises above the musicians and revellers and TTC customers — and that Sam’s sign.

Call the club Sam’s if you like. Maybe it can be a showcase for both long-respected and up-and-coming Canadian bands. Maybe Robbie Robertson could be the host on opening night, with specials guests of his choosing (as long as I get a ticket).

Of course, it won’t all pan out this way, but this type of blue-sky discussion is needed for many obvious reasons.

The only way I can support putting the signs in the same building as a museum, is if that Toronto museum is part of the upstairs space.

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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.

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.

More Scarborough Transit Indignity

kennedy_rt8

Few will mourn the unreliable 28-year-old orphan dumped on us by provincial bureaucrats who claimed it would be a low-cost alternative to subways. But it turns out the troubled RT didn’t just cost more than light rail, it almost certainly cost us more than a subway would have in the first place, a galling thought decades later.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

If there’s a heaven, and if Gus Harris gained entry, you can bet he’s put the harp lessons on hold to follow the current Scarborough transit fiasco.

Harris, Scarborough’s mayor for much of the 1980s, opposed the once-futuristic Intermediate Capacity Transit System (ICTS), designed to be a low-cost alternative to traditional subways, which were proving too expensive for suburban applications.

In 1981, when Scarborough council snubbed Harris to back a switch from conventional light rail to the province’s unproven technology, he dubbed it “The Toonerville Trolley.” When Metro council finalized the switch weeks later, he said, “I don’t think Scarborough should be guinea pigs for this.”

Minister of transportation James Snow and Kirk Foley, head of the province’s Urban Transit Development Corp., had led Queen’s Park’s hard sell that spring. Future mayor Joyce Trimmer led the majority Scarborough council faction. They were feted by UTDC and flown to Kingston to see it on a test track. They quickly bought in on a promise that ICTS would be a huge step up from the then-new streetcars that had been expected to ply the Kennedy-Scarborough Centre corridor as per a 1977 plan approved by Metro Council.

ICTS was to cost $134-million, 24 per cent more than the streetcar option, whose estimate had risen to $108-million by 1981. But Cabinet at Queen’s Park, eager for a working line to showcase UTDC’s driverless ICTS trains to the world, vowed to pick up all extra costs.

So what could possibly go wrong?

A year later, the TTC – a diplomatically reluctant partner in the ICTS plan – announced costs had soared to $181-million. Minutes of an internal meeting available at the archives show the bad news was known months earlier and that the eventual announcement played down the escalation estimates, which had actually reached $193-million.

NEW

To the odd person, me, who remembered the subway extensions from Islington to Kipling and Warden to Kennedy had opened in 1980, under budget at a combined cost of $127-million, even the low-balled $181-million RT tab raised red flags.

Might a subway cost less?

It was a simpler time. I simply phoned the main TTC number and was put straight through to a man named Stan Lawrence, who was heading up the RT project. He was friendly when asked if a subway option had been considered. Of course it had, he said, adding that costs and potential alignments had been studied and the determination was that the best subway would be slightly more than twice as much as the streetcar option (estimated at $68-million in 1977, likely the last year a subway estimate would have been calculated). When I asked for a specific subway cost and to see the studies, he shut the conversation down, saying the report wouldn’t be made public because only light-rail and the ICTS plan were on the table.

I then called Harris’s office, and he got back to me about a week later.  I told him if Scarborough’s downtown dream was to ever become reality, it needed a connection via the Bloor-Danforth, some day. It seemed this was a natural single-technology subway corridor that shouldn’t be broken up for ICTS or streetcars. I’ve always liked what light rail can do and I had no problem with a UTDC demonstration line, as long as it went into a fresh corridor elsewhere.

Harris made clear it was too late to for changes. The province had taken charge of the file and was footing the bill. There would be no turning back, though Harris, who had backed light-rail all along, suddenly sounded keen to know what a subway would have cost.

Weeks later, Harris called and suggested we go for coffee. He didn’t have much more to say than that he’d been talking with TTC engineering staff who told him a subway extension from Kennedy to Scarborough Centre had indeed been studied and that the cost estimate was between $150-million and $175-million. He also said that some day, “maybe in five, 10 or 20 years, we’ll get to say I told you so.”

