Politics Toronto Transit

The Truth About SmartTrack


This article originally appeared on June 27, 2016 in Torontoist

In 2014, then-mayoral candidate John Tory ran on a campaign of sound fiscal management, returning decorum to City Hall, and a curious new transit plan called SmartTrack, which promised “London-style” rapid transit from Mississauga to Markham. During the election campaign Tory claimed that the new rail service—53 kilometres long, costing $8 billion—would provide needed transit relief in just seven years, all on a TTC fare.

During campaign speeches, Tory called the plan “bold.” He also promised to build the Rob Ford-backed subway extension to Scarborough Centre, rather than return to the cheaper, funded light rail alternative that candidates Olivia Chow and David Soknacki were backing.

Of course, Tory won the election, and many Torontonians were looking forward to an era of competent governance, if not visionary leadership. But two years in, the costs of the Scarborough subway keep mounting, even if the number of stations kept shrinking (from three stations to one stop), and the scope of John Tory’s “bold” SmartTrack plan kept getting watered down.

With the recent provincial and municipal transit announcements on new GO Station locations, it’s now official: SmartTrack is nothing more than a brand name for transit projects that were already in the works. And the City of Toronto is stuck with some of the construction costs that would have been borne by the province.

Mayor Tory and the provincial government held two separate transit announcements this week: one in Liberty Village, the other at the former Unilever lands that First Gulf is looking to redevelop as a major office and commercial centre. While Tory has been bullish about promoting First Gulf’s development, the East Gardiner replacement, SmartTrack Station, and even a Relief Line subway stop—projects he championed—will all serve this particular property.

Those announcements coincide with a Metrolinx report [PDF] that recommends 12 new GO Transit stations: Breslau, St. Clair, and Liberty Village on the Kitchener Line; Innisfil, Mulock, Kirby, Davenport-Bloor, and Spadina on the Barrie Line; East Harbour (Unilever), Gerrard, Lawrence East, and Finch East on the Lakeshore East and Stouffville lines. Stations at Mount Dennis, Downsview Park, and Caledonia were already approved and will connect to the subway and Crosstown LRT. Seven of those stations—from Mount Dennis to Unionville—are along the SmartTrack corridor. Spadina Station, part of Tory’s SmartTrack map, will only be served by Barrie corridor trains.

From the start, SmartTrack was a fantasy built on assumptions; the line was an idea conceived by a little-known organization called Strategic Regional Research Alliance. SRRA authored a report, “The Business Case for the Regional Rail Line,” discussing the potential of a 2009 concept for connecting suburban office parks with Downtown Toronto with rapid transit. That report became the basis for SmartTrack.

Meanwhile, Metrolinx—the provincial transportation authority for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area—was involved in studying plans for converting much of its existing GO Transit rail network from a commuter rail system to an electrified, regional rail network known as Regional Express Rail. RER and SmartTrack (as well as VIA Rail and UP Express trains) would be sharing the same corridors.

Since the election, the truth about SmartTrack has become clear. Previous plans for SmartTrack were simplistic, with maps created using out-of-date Google Maps imagery that ignored the fact that lands owned by the City of Toronto along Eglinton Avenue in Etobicoke—reserved for an unbuilt freeway—were largely sold off and redeveloped. There were serious engineering and financial complications of building the connection between the existing GO line at Mount Dennis and the Eglinton spur. The plan to use tax increment financing (TIFs) to build SmartTrack remains dubious. The Eglinton spur was removed, replaced by the revival of the approved yet unfunded western section of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. Tory surrounded himself with experts, including a prominent University of Toronto transportation professor who gave the plan an “A+.” Critics who pointed out these flaws were ignored or insulted. There are few excuses that Tory can make for this failure.

With the latest announcements, it is clear that SmartTrack has become nothing more than a moniker for an existing GO Transit RER. Rush-hour train frequencies will likely be every eight to 10 minutes; off peak, trains will arrive every 15 minutes (the TTC subway never operates at less than six-minute frequencies). We do not know what fares will be charged on GO RER/SmartTrack as Metrolinx continues to study regional fare integration. And it is very unlikely that we will be seeing frequent, electric trains offering relief by 2021.

