Ontario Toronto Transit

Disappearing GO-TTC fare discount a major blow to regional transit in Toronto


Updated January 22, 2020

The TTC-GO fare discount will officially come to an end on Tuesday March 31, 2020, with the TTC and Metrolinx unable to come to agreement to keep the fare subsidy going without provincial support.

As I argue below, this is a major blow to any hopes for an integrated regional transit system throughout the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Subsidized transfers reduce the need to build expensive parking lots and garages, encourage more passengers to ride transit, especially in off-peak periods, and reduce the potential of major GO Transit expansion projects planned or underway.

Originally published July 12, 2019:

Earlier this week, transit riders learned that the fare discount for connecting between GO Transit and the TTC would soon come to an end.

The provincial Liberal government introduced the discounted double fare in 2017. It reduced the cost of a trip taken on both GO and TTC by $1.50 if the fare was paid on a Presto fare card. For many years, there were discounted transfers between GO and suburban transit agencies, but this was the first time such a discount was offered to TTC passengers.

The Liberals also planned discounts for transferring between suburban bus systems such as York Region Transit and Miway, subsidies that would have been covered by the provincial carbon pricing scheme. This would have reduced the impact of another fare barrier. (A short bus trip across Steeles Avenue costs nearly $7.)

When the Doug Ford-led Progressive Conservative government was elected, the provincial climate change plan was scrapped, along with those planned fare changes. Now, the province will not renew the $18.5 million annual subsidy for linked GO-TTC fares, though it did introduce free fares for children on GO Transit.

This will especially affect commuters to York University, who previously enjoyed a one-seat ride to the heart of the campus on YRT and GO buses. When the subway extension opened, YRT retreated to terminals north of Steeles Avenue, forcing a transfer to the subway or a long walk across six lanes of traffic and campus parking lots. GO Transit, too, moved to a new terminal at Highway 407, two subway stops from campus. While GO commuters at least saved $3.00 a day with the discounted double fare, YRT commuters got nothing. (Of all the suburban agencies, only Brampton Transit continues to serve the campus.)

This is also a blow to what’s left of SmartTrack, Mayor John Tory’s signature transit plan that was once pitched as “London-style surface rail.” At first, SmartTrack was a 53-kilometre heavy-rail line, mostly piggybacking on existing GO Transit corridors, but including a problematic western branch to the Airport Corporate Centre in Mississauga, all on an integrated TTC fare. Eventually SmartTrack just consisted of more frequent, electric GO service, along with additional station stops and fare integration. This was much more realistic, but it distracted from other needs such as the Relief Line and GO’s own RER regional rail plan.

Lower GO fares for short trips and the TTC-GO fare discount were all part of this scaled-back version; as late as last year, Tory called additional fare integration a “critical component” of his pitch. Eliminating the fare discounts is yet another blow to SmartTrack.

As Jonathan English points out in Urban Toronto, the GO rail network represents “tremendous infrastructure that could greatly improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of Torontonians.” But it lies “letting it lie mostly dormant because we won’t make the comparatively small operating funding investments required to improve the service and make the fares fair.”

The $18.5 million annual cost is a small price to pay for improving transit accessibility and utilization of our existing corridors. Increasing that annual subsidy to reduce the cost of transfers between the TTC , York Region, Brampton, and Mississauga would, too be a worthwhile investment.

Sadly, the current provincial government does not see the value in promoting fairer fare systems, nor regional transit in general. In response to budget cuts, Metrolinx reduced or eliminated service on five GO bus routes last month, and more may be to come. While there may be enthusiasm for building a new “Ontario Line” and a subway extension to Richmond Hill, there’s little regard for the actual transit rider.

Infrastructure Politics Toronto Transit

A “fantastic bonanza:” another transit plan up in smoke?


On the CBC radio program Metro Morning on March 28, Toronto Mayor John Tory spoke about his concerns regarding Premier Doug Ford’s plans to upload the city’s subway system, as well as Ford’s intentions to build new subway extensions to Richmond Hill and Scarborough Centre, bury the Eglinton West LRT, and start the long-planned Relief Line. Instead of a conventional subway, the Relief Line envisioned by the province would use a “new technology,” despite planning and engineering underway for a subway, using an existing subway yard for Relief Line train storage.