SRT problems made frequent headlines in the early years of operation and costs eventually topped $220-million as major modifications were needed. TTC staff had joked that ICTS stood for, It Can’t Traverse Snow. Harris called it “Lada transit at limo prices,” when I ran into him on Queen Street one day.

In 1989, Harris, no longer Scarborough’s mayor, phoned with a scoop that there was a serious behind-the-scenes push at the TTC and Metro to scrap the SRT just five years after it opened. Queen’s Park had heard about it and was leaning on politicians and staff to shut up because UTDC had pending sales in Asia. (Neither deal panned out, and a Star reporter got the scoop because I was working at a national business paper uninterested in Toronto transit stories.)

It’s total coincidence but highly appropriate that I was reading Barbara Tuchman’s March of Folly on my first SRT ride in the spring of 1985. The sound of the surprisingly noisy vehicles also left an impression.

A few weeks after that initial SRT ride, the TTC and the city released an ambitious rapid transit expansion plan called Network 2011, with a Downtown Relief Line and subways on Eglinton and Sheppard. Shortly thereafter, I got to discuss Network 2011 with the a senior TTC man, who told me very interesting stuff after he got me to promise that our talk was all off the record. This was at most three months after the SRT opened, and he said the TTC would never consider ICTS again. Also of note was that the DRL was the TTC’s clear priority, even if the official story, for political reasons, was that Sheppard should come first.

As for Gus Harris’s $150-million to $175-million estimate for a subway from Kennedy to Scarborough Centre, he said those numbers were accurate, confirming that province’s low-cost alternative almost certainly cost more than a  subway would have in the first place – a particularly galling thought three decades later.

When I suggested that fact might be the reason for the TTC’s reluctance to release its work on the subway option, he said, again with a warning this was off the record, that the cost-comparison was Queen’s Park’s embarrassment. The TTC was probably more worried about public reaction to the fact that extending the subway cost-effectively would require demolishing Kennedy station, which was then just five years old.

Anyway, during the summer of 2013, as the Scarborough debate took bizarre twists, friendly staff at the TTC and City Archives tried, without success, to help me track down that never-released document, probably about 35 years old, assessing the subway option. Maybe the fact it was never released made it okay to file it by way of a shredder.

I’m dying to see it, in part because there’s a far better alignment than either of the subway options that have been under consideration. There’s a significant chance the TTC had found that better way decades ago.

So, we’re still digging, and the Toonerville Trolley rolls on … for now.

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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.

 

Adham Fisher helps put Toronto on the subway map and brings smiles to town

Mary Marshall, having her picture taken by and with Adham Fisher, was one of dozens TTC riders delighted to meet the minor celebrity from Leicester, England.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

As meltdowns go, this was a fair display of British self-restraint.

The anguished shout rattled some folks on the Kennedy station platform and there was a peevish toss of the backpack. But if you’ve seen just a flash of the intensity Adham Fisher brings to a subway challenge, you too would have expected more.

Misled by a malfunctioning electronic sign, Fisher and I boarded a train on the north side of the island platform, only to hear door-closing chimes from the other side. The resulting four-minute delay killed any hope of breaking his day-old record for visiting all 69 of Toronto’s rapid transit stations — two hours, 46 minutes and one second.

Fisher appeared inconsolable and I kept silent, like I do when a ball shanked into a pond ruins a round for a golfing buddy. But 10 minutes and five stations later, the Leicester native was apologetic and back to poking fun at himself.

Adham Fisher takes lots of notes and pictures on his subway challenges.

“Most people would rightfully consider me absurd for losing my temper,” says Fisher, 27, who has garnered media attention with attempts to set records for speed-riding the subway systems of New York, London, Paris, Madrid, Chicago and Toronto. “I’ve been known to stew for days over a mistake like that.”

