Hazy Future for Transit City as Toronto Gears Up for Mayoral Election

» A sour economy puts Mayor David Miller’s hopes of an eight-line light rail network in jeopardy. But so far, the election to replace him has demonstrated just how much Toronto wants to be a transit city.

Missed in the hoopla over transit currently absorbing Toronto’s motley crew of mayoral aspirants is the fact that the city — just three years after its current mayor went full-bore in favor of new investments — is already underway in the construction on a new light rail line, the first among four that have received actual funding commitments from Ontario Provincial officials. That’s in addition to a subway line extension also being built and signed contracts for hundreds of new subway trains and streetcars. This city is serious about its future in public transportation.

That’s a rapid turn-around from decades of stagnation. Like most big North American cities, Toronto hasn’t had the wildest success extending its rapid transit network over the past twenty years; the 3.4-mile Sheppard Subway that it opened in 2002 was just the remnant of what was once supposed to be a massive re-envisioning of the region’s commuting patterns.

But financial circumstances and economic difficulties got in the way, much, unfortunately, as appears to be happening now.

After introducing his 75-mile Transit City light rail transit plan in 2007, Mayor David Miller began his campaign to convince other leaders to come on board; Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty agreed in Spring 2009 to fund the first three corridors along Eglinton, Finch, and Sheppard (now under construction) — and to replace the moribund Scarborough RT line with light rail. McGuinty’s own staff developed an even larger plan called Move Ontario under the auspices of the newly formed Metrolinx regional transit agency to fund similar projects outside of the city, including a network of “Viva” bus rapid transit lanes in York Region, just north of Toronto. But that support for infrastructure investments dimmed over the past year as construction cost estimates exploded and tax revenues slumped.

What was once supposed to be a 15-year, C$6 billion plan with eight east-west and north-south connections across the region has become an $8.15 billion plan with just four truncated east-west corridors. After last month’s decision by Ontario to reduce spending on transit by C$4 billion over the next five years, Metrolinx has reduced overall route length by 14 miles to 33 miles of new construction, cutting out 24 stations from the four lines that are funded. Completion of these initial routes is now delayed from 2016 to 2022.

The other four lines — including the Jane, Don Mills, Waterfront West, and Scarborough-Malvern light rail corridors — are stuck in planning purgatory.

Mayor Miller is understandably upset about the gutting of his proposal, and last week he accused Premier McGuinty of changing the rules behind his back, despite the fact that the two had evidently agreed to a cutback plan several weeks back. Transit City was to be sponsored almost entirely by provincial, not municipal, funds. Now Toronto is advancing a proposal to lend Ontario C$1.5 billion to begin construction more quickly — an idea that the province’s staff has rejected outright. Miller’s political positioning is seriously weakened by the fact that he isn’t running for reelection and that his appointed chair of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), Adam Giambrone, has been racked by scandals. Similarly, claims of incompetence on the part of TTC staffers and the reckless pursuit of an expensive new headquarters have diminished Miller’s arguments.

Now comments from the mayoral field — the candidate who wins on October 25th will ultimately find him or herself in charge of the TTC, which runs the subway — has put the whole expansion program into doubt.

Candidate Rocco Rossi made the first move in January when he announced he wanted a stop to all current Transit City projects, a move he premised on fiscal “responsibility” but one that sounded a lot more like simply pro-car rhetoric because he argued concurrently for the ban of bike lanes from some downtown streets. Now he’s out with a new proposal that would lay two kilometers of subway track a year — an idea that would undoubtedly cost more and produce fewer long-term results than the current Transit City projects. Rob Ford, who was once a transit opponent, is now towing a similar line, as is Sarah Thomson, a marginal player. Joe Pantalone, close to the mayor, and George Smitherman are likely to come out in favor of light rail extensions, though the latter has yet to be entirely clear about his long-term goals for transportation.

There are valid reasons to criticize Mayor Miller’s Transit City: the light rail lines, running at street-level with about twice as many stops per mile as the existing subways, won’t speed commuters from the inner suburbs as much as perhaps is needed. The choice of a different technology will require transit users to make more transfers and diminish the effectiveness of the existing network. Some corridors may demand higher-capacity vehicles than those proposed for these lines.

Much of the anti-light rail sentiment stems from the problems experienced over the past few years in the construction of a reserved right-of-way for the St. Clair Avenue Streetcar, which dismayed business owners and locals for its disruption to the street.