But Tory, who has been passive so far about the province’s plans, was hopeful that the unspecified new technology proposed for the Relief Line would be a “fantastic bonanza” for Toronto, but he added that he didn’t know for sure what would come of the new plan.

It is curious that Tory called this hostile takeover a “fantastic bonanza.” Bonanza was a long-running Western television show, starring Lorne Greene as the patriarch of the Cartwright family, owners of a vast ranch on Lake Tahoe. Bonanza was famous for its theme music and opening credits, which featured a burning map of the Cartwrights’ Ponderosa ranch before introducing the cast.

Opening theme for Bonanza

Bonanza’s burning map is a great metaphor for Toronto’s transit planning. Newly elected mayors and premiers burn the maps left behind by their predecessors, and time is wasted on new feasibility studies and engineering reports, ready just in time for someone else to get elected with yet another idea. Plans come and go, but hardly anything ever gets built.

There’s plenty of blame to go around. After a prolonged spurt of subway construction in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, momentum was lost. In the 1980s, Bill Davis’ Progressive Conservatives insisted on a novel linear-induction rail system for Scarborough, rather than the light rail project already underway. The Liberals, under David Peterson, proposed several subway lines, though it was scaled back under NDP Premier Bob Rae. In 1994, work started on the first phases of the Eglinton and Sheppard subways. When Mike Harris’ government was elected in 1995, they cancelled Eglinton, filling in a hole already dug for the tunnel boring machines.

There was new hope in 2003, when a new Liberal provincial government was elected, and David Miller, an urban progressive, became mayor of Toronto. While the province’s top priority was the extension of the Spadina Subway to York University and Vaughan, it was willing to help fund major improvements to GO Transit, along with new light rail systems in Ottawa, Kitchener-Waterloo, Hamilton, and Mississauga-Brampton. It also committed to Miller’s proposed Transit City LRT network, including a fully grade-separated replacement of the ageing Scarborough RT.

There were valid criticisms of Transit City — there were too many transfers to get around the top of the city, there was no Relief Line, and a few of the proposed lines, like parts of the Jane and Don Mills LRTs, were too difficult to build as surface rail projects. But because of Miller, the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT is well underway, and preliminary work continues on Finch Avenue West.

Work would have also started on the Scarborough RT replacement and expansion and the Sheppard East LRT, had Rob Ford not been elected in 2010, promising “subways, subways, subways” and burning the transit maps for which new projects were planned and being built. Seven funded LRT stops in Scarborough became three unfunded subway stops. Overestimating Rob Ford, and hoping to keep seats in Scarborough, the Liberal government folded to his demands, and work stopped on the LRT replacement.

Rob Ford’s disastrous term was followed by John Tory’s twin obsessions of SmartTrack and an austerity agenda, at a time when the Yonge and Bloor-Danforth subways were overwhelmed by demand caused by a growing population and a booming economy — hardly the conditions that demanded low spending on civic services and infrastructure and yet another half-baked transit plan.

smarttrack_fbSmartTrack map from the 2014 John Tory campaign

Tory promised that it would only take seven years to build SmartTrack, which would mostly use existing railway infrastructure, along with a new section of track in Etobicoke, on land already sold off for development. Tory’s insistence on SmartTrack further delayed momentum on the Relief Line. Though Tory remained committed to the Scarborough subway extension over the approved and funded LRT, it was reduced to a single stop as costs ballooned, while the subway and SmartTrack threatened to cannibalize each other. We don’t hear much about SmartTrack anymore, but at least Tory has come around on the Relief Line.

But Doug Ford’s latest musings make it clear why the planned subway upload is so dangerous.

19817903155_db9d9bb379_o.jpgCanada Line in Richmond, British Columbia

So what now for the Relief Line?

Despite the inevitable Simpsons monorail jokes (Doug Ford did promise a monorail on Toronto’s waterfront when he was a city councillor in 2011), the new technology the province is considering is likely an automated light metro line, similar to the Canada Line in Vancouver. The Canada Line links Vancouver’s city centre with the international airport and the suburb of Richmond. It was built as a private-public partnership (P3) project, in which a private company was contracted to design, build, and operate the line. It’s an attractive option for a conservative government: P3s promise to be cheaper to build and operate than a conventional public project.