Others might consider Fisher’s interests and his subway obsession absurd altogether.  Among the places he wants to visit most in Canada is something called “the quadripoint“, where the borders of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Nunavut and the Northwest Territories meet. Fisher, who makes his living arranging European camping trips for Formula 1 auto racing fans, says he has no interest in sports. He also says doesn’t read much, though he is involved in a music project and had hoped to have a forthcoming album out in time for his North American trip.
But odd or not, here’s a good man who has not only found what he likes to do, he does it. And as long as he can run between trains without crashing into people, he won’t be doing anyone any harm. Having spent a few hours talking with him, I can say he seems worthy of the goodwill this city has shown.
Only the “Tube Challenge” in London and the “Subway Challenge” in New York are recognized by Guinness World Records, but that doesn’t diminish Fisher’s commitment to setting the standard for Toronto’s relatively puny system.
Planning a challenge attempt involves research on the layouts of stations where he’ll switch vehicles. He keeps detailed notes telling him which doors to exit so he can be closest to the stairs. He needs to know the schedules of connecting services and, on this day, a key variable will be the bus options for getting from Don Mills station to the Scarborough Town Centre.
Before setting out, he takes a pee. “I don’t drink coffee and I can get by without much fluids,” he says at Downsview staion, before we ride all the way round to Finch.
En route, he must shoot pictures of every station and record to the second when the doors close at each. He also needs witness statements, one of which was provided by Celia Foster in the long tunnel between Eglinton West and St. Clair West.
“There are strict rules and regulations,” he says.
At Don Mills station, Fisher is concerned by the amount of time lost waiting for a 190 Rocket bus that will take us to Scarborough Town Centre. But he has a plan to buy time once we get to STC and runs like madman to McCowan station rather than go upstairs with me for an eastbound RT.
“I missed by about five seconds,” Fisher says, when my train pulls in and finds him waiting on the platform. If he’d caught that RT, there’s a good chance he’d have been three subway trains earlier and might not have made the fateful blunder at Kennedy.
“There was a knock-on effect with the wait for a bus at Don Mills,” he says, estimating that cost eight minutes. “If I’d made it at McCowan, I would have been in good shape. That’s probably where I lost it, not at Kennedy.”
In the end, at Kipling, we stepped onto the platform 11 minutes and 31 seconds off the pace, but still under three hours. Compare that with the nearly 23-hour commitment needed to conquer the Big Apple’s system.
But this would be Fisher’s last shot at the TTC for now. He’s off to subway-free Winnipeg to visit a friend before going to Chicago in hopes of reclaiming his mark for the CTA system.
Over candy bars at Kipling, he says he has been emailing with the people who broke his Chicago record. “I’m hoping we can have a shindig when I get there,” he adds.
Then we take a leisurely ride back through town, and more Torontonians, including TTC employees, continue to smile and point or come up and introduce themselves and wish good luck to this minor celebrity, who was front page of the previous day’s Metro and on Global TV’s morning show.
“I’m quite overwhelmed by the reception here in Toronto,” says Fisher, who professes not to be disappointed by the TTC’s subway. “Yes, the system does seem quite small for a city this size, but I’m just glad you have one.”

Us, too. And we’re glad you took to the time to visit.

TTC employees John Taylor and Steve Wilson were among those who greeted Adham Fisher and wished him luck on his subway challenge.

Transit leadership crisis merely a symptom of much deeper woes

Gary Webster, left, talks with interim successor Andy Byford before the special TTC meeting that led to the switch. Even if bad things happened under Webster, his dismissal without just cause was a mistake, damaging Toronto's reputation as a place for good transit people to work.

Nearly everything about the way the TTC is structured and governed must change if good advice, wise planning and quality transit at a reasonable price are to be priorities. Otherwise, Andy Byford will go the way of his predecessors.

Good luck Andy Byford!

Next to crime and trauma scene cleanup specialist, leading the Toronto Transit Commission is the worst job in your new home city.

The fact that your three most recent predecessors were forced out by politicians barely scratches the surface of what’s wrong with this gig. If you are the man for the job and if you dig deep, you’re sure to conclude that starting points must be a new relationship with elected officials, a new corporate culture and a total restructuring, including a spun-off entity that fosters commercial integration of transit and land-use.

Customer service panels, town halls and the addition of citizen commissioners can only diddle with the symptoms of a decades-long decline.