Most importantly, but less mentioned by politicians is the fact that Transit City doesn’t improve access to the downtown core, exactly the improvement Toronto may need most. Despite the fact that a downtown relief subway line, designed to alleviate congestion problems on the system, has been considered since at least 1985 and is even included as a possibility in the province’s transit plan, Mayor Miller makes no provisions for it. Transit City chooses instead to connect moderate-density outlying neighborhoods with each other.

More subways might theoretically be more appropriate for a city the size of Toronto, but the focus of this year’s mayoral candidates on underground corridors over light rail glosses over the fact that Mayor Miller’s choice of street-running light rail wasn’t a coincidence: It was a result of a realization that neither the city nor the province would be able to afford the cost of tunnels for these corridors, and that the city needs to be realistic about what it can build. 75 miles of subways would cost tens of billions of dollars that no one has. Though most will be built above ground, I should note that some sections of the Transit City network, including the midsection of the Eglinton Crosstown Line, are to be placed in a subway.

While there’s been plenty of talk about building new subway lines in Toronto over the years, proposals — no matter how well worked out — aren’t worth anything unless they’re backed by political power. That’s what David Miller added to the game. By promoting his massive and perhaps even too ambitious Transit City scheme as if his life depended on it, he secured provincial aid and shamed the region into actually moving forward. A less-than-perfect light rail line that riders can actually use is worth far more than a subway whose only existence is in the glimmer of a planner’s — or politician’s — eye.

The shouts in favor of subways by many of the city’s mayoral candidates haven’t been followed by any specifics about what routes would be prioritized and descriptions of what would be done for neighborhoods left without new transit access. One of the strengths of the Transit City proposal is that it is very clear in laying out the city’s future transit network; it doesn’t leave choices about new rail routes to future study, which inevitably mean delays and little actual accomplishment.

Nevertheless, Mayor Miller’s continued insistence that his program be built with the province’s money is starting to seem a bit out-of-whack. Since he’s not going to be at City Hall next year, what game is he playing? Does he think his legacy depends on the successful completion of his original project? Why doesn’t he make sure that something is built by cooperating with Premier McGuinty?

But maybe Miller’s legacy is not the transit system itself but rather his ability to make public transportation a matter of prime political concern for his city. Whether or not Transit City is completed as he hoped, he has managed in the midst of a difficult economy to convince the province to spend C$8 billion on rail transit expansion projects over the course of just ten years — a feat matched by few cities anywhere in the world. Though the candidates running to replace him may be promoting very different schemes for his city’s future, they are, right and left, universally in favor of more public transportation.

Cities throughout the United States and Canada should look to Mayor Miller’s ambition and political positioning as an example for how one politician can promote a seachange in mentality towards investing in transportation. One big plan, backed by significant funding commitments, can force everyone hoping to advance politically to jockey for first place in promoting the best possible transit improvements.

18 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • 電車男

    Your last point is pretty encouraging…it was pretty surprising to hear about Los Angeles’s transit expansions, and now Toronto’s candidates are all clamoring for the best transit platform? Pretty cool, no joke. I hope this trend spreads–down in Boston, we could really use some upgrades to the Commuter Rail, not to mention a host of subway improvements.

  • Tom West

    I like your map, but minor point: the subway extension to Richmond Hill is actually funded. The city is waiting utn il it has sufficient funds to upgrade the Bloor-Younge interchange station before it procedes.

    I’d rather have defiante plans for 50% than hoeps of 100%. However, the provincial government should set out a timetabel for funding *all* of the lines (and the ‘posponed’ sections), even it’s over 15-20 years.

  • Aaron

    How much would an Eglinton subway cost? I still find myself critical of that transit line being surface light rail as opposed to a subway like the Young & Bloor lines. Too bad the Conservatives came in and killed the subway … construction had already begun along that route when it was stopped in the mid 90s. Though I’d give up the Eglington subway for a Queen Street or Dundas subway.

  • @Tom West:
    Yonge subway extension is not funded. The province hasn’t promised anything yet. The Environmental Assessment is complete, though.

    @Yonah:
    I think the recent funding cut may have also reduced the extent of the funded Viva bus rapidway. The section along Highway 7 east from Yonge is definitely being built, but I am not sure about the others. There unfortunately hasn’t been much in the papers about it.