As the Globe and Mail‘s Marcus Gee points out, the City will now be expected to pick up much of the construction tab—similar to how the municipal government is stuck with cost overruns on the Scarborough subway extension after it rejected a provincially funded seven-stop light rail line to replace the ageing RT line.

At best, SmartTrack represents the City of Toronto’s buy-in to GO RER, a worthwhile project to provide better rail service to suburban Toronto and the 905. There’s room to negotiate at least some fare integration between GO and the TTC. But at worst, SmartTrack is a failure to deliver on a key election promise, as flawed as it is. But in order for the Mayor to save face, the SmartTrack brand will likely never go away.

Politics Toronto Transit

What do I know? I’m just a downtown elitist


I once described Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong as the city official that “knew the cost of everything and the value of nothing.” In 2014, Minnan-Wong complained about the costs of building new washrooms at the soccer fields at Cherry Beach, holding up a sign that simply said “$600,000.” That photo of Minnan-Wong, scowling for the cameras, trying to generate some outrage in an election year, was meme gold and so was parodied in the #TOpoli Twittersphere.

At $600,000, yes the washrooms were expensive. But as they were built in an isolated part of the Portlands, they required a new connection to the nearest watermain; a sewage tank had to be constructed as well, being so far from existing lines. The city has a mandate to provide quality parks and recreational facilities. Minnan-Wong, along with the Fords, also complained about the costs of umbrellas at Sugar Beach, a popular new waterfront park.

In 2016, under Mayor John Tory’s administration, we have a City that doesn’t know the cost of some things (like the Scarborough Subway) nor does it know the value of other, smaller things, like the Toronto sign.

The Toronto sign, placed on Nathan Phillips Square ahead of last year’s Pan Am Games proved to be incredibly popular with residents and tourists alike. The LED backlighting allows the sign to be coloured at night to mark any holiday or any important current or special event. The $100,000 climbable sign (reminiscent of the successful “I amsterdam” signs) was supposed to be temporary, and will have to be replaced within three years. A staff report estimate the cost of major repairs to the existing sign, and a new mobile sign, would cost $421,700 over two years. This would be money well spent.

But some councillors, including Etobicoke’s Stephen Holyday and Scarborough’s Raymond Cho, would rather privatize the sign, perhaps selling it off. At least Councillor David Shiner, a fiscal conservative, called it “a potent symbol of Toronto pride and unity” after amalgamation, but even he questioned the need for paying for city staff to maintain the sign. A strong argument could be made that the costs to maintain the sign should come from Tourism Toronto and the local tourism industry, but calls from some quarters to sell it off are ridiculous.

Last Friday, we learned that the estimated cost of building the one-stop, six kilometre subway extension to Scarborough Centre jumped from $2.0 billion to $2.9 billion. But unlike cycling infrastructure or fully funding an effective Vision Zero program to protect vulnerable road users, the mayor, key council allies, and provincial MPPs remain hell-bent on building it.

Scarborough Centre MPP Brad Duguid, a powerful cabinet minister in the provincial Liberal government, quoted in the Toronto Sun, said that critics of the subway plan “…have been yapping away on this project from Day 1 and the vast majority of those critics come from fairly elitist downtown views of the city. People in Scarborough and the suburbs of Toronto count as well.” Duguid claimed that “the area surrounding the new [Scarborough Centre] station is growing fast.” Never mind that population and employment densities are not very high along the subway route, even in Scarborough Centre, and no major commercial development has come to central Scarborough since the 1990s.

On Metro Morning, Duguid, a former city councillor who endorsed John Tory’s mayoral bids in 2003 and 2014, doubled down on his previous rhetoric. He repeated false claims about Scarborough Centre’s growth, claimed Scarborough residents have paid for downtown subway expansions, he even stated that the Scarborough Subway “transcends politics” (which earned a guffaw from host Matt Galloway).

