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.

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

  1. Rod says:

    The bullets in the projection figure actually suggest the Scarborough extension is good policy. But of course every “transit expert” interprets it a particular way, I wonder where they all happen to live. Does the ~7000/hour riders at Kennedy during peak walk/bike/fly/teleport to their homes throughout the largest borough of Toronto by surface area? This is the neglected point: Scarborough is massive physically and yet is the 3rd largest borough by population, just shy of North York and Old Toronto. So yes, on average Scarborough is less dense than the others. Which is to say Scarborough has the most room to grow. So anyone should be very skeptical of these strong “projections” which are doled out at face value with little or no analysis provided to back them up, at least to the general viewing public. They fly in the face of the other facts we read about daily, like the affordable housing shortages and ridiculous real estate prices.

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