But the Canada Line has problems. Though trains are frequent, it was built too small to accommodate growth. The outer terminals at Vancouver airport and Richmond-Brighouse are both single track/single platform. Station platforms are too short — only 40 metres long — to increase train sizes. And as many stations are underground, it’s too expensive to extending platforms to fit larger trains. Some relief is coming, but even then, the maximum capacity of the Canada line is 15,000 persons per direction per hour, far less than Vancouver’s SkyTrain lines or Toronto’s subway. If this is the route Toronto takes, it won’t be long before the Relief Line itself will need relief.

Once again, I fear that Toronto will continue to spin its wheels thanks to the Ford circus. And it’s a shame — though sadly not surprising — that Mayor Tory isn’t fighting back.

Infrastructure Transit

Some answered questions about Toronto’s next subway extension (updated)

36354175911_632dc72411_o.jpgYork University Station, August 2017

Updated October 10, 2017

Ten months ago, I wrote about some of the unanswered questions about the Toronto Transit Commission’s Line 1 subway extension to York University and Vaughan. At the time, I was concerned about fare integration once the subway opened, especially if suburban GO, YRT, or Brampton Transit passengers headed to York University were required to make new transfers to the subway at Vaughan Centre or Highway 407 Stations.

We now know the day the six new subway stations will open: Sunday, December 17, 2017. We also know how the TTC, York Region Transit, and Brampton Transit will serve the new extension and York University. And today, we also have some indication of how GO Transit passengers will be affected by the changes.

YRT Subway Map.jpg
How YRT and Brampton Transit will serve the Line 1 subway extension
(from the YRT website)

On Friday, Premier Kathleen Wynne and Transportation Minister Stephen Del Duca will announce a new co-fare between the TTC and Metrolinx services (GO Transit and Union Pearson Express), to take effect in January 2018. (The Star previously reported that the fare change will take place as soon as the subway extension opens.)

Transfers from GO Transit or UPX to the TTC will cost $1.50 for passengers using Presto cards, a 50% reduction from the full adult fare of $3.00. Passengers transferring from the TTC to GO or UPX will get a $1.50 fare discount. It is expected that the new co-fare subsidies will cost the provincial government $18 million a year. The fare discount will not apply to passengers using fare media other than Presto cards, including TTC tokens, Metropasses, or paper one-way tickets or day passes.

These are similar to the co-fares offered between GO Transit and transit agencies outside the City of Toronto, including MiWay, York Region Transit, Brampton Transit, and Hamilton Street Railway. However, these co-fares are generally more generous — ranging from $0.60 in Hamilton to $1.00 in York Region.

There was no news on reducing the fare penalty for transferring between the TTC and connecting local bus systems such as York Region Transit and MiWay.

For many commuters, the new TTC co-fare is great news, and it represents a good first step towards proper fare integration. It helps to make GO Transit more useful for trips within the City of Toronto, and it helps suburban commuters who use the TTC for part of their trip, such as University of Toronto students, who are located too far a walk to Union Station.

(John Tory is also claiming a victory, calling it “a step in the right direction” for his SmartTrack proposal. At this point, “SmartTrack” is little more than a GO/TTC fare agreement and a few new proposed GO stations.)

However, this could also affect York University students as well. Previous plans for the Line 1 subway extension saw GO Transit buses serve the Highway 407 station, requiring a transfer to the subway to get to campus. York University has been long eager to remove the buses from the York Commons area, which GO and the TTC use as their campus terminals.

York Region Transit will continue to operate many bus routes into York’s campus, on the Ian Macdonald Boulevard ring road, and Brampton Transit’s Queen Züm bus route will remain on campus. Their university-bound passengers won’t be required to transfer to the subway and pay an additional fare. But it appears, for now, that GO Transit passengers will have to make a connection, costing $1.50 each way. (This will not be the case for in the short term, see update below.) This will also apply to GO train customers on the Barrie Line who currently use York University Station, if that station closes as planned when the subway connection at Downsview Park opens.