  • @Aaron:
    Eglinton LRT is underground for ~10km from roughly Jane to roughly Don Mills. It’s basically a subway with LRT rolling stock

  • Methos

    Part of the issue is the mayor is going for an all or nothing approach, antagonizing the people who’s support he needs the most (the province). The mayor lost a lot of political capital in the strikes last summer and with it a lot of middle-voting/undecided voters in the city. This is especially true the further out from downtown you go. The provincial government is smelling this and the provincial liberals absolutely need to hold on to their base if they’re going to fend off the conservatives in the next election. This is especially true after E-health and the HST.

    There is more than the St. Clair issues as well. The city said it learned its lesson, but Bloor St. and Dundas W construction are presenting otherwise. One has to wonder if the reason Miller is trying to go all or nothing is because if the current few lines being constructed end up being portrayed as St. Clair fiasco 2, that’s it for light rail forever.

  • Justin Bernard

    The Subway to Richmond Hill is not funded. The city stipulated the province build the Downtown Radial line to help relieve pressure off the Yonge Line, which is at capacity during the peak hours.

  • @Yonah: The new LRT vehicles would be twice as long as the current streetcar fleet. The current streetcars, however, hold a maximum of 80 – 100 (in crush loads). Therefore, the new vehicles are more likely to only be capable of holding 200-250 (maximum). Great post as always and excellent analysis!

  • @Yonah:
    The plan is to start with two-LRV trains on Eglinton and three-LRV trains on the Scarborough RT rebuild.

    I might be mistaken, but I think the underground stations on Eglinton will be finished for two-LRV trains with extra space left over for future expansion to three-LRV trains.

  • I wish Atlanta had a strong mayor who would take the initiative in changing our transportation system. Our system (MARTA) is based on dumpy buses that are constantly breaking down in the middle of their routes, leaving passengers stranded and causing huge backups. Our train’s aren’t that much better either; we need a reform and building a better transportation system is definitely worth the cost.

  • Pantheon

    Toronto is a city in crisis. The roads are extremely congested and average commute times are “by far the longest in North America”, a whopping 40% longer than Los Angeles. It isn’t a coincidence that L.A. and Toronto have the strongest political incentive to expand their meager transit offerings. I therefore disagree with three points:

    1) This is not a story of one politician heroically championing transit and moving the debate. Politicians are by definition never heroes. They only reflect reality.

    2) Rossi’s opposition to transit is not “pro-car”. How can it be pro-car to be against relieving congestion? In a city like Toronto, the U.S.-style car vs. transit paradigm doesn’t apply.

    3) Surface running light rail will do little to solve Toronto’s problems. Subways are the only answer, and sadly the inability to afford them doesn’t change that.

    • Nathanael

      Toronto’s more than a little subway-mad. Surface light rail with its own lanes *if done properly* — and admittedly so far the TTC and City of Toronto seem to have somehow cooperated to prevent it from being done properly, per Steve Munro’s blog — can provide tremendous relief for outlying areas. They can also dive into subways in the truly-congested downtown areas (and indeed the Eglington line is planned to be in subway in the center section, surface on the outlying sections).

  • Toronto definitely seems like a city that could use more subway. I mean it is the largest city in Canada and has the worst congestion. Is light rail really going to solve those problems? I mean I think in some of the outer areas light rail could be effective but some of the corridors it just seems like a bad idea. Shame it seems like Canada has the same problem as America in that is is practically politically and financially infeasible to build subway. I can think of a few places like the Geary in San Fransisco and the Red Line in Baltimore that could really use subway. I mean take the Red Line in Baltimore and this Elington Line in Toronto, if you are already going to build huge tunnels, why not build a subway that can provide time savings and much increased capacity. I wish we really did live in a world where more politicians fought over getting the right transit built.

    • The political difficulty isn’t about Canada; it’s about Ontario. Vancouver has no trouble building rapid transit at reasonable cost. Calgary has done even better: it reserved surface right-of-way decades in advance, so that it more or less got rapid transit at the cost of light rail.

  • Matt Fisher

    Yes, that is bad. But it should be noted that there is also a BRT project well underway in Mississauga at this time, from the west terminus of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. I support it, but ultimately it should be a full subway (and I’m going to say that the plans for the light rail line aren’t always the most well thought out). For example, the airport should be served by a branch via the ex-Highway 27 and Dixon Rd., and Mississauga should be served by a branch (the current route up to Commerce, where the BRT project would terminate), which would be more effective, in my opinion.

    There is also a BRT project the TTC is undergoing on Kingston Road, which would go from the streetcar terminus to Eglinton. While I would much rather see this as an extension as light rail, the demand isn’t unfortunately currently justified, so bus rapid transit is sufficient.

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