Yes, it was petty and counterproductive for those five commissioners to axe Gary Webster, but you’re surely smart enough to see through the political posturing, even if many seemingly intelligent Torontonians swallowed whole. You must have seen similar backstabbing and disingenuousness while working in Australia and the U.K.

TTC managers have been pressured to tailor advice for political purposes going back at least to the 1970s, when we somehow chose to maroon stations of the Spadina subway in the median of an expressway.

Good but powerless experts foresaw woes of the Scarborough RT well before it was built. And those who felt in 1989 that we should cut our losses and scrap that line were effectively silenced.

Pressure to manufacture a case for the Sheppard subway and play down the urgency of a long-proposed line through the downtown core, beginning 30 years ago, will cast a shadow over many debates you’ll have to lead.

In fact, there’s a good case to be made that all pending plans for Eglinton, Sheppard, Finch or a northerly extension of the Yonge subway are trouble if the so-called Downtown Relief Line can’t jump the queue. (Little-known fact: tiny, cramped Yonge-Bloor station sees more daily passenger movements than Pearson airport and Union Station combined).

Of course, politics also played a big role in the rush to create the Transit City plan in March 2007, and to sell it to the public ever since. There are people still shaking their heads over a decision by one TTC manager to attend and appear prominently at the launch of Adam Giambrone’s brief run for the mayoralty.

The latest census shows Toronto has 2.615 million transportation experts. But, while many realize transit is a problem of organized complexity, most seem to prefer simplistic debate — black or white, left or right, subway or light rail. This suits our ideologically riven council members who want us to shut off our brains and pick sides. It’s also essential to mainstream media, which increasingly cater only to those with short attention spans.

But it doesn’t help anybody make wise decisions.

Compounding the mess, Andy, is that Toronto wasn’t big when the car became king. The pre-amalgamated cities of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough have about half the density of old inner Toronto, and the gap isn’t closing. Those outer areas were designed for cars and drivers, but are now populated by people who need transit. Alas, the built form makes quality cost-efficient service delivery tough.

Our long-standing assumption that pushing subways into suburbs would automatically drive urbanization turned out to be bunk. However, attempts to get the TTC to seriously consider how to adapt and adopt creative funding models and aggressive value-capture tools, like those used in the Far East, have been met with disinterest at best (while still a city councillor in 2003, David Miller got the TTC to agree to report on transit development corporation models like the one in Hong Kong, but despite repeated requests over years, the TTC has been unable to produce evidence that it did any work on the project).

Even the mayor’s office, which purports to favour private-sector involvement, had the most interesting parts of Gordon Chong’s report on subway financing chopped before publication (make sure your copy is an early uncorrected proof containing Chapter 7, “Other Value Capture: Revenue Generation Options”).

If we truly believe transit spending is an investment, returns on the investment have to start becoming a priority. If we do that, it forces intelligent debate on the real relative costs of subways and light rail. We’re likely to still conclude LRT is the way to go in many cases, but the debate will have been honest.

Sorry if you probably know all this, but talk with your vice-chair, Peter Milczyn; he seems increasingly attuned to the possibilities and the shortcomings of our previous model.

Make sure you thank your predecessor for eventually standing up and opposing the loony idea of burying light rail under Eglinton East, but you might ask him where was he on the possibly-as-wasteful design and funding models for the ongoing Spadina-York subway extension. Deep-bore tunnels through low- and no-density areas and grandiose standalone stations make this project far more costly than it needed to be up front, while hindering the long-term development processes that can help it pay back.

Yes, some bad things happened under Webster, but overall he was just the latest fall guy for a dysfunctional organization.

For years, one of Toronto’s most revered and entertaining transit experts has been saying, off the record and only partly in gest: “The fastest way to find yourself unemployed in this town is to speak the truth.”

Some part of that wisdom will always be true.

You’ll have to choose your battles, even in your interim role. But unless you get extremely wise help to start radically altering the rules of the game, you’re guaranteed to lose – as is Toronto, again.