This will be a blow for GO Transit customers who commute to and from York University, accustomed to a one-seat ride direct to campus. But it will be an improvement for GO operations on the Highway 407 corridor, with buses no longer stuck in traffic in the Keele Street and Steeles Avenue area. It will also benefit GO Transit passengers who aren’t headed to York University. Providing good public transit is not be about giving everyone a one-seat ride.

Despite these benefits, if GO Transit serves Highway 407 Station as planned, it will impact many passengers with a new transfer and an additional $3.00 cost per day. I’m curious what GO Transit’s messaging and final plans will be, because they have yet to communicate their new schedules and connections when the subway extension opens. Hopefully, we will learn the answers to the rest of those questions soon.

Update: According to the CBC and Metrolinx’s Anne Marie Aikins, there are now no immediate plans to re-route GO Transit buses from York University. at least in the short term. This is a short-term solution, however, because the Highway 407 station was designed with a large terminal for GO Transit buses, and York University has been vocal about wanting the hundreds of GO and TTC buses a day out of the York Commons area.

I don’t see this as a long-term solution, however. Hopefully Metrolinx and the TTC can figure out how to best serve York University passengers, though that should have been figured out a long time ago. After all, the subway was originally supposed to open by the end of 2015.

Politics Toronto Transit

A new low for the Scarborough Subway champion

Note: a version of this article has been cross-posted to Spacing Toronto

For 2016’s annual Torontoist Heroes and Villains feature, I nominated Toronto Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre) as villain of the year. (“Pedestrian blaming” won that dubious honour.) But I remain proud of my choice. As I wrote back in December:

De Baeremaeker’s record of environmentalism has been overshadowed by an increasingly antagonistic tone, pitting supposedly downtrodden Scarborough against the rest of the city in his one-track quest to build a one-stop subway extension to his ward. In his myopic support of the subway, De Baeremaeker is opportunistic and vindictive, takes the low road, insults critics who engage in good faith debates, and in the process does a disservice to the community he represents.

Councillor De Baeremaeker hasn’t changed his tone.

Yesterday, May 10, the City of Toronto held a public consultation at Scarborough Civic Centre on the next phase of planning for that one-stop, 6.2-kilometre subway extension, which is estimated to cost $3.35 billion, and open no earlier than 2026.

I wish I was able to attend last night’s meeting, as disgruntled Scarborough residents questioned the merits of that transit plan. And Councillor De Baeremaeker shamelessly blamed “downtown councillors” for the shortcomings of that one-stop subway. For a councillor who is rightly proud of his past environmental advocacy, it was surely a low point.

Toronto Star reporter Jennifer Pagliaro, an excellent local journalist, covered the meeting. 

City Scarborough MapCity of Toronto map from February 2016 illustrating current plans for the Scarborough Subway and connecting transit.

At the public consultation, TTC and City planning staff answered queries from members of the public, many questioning the utility of the single-stop subway. There are no additional funds to rough in future stations, such as at McCowan Road and Lawrence Avenue, where the line would intersect the busy 54 Lawrence East bus and serve Scarborough General Hospital. As building future stations later would require an extended shut-down of the line, the one-stop subway extension will likely be forever a one-stop subway.

(The eastern extension of the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT from Kennedy Station to University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus is also part of the new plan for Scarborough, but the LRT component is unfunded.)

Shameless as ever, Councillor De Baeremaeker resorted to strawman arguments, talking up a “suburban/urban divide”:

[De Baeremaeker] blamed “downtown councillors,” who represent the most densely populated wards in the city, for not wanting to fund more frequent transit stops like their residents enjoy.

Yes, it is true that all councillors representing central Toronto opposed the subway extension, but so did several suburban politicians, most notably Councillor Paul Ainslie (Ward 43 – Scarborough East). Yet not one of those councillors wanted less transit for Scarborough. Instead, they backed a seven-stop LRT replacement for the ageing Scarborough rapid transit line, including an extension to Centennial College and Sheppard Avenue in Malvern. That less-expensive line was fully funded by the provincial government, which would have permitted scarce funds to be spent on other transit projects across Toronto.

Meanwhile Mayor John Tory was most interested in pushing SmartTrack, a fantasy rail project that got pared down as parts of the line were found to be impossible to build, and costs increased. The eastern end of SmartTrack conflicted with the Scarborough Subway extension. The three-stop subway plan was cut to a single stop at Scarborough Centre, to keep costs down and to not cannibalize SmartTrack.