I live downtown, and I don’t use the subway; like many who live here, I walk to work. Many others cycle, or take overcrowded streetcars on King and Queen Streets. The Yonge Subway is overcrowded from commuters from outside the downtown core. Most downtowners wouldn’t directly benefit from a Relief Line either, but it’s an essential part of the network. The last subway built in Downtown Toronto was in 1966. I’m hardly an “elitist” either; I rent my apartment. I don’t enjoy many luxuries, and I certainly don’t hold a position of power or influence. I simply want the best transit for the best price; the Scarborough LRT, along with GO Transit RER and the Eglinton-Crosstown and Scarborough-Malvern light rail corridors represent the right investment for the eastern half of Toronto.

We’re content to keep up an underused section of the Gardiner at greater expense than an urban boulevard, at the cost of lost development opportunities on the eastern waterfront. We’re committed to a $2.9 billion, 6 kilometre one-stop extension when a 10 kilometre, 6-stop LRT would cost $1.8 billion, funded entirely by the province. But we’ll complain about umbrellas and washrooms, budget too little for road safety plans, and question the costs of maintaining a popular sign at City Hall. I love this city, but sometimes Toronto still gets me down.

Brampton Transit Urban Planning

Shortsighted short-turns at Bramalea GO

IMG_2321-001Bramalea GO Station

Earlier this week, I took a train from Union Station to Bramalea, as I was preparing for a walk that I will hosting on Sunday exploring Canada’s first satellite city.

Bramalea Station opened in 1973 when the Georgetown GO train service — GO Transit’s second commuter rail line — was inaugurated. The station is located at the southwest corner of Steeles Avenue and Bramalea Road, surrounded by factories, warehouses and busy roads and highways.

There’s little to fault GO Transit for locating its station where it is. In 1973, GO was still in its infancy, launching its first rail services along the Lakeshore Line in 1967. It wasn’t anything more than a commuter rail service, offering downtown-bound commuters an alternative to driving all the way in; free and ample parking was part of that successful model. In 1967, GO Transit was created to reduce the need to upgrade provincial highways; it allowed Downtown Toronto to become a bustling global financial centre without needing huge parking lots and garages and more freeways feeding into it; .

The GO station is located in Bramalea’s south end, next to the CN mainline, surrounded by land designated for industrial development since 1959, when work began on that new suburb. The station is located near a waste-to-energy plant (an incinerator), and is located under Pearson Airport’s flight paths. Since GO insists on providing free parking to its customers, Bramalea (unlike, say, Downtown Brampton) isn’t a bad place to put lots of parking spots; in total, Bramalea has 2,377 parking spots. And since Bramalea Station is adjacent to Highway 407, it’s a major transfer point for GO bus routes to York University, Hamilton, Guelph and Kitchener.

But like too many GO stations, Bramalea is needlessly hostile to pedestrians and cyclists, and is even hostile for many local transit users. As Metrolinx, the agency responsible for GO Transit, pursues Regional Express Rail (RER), it has a responsibility to improve Bramalea Station. As it exists right now, Bramalea is a terrible transit terminal.

Election Politics Toronto

Exploring the downtown federal election races: Part III

Last year, I posted maps showing how each poll voted in the 2011 and 2013/2014 by-elections in two key Downtown Toronto federal constituencies: Trinity-Spadina, and Toronto Centre. I also provided some thoughts about the races and the candidates. Now, over six months since the October 2015 election, I took some time to look at what happened.

(Elections Canada was also slow to release poll-by-poll data; in comparison, the City of Toronto was very fast — I was making poll-by-poll maps of ward races weeks after the 2014 election.)

In the 2015 federal election, these two ridings were split into three: University-Rosedale, Spadina-Fort York, and a much smaller Toronto Centre. In 2015, all three ridings were ones to watch; all three had high profile Liberal and New Democratic candidates vying to a seat in Parliament. 

Toronto Transit

A good, a bad, and an ugly week for Toronto transit

There was some good transit news for Torontonians today, as the provincial government announced $150 million in funding for detailed study and engineering for the planned Relief Line subway. The preferred route and station locations for the first phase of the new subway line was also released this week, with eight stops from Pape to Osgoode Stations.

