» 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.
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.