Yet Tory and De Baeremaeker are allies on the subway extension; Tory named him one of his Deputy Mayors to champion the line. But Tory’s push for his own project put him at odds with De Baeremaeker’s focus on the subway extension, any subway extension, to his ward.

It is also worth noting that until 2012, De Baeremaeker supported Transit City, the transit plan championed by David Miller that would have delivered three new light rail lines to Scarborough.

I am not surprised by De Baeremaeker’s shameless politics. But his performance last night was especially crass and dishonest. Backed into a corner, faced with angry local residents, he lashed out at imaginary villains. But subway backers largely have themselves to blame; despite winning every recent vote on the subway plan, they have only one stop to show for it.


Suburban stations for urban needs: accessing GO Transit’s proposed new stations

21505188673_1d34d85175_kGO Transit train from the Pape Avenue footbridge, near the proposed site of Gerrard Station

At its last board meeting on December 8
, Metrolinx presented an update on the status of twelve new GO Transit rail stations, all located on existing lines. Eight of these proposed new stations are located in the City of Toronto; and six of those are station locations once promised as part of John Tory’s SmartTrack proposal. Unfortunately, the proposed new station designs (all available in this Metrolinx report) appear to be similar to existing GO stations in the suburbs, with needlessly large bus loops, PPUDOs, and parking lots. Development opportunities are limited.

Transit connections at some proposed stations, like St. Clair West, are poor or practically non-existent. This is rather unfortunate, as SmartTrack was originally proposed as a frequent, subway-like service between Mississauga and Markham, with full TTC fare integration. Today, it’s merely six additional stations on existing GO Transit rail corridors. Without quick and seamless connections to the subway and surface TTC routes, the ability to provide any transit relief is compromised.

I have more to say on this at Spacing Toronto.


Politics Toronto Transit

Leadership, John Tory style (part 2)

We’ve seen it before: when cornered on an issue, Mayor John Tory will get defensive, flustered, and counter with disingenuous remarks. Police carding was one such issue, so was the Gardiner East. Today, as Mayor Tory defends his SmartTrack proposal, he’s doing the same thing.

After a staff report on SmartTrack — originally planned for a week ago at the scheduled Executive Committee — became public, we learned more details about the watered-down transit plan that was Tory’s signature campaign promise. (Read Steve Munro’s article in Torontoist for more details.)

  • In 2014, John Tory promised that his “London Style” surface rail subway would open in just seven years. Now, we find out that it won’t be completed until 2025-2026.
  • Only six new stations will be added to GO Transit’s existing stops on the Kitchener and Stouffville corridors; the GO RER system planned by Metrolinx will stop at the same stations as SmartTrack, blurring the lines further between the province’s plans and Tory’s promises.
  • The City of Toronto will be on the hook for all LRT operating expenses, while the Province/ Metrolinx will continue to own the infrastructure.
  • The City of Toronto would be on the hook for some of the GO RER expenses, such as 15 percent of required grade separations, such as at Steeles and Finch Avenues in Scarborough.
  • The Eglinton-Crosstown LRT west extension to Pearson International Airport, which replaced part of the original SmartTrack alignment planned using outdated Google Maps satellite imagery, may not be built beyond the planned Renforth Gateway Hub, the eastern end of the Mississauga Transitway.
  • Tax Increment Financing (TIF) will not be enough to fund the construction of SmartTrack and the LRT extension; development charges and a property tax hike would be required to fund SmartTrack’s construction.

smarttrack_fbThe original SmartTrack plan that John Tory campaigned on in 2014

These are serious concerns, and it is worth asking whether Toronto should remain committed to this plan. After all, the Relief Line Subway remains unfunded, even though it is a top priority for city planning staff. And there’s that $3.2 billion one-stop subway extension to Scarborough Centre, which might become even more expensive if so-called “Subway Champions” Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker and Liberal MPP Brad Duguid get their way with a proposed realignment.

(Interestingly, a SmartTrack/RER stop at Lawrence East may not be able to be built before the one-stop subway extension is opened — a Scarborough RT station is in the way. This isn’t good news for transit riders on the 54 Lawrence East bus, which will lack a rapid transit connection in Scarborough.)