Rapid transit? Not on Spadina

Soon-to-be passengers wait as a red light holds up a northbound 510 streetcar at Dundas. Service is slow on this "rapid transit" route because streetcars regularly have to stop twice at intersections, once for the light and once for the passenger platform.

This story first appeared May 7, 2005, in The Globe and Mail. I got threatening and unpleasant phone calls in the weeks that followed because the St. Clair ROW debate was at fever pitch when the story ran. The TTC, which stonewalled on documentation and interview requests, complained, though they could find nothing inaccurate. Luckily I worked for a great editor. Left out of the story was a reference to a 14-week survey of Bloor-to-Front travel times in which the 511 Bathurst proved to be, on average, 191 seconds faster. A few months later, the TTC reprinted its maps to show this route as “streetcar rapid transit.” The only things I would change in hindsight would be to make clear that Augusta is about 90 seconds closer to Spadina than Bathurst, and I’d provide a detailed explanation of how misleading the claims are that Spadina ridership soared. I stand by every word.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Arja Chopra has given up on the Spadina streetcar, just as the Toronto Transit Commission appears set to fully embrace similar dedicated-lane routes across the city.

Bathurst is faster, and it’s much more pleasant than Spadina,” says Ms. Chopra, who operates Sugar & Spice, a health-food store in Kensington Market, part way between the two streetcar lines. “I tried [Bathurst] because I didn’t like the crowds at Spadina station. Then I found it saved me a few minutes each morning.

“He didn’t believe me,” she says, smiling and pointing to husband and business partner Dave Chopra.

“It’s true,” says Mr. Chopra, who adds that he always urged his wife to take Spadina, figuring that the street’s dedicated transit lanes had to make the trip faster. Now he’s convinced they don’t, but he’s puzzled by one thing: “How can there be such a secret? Everybody still thinks Spadina is better.”

Maybe not everybody, but rare are the people who question whether the 510 Spadina route has really been the better way since it replaced the No. 77 bus almost eight years ago, at a cost of $140-million. As Toronto considers constructing Spadina-like rights of way as part of a $600-million citywide “surface rapid transit” network that could see dedicated lanes along Eglinton and Lawrence Avenues and on Don Mills and Kingston Roads, the question is critical. And the answer might surprise.

In January, shortly after the Toronto Transit Commission released a report calling for transit rights of way on these arterial roads, The Globe and Mail tried to assess the effectiveness of the Spadina line. Shown the results, opponents of the proposed right of way on St. Clair Avenue West say they now wish they’d asked more questions about the Spadina route during debates about the St. Clair plan. And a transit expert thinks the findings could place the $65-million St. Clair project in jeopardy.

We found that:

Instead of living up to pre-construction reports that streetcars on dedicated lanes would cut travel time from Bloor Street to Queen’s Quay by 5 minutes — the environmental assessment boasted of up to 10 minutes in savings — the 510 appears to take longer than the buses that plied the route from 1948 to 1997. A TTC document obtained last month says the trip takes one minute longer in the afternoon rush hour than in 1990. Data on historical and current transfers indicate a 17-minute bus trip in 1993 now takes 19 minutes by streetcar.

The 510 may be the slowest of all routes between the Bloor-Danforth and Queen Street. Travel times on TTC transfers put Bloor-to-Queen trips at 12 minutes on Spadina, 8 minutes on Bathurst and 10 minutes on other routes.

The TTC says ridership on Spadina is up 30 per cent since 1997, the year the line opened. But when compared with 1992, the last year before construction tore up the street and cut into ridership, Spadina appears to be down 1.5 per cent, while overall TTC ridership is up about 3.4 per cent.

TTC cost-to-revenue ratio lists show the Spadina and Harbourfront lines (now considered one for accounting purposes) have plunged to 35th-best among the TTC’s 132 surface routes. In 1997, they were No. 1 and No. 9, respectively, with the Spadina bus one of only seven routes turning a profit.

The only finding that Mitch Stambler, the TTC’s manager of service planning, strongly disputes is the question of whether the streetcars are slower than the old buses, although the numbers we’ve used came from the TTC.