Happily, the Relief Line, an idea that’s over one hundred years old, Toronto’s answer to New York’s Second Avenue Subway, is closer to being built than ever before. As Steve Munro reports, the study will focus initially on the portion from Pape to downtown, but will shift to the northern and western extensions.

But there were also some ugly truths concerning that other subway project, the proposed one-stop extension of Subway Line 2 to Scarborough Centre. Last week, homeowners in the Ellesmere/McCowan neighbourhood received notices of possible expropriation, ahead of a public information session in which the preferred alignment of the one-stop subway was revealed. I can understand the residents’ anger; major projects will always be disruptive to some properties and some families and businesses are sometimes forced to re-locate. There’s an argument to be made that subway backers don’t realize the extent of the disruption that even bored-tunnel subways can cause. Stations have to be dug, utilities have to be moved, buildings demolished, and roads closed.

But most importantly, the Scarborough subway extension remains a bad policy.

Fullscreen capture 01062016 72046 PM
2031 ridership projections for terminal subway stations

In 2031, the projected ridership between Scarborough Centre and Kennedy Station will be 31,000 a day, or 7,200 in the AM Peak. This is lower than previous estimates; a 2013 study estimated the AM peak ridership for the subway extension to be between 9,500 and 14,000. The reduction by nearly half is because the 2013 plan had three stations — at Lawrence, at Scarborough Centre, and at Sheppard — but the new plan has only one station. Passengers on the 54 Lawrence East bus and on the Sheppard corridor would either be gerrymandered to the SmartTrack line, or forced to transfer to get to the subway at Kennedy or Scarborough Centre. $2 billion will be spent for this one-stop extension, while the Islington to Kipling section of Line 1, opened in 1980, cost a small fraction of that amount, even in 2016 dollars.

On one hand, 7,200 is a respectable peak hour ridership between the two final stations on a long subway line, and subway trains shouldn’t be full at this part of any route. The ridership between Islington and Kipling stations on the other end of Line 2 will be 1,200 less during the same time. Fed by multiple bus routes, Scarborough Centre will be a busy station, one of the top ten for train boardings, if not the top five, in the TTC system.

But in order to justify John Tory’s SmartTrack, a useful station at Lawrence and McCowan is being dispensed with. Planners, working under the direction council and the mayor’s office, euphemistically call it an “express subway.”

Scarborough - 2015Scarborough transit plan, 2015

Scarborough - 2016Scarborough transit plan, 2016

Previous proposals, backed by former mayor David Miller and 2014 candidates Olivia Chow and David Soknacki, would have seen a light rail line replace the failing Scarborough RT route; the province even promised to cover the capital costs of the retrofit and extension to Centennial College and Sheppard Avenue. In 2011, in a report published by the Pembina Institute, the AM peak ridership of the LRT line between Kennedy and Sheppard was estimated to be 6,400 in 2031, far below the design capacity of a subway extension. An LRT line, with seven stops and many more surface transit connections, would directly serve many more passengers than a one-stop subway.

Under the failed mayoralty of Rob Ford, the province agreed to build a subway instead, but the city was required to pay up. A property tax levy of 1.6% is currently collected to help pay the city’s share.

The LRT ship has probably sailed. But thanks to two weak mayors, myopic councillors eager to show they’re fighting for their little fiefdoms, and an obliging provincial government determined not to lose seats in the next election, we’re stuck. At least we’re making progress on the Relief Line.

Meanwhile, John Tory continues — inadvertently or not — to sow the seeds of confusion over what SmartTrack is all about. After the Downtown Relief Line funding announcement, the mayor put out this tweet:

This is incorrect. The work on the GO Stouffville Line (not the “Unionville Line”) is a project undertaken by Metrolinx that will allow for two-way service on the existing GO corridor, work that started in 2015. Apart from the SRRA report written before John Tory ran for mayor in 2014, and some initial studies by the City of Toronto and Metrolinx, no work has been carried out on the still-vague proposal.

Council’s stubborn support of the Scarborough Subway and Tory’s continued SmartTrack fantasies is are just a few reasons why it’s so easy to be frustrated with municipal politics.