Mayor John Tory’s response is to ask “what’s their plan?” instead of listening and responding to critics. It’s certainly not a productive or mature reaction to very valid concerns.

There were several alternative plans made by rival candidates in 2014 — Olivia Chow and David Soknacki backed returning to the cheaper and longer Scarborough LRT replacement, and building the Downtown Relief Line subway. Chow also proposed additional bus services, which was mocked by Tory’s campaign as no real plan for transit. Once Tory was elected, the TTC ended up implementing much of Chow’s bus plan, including restoring most of Rob Ford-mandated service cuts and adding new express and night routes.

Last week, John Tory also rejected — yet again — the new ward boundaries recommended by the Ward Boundary Review Team, independent consultants who came up –twice — with a 47-ward solution meant to reflect population growth (especially downtown and in central North York) and imbalances in ward populations and councillors’ workloads. The Executive Committee voted against the mayor, backing the 47-ward option, but staff warn it might be too late now for the 2018 election. That might suit Tory’s political agenda, but it’s a blow against local democracy.

Bottom line: Olivia Chow has no plan for transit. She is not a leader.
– John Tory, 2014

So no, John Tory, you’re not a leader. You have failed to acknowledge your errors, you haven’t listened to critics, you’re stubborn, and you lash out when things don’t go your way. And you won’t listen to experts because you don’t like what they have to say. At one point, you claim your critics don’t have any alternative plans to SmartTrack, at other times, you mock the very plans that critics suggest.

So far, John Tory’s critics have been correct about his transit plan. Maybe it’s time to listen.

Toronto Transit Urban Planning

Ridership has tripled on UP Express, but we can do even better


When UP Express — Toronto’s rail link to Toronto Pearson International Airport – -launched on June 6, 2015, the one-way fare between Union Station and Pearson Airport was set at $27.50, or $19.00 with a Presto card. At the time, Metrolinx, the provincial agency charged with planning and integrating transportation services in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and the parent agency of GO Transit, expected that ridership would hit 5,000 passengers a day in a year. But after its launch, ridership sunk instead. 

By January 2016, only an average of 1,967 passengers a day rode UP Express, so Metrolinx cleaned house and lowered the fares. The one-way cash fare was reduced from $27.50 to $12, and from $19 to $9 with a Presto card, and fares between Union and Bloor and Weston stations were reduced to match the GO Transit fares for the same trips. Since the new fare structure was introduced, UP Express ridership has more than tripled. By June 2016, the daily average ridership increased to 7,657.

Despite the ridership growth, and the utility of the rail service for local residents near Bloor and Weston Stations, there’s still more that can be done to make the most of the $456 million spent to build the line.

The airport region is a major employment centre, yet is difficult to serve by public transit. Fare integration between UP Express, GO Transit, MiWay and Brampton Transit could be an important a first step in creating a full regional rail network, a concept that Mayor John Tory pitched as “SmartTrack.”

Airport LinksTransit connections at Pearson Airport. UP Express, if it offered fare integration with the TTC, MiWay and Brampton Transit, would be an invaluable part of the Toronto area’s transit network

UP Express’s ridership increase is a good news story. But there’s so much more utility that can be leveraged.

I discuss the UP Express ridership trends further in Torontoist


The controversial Judson Street zoning change


Earlier this year, Etobicoke Councillor Justin Di Ciano (Ward 5) pushed for a zoning change to several industrial properties on Judson Street, adjacent to GO Transit’s Willowbrook Yards. Local residents had enough with a concrete batching operation and Dunpar Homes applied to build a townhouse development on the site.

City staff recommended against the rezoning, which would allow townhouses to go up on land previously zoned as industrial. Metrolinx, GO Transit’s parent organization, also spoke out against the re-zoning, warning that it could impact its expansion plans, including GO RER/SmartTrack. But Councillor Di Ciano, Mayor John Tory, and most of the mayor’s allies voted against those concerns and supported the redevelopment.

Now Metrolinx is appealing the council decision to the Ontario Municipal Board, and the City will be forced to hire external expert advice, as it went against its staff recommendations.

You can read the Torontoist post here, where I explain the situation in more detail.


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.

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.