But he says that speed isn’t the primary goal of the new dedicated lanes. “We have emphasized over and over again that on Spadina or St. Clair or any other route where we’re looking to establish a right of way, it’s not an issue of speed,” he says. “Service reliability and regularity matter first and foremost.”

Still, he says, the TTC is working to speed up service through gradual changes that include increasing capacity by coupling streetcars and acquiring new cars that accommodate more passengers, as well as providing more locations where operators can manipulate traffic lights.

Ridership on all routes is subject to “many, many macroeconomic factors,” he says, arguing that “apples-to-apples” comparisons aren’t always possible. And besides, he adds, the streetcar lines have benefits that extend beyond passenger numbers. “We’ve never argued that streetcars don’t cost more to operate than buses,” he says, pointing out that they’re still a bargain compared with subways, which cost about 10 times as much to build. “But all the benefits they bring — a smooth, quiet ride; zero emissions; economic development — are well known.”

While Mr. Stambler doesn’t sound worried about our findings, people from both sides of the St. Clair debate had a stronger reaction. “Good God! This is unbelievable,” said Ed Levy, an internationally respected transportation planner and engineer who made a deputation to City Council in favour of the St. Clair plan last year.

“I supported light rail then, and I still do,” Mr. Levy of BA Group says. “But you have to do it properly.”

One concern he cites is the built-in delays caused by the positioning of passenger platforms, which should be placed before traffic lights, he says, but instead were put in after them to accommodate left-turn lanes for cars. “We’re forcing [streetcars] to wait at lights before they can pick up and drop off passengers on the far side of the intersections. It’s a mistake, and it looks like they plan to do the same thing on St. Clair.

“All this other stuff [Spadina travel times, ridership and economics] should have been part of the debate,” Mr. Levy says. Now, he says he fears the provincial Ministry of the Environment will call for a full environmental assessment rather than continue to fast-track the process. “They want to start construction this summer, and a full EA will probably kill [the plan] altogether.”

Of course, if the city and TTC’s ideas for St. Clair die, it would please Save Our St. Clair leader Margaret Smith, who says “the so-called Spadina experience and all its wonderful successes were used to sell the project every step of the way.”

She and her group believe advocates oversold potential time savings on St. Clair and ridership-growth figures on Spadina, and says she’s upset that the TTC and the city didn’t mention the streetcar line’s drawbacks in more than 50 public meetings about St. Clair.

“It doesn’t surprise me, but the fact this information is only coming out now is just further proof that the whole process stunk,” she says.

Mr. Stambler defends the TTC’s push for dedicated lanes, however, saying that the round-trip time from Spadina station has actually improved. “That’s a fact I’ll do a bit of digging on,” he says.”The fact that [Spadina] revenue over cost looks worse is: A, no secret; B, we’ve never hid it; C, we’re not embarrassed; and D, it represents an investment in the health of the city and the whole TTC, and that’s a decision council made.”

Mr. Stambler points out as well that the Spadina route became more costly because it went from bus to streetcar, but that this won’t be a factor on St. Clair.

Two others who had roles on opposite sides of the St. Clair debate didn’t sound at all surprised that Spadina doesn’t appear to have lived up to its hype. Richard Gilbert, research director for the Centre for Sustainable Transportation and a former city councillor, opposed St. Clair partly because he feels we haven’t learned from mistakes on Spadina.

“They may have built dedicated lanes for streetcars, but the intersections were designed for cars,” he says. “The St. Clair plan will do much the same thing, and it will only add to the litany of misapplied capital spending the TTC has given us in the past 30 years.”

Greg Gormick, who wrote a report called The Streetcar Renaissance for the TTC and the St. Clair EA process, says if we want any of these lines to really work, we have to make hard decisions.

“We have to decide whether we’re doing light rapid transit or streetcars. Both are good concepts, but Spadina is neither fish nor fowl — too many stops, too many concessions to cars. It’s the worst of both worlds and … unless we give transit real priority, we’ll repeat the mistakes, starting with St. Clair.”

And back at the health-food store in Kensington Market, Arja Chopra has a decision to make, too.

“They’re going to tear up the tracks on Bathurst this summer. I’ll probably use the replacement bus. We’ll see how it goes.”

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.