Money for Sheppard East LRT expands city’s commitment to new transit solutions
Ontario’s government announced last week that it would chip in $950 million (Canadian) for the construction of a new light rail transit line in Canada’s largest city, Toronto. The commitment comes in addition to the previously declared appropriations for two other LRT projects and three rapid transit extensions, as well as last month’s exciting news that the city would be investing in 200 new streetcars from Bombardier. Collectively, the news suddenly makes Toronto the North American city with the largest transit expansion program.
The province’s most recent funding commitment will ensure the construction of the Sheppard East LRT line, which will run 15 km east from the Don Mills subway station on the Sheppard heavy rail line. The project — to open in 2013 — is expected to carry 45,000 daily riders, a number that will only increase when the also-funded extension of the Scarborough RT line is completed.
Unlike the large streetcar network that runs downtown, the Sheppard East LRT will operate in its own right-of-way, ensuring fast connections and reliable service times. Some have suggested that an expansion of the Sheppard subway would be preferable considering the high expected ridership, but the choice of light rail is a reflection of economic reality. Toronto has been pushing for a massive multi-line transit expansion called “Transit City” since 2007, and building so many underground lines would cost more than the city or region are able to contribute: the 8.6 km Spadina subway extension, for example, will cost $2.6 billion to build, about four times the per-mile cost as the proposed Sheppard East line.
But LRT in its own right-of-way will offer a high level of service for transit riders, and that’s presumably why the province previously made funds available for the Etobicoke-Finch West corridor, which will run east-west in the northern areas of the city (23 km, $1.2 billion), and the Eglinton Crosstown line (31 km, $4.6 billion), which will provide connections between the airport and Midtown.
Four other lines also delineated by the Transit City proposal — the Jane, Don Mills, Scarborough Malvern, and Waterfront West LRT lines — have yet to be funded by either the city or the provincial governments. But Canada’s ruling conservative party is in trouble politically — it almost lost its minority control over the government in January — so finding federal funds to ensure the completion of the entire Transit City project could prove advantageous in attracting the votes of Toronto’s large electorate. Mayor David Miller, who spearheaded the Transit City program, is a political independent and former member of the leftist New Democratic Party, and could prove a formidable future rival to the conservative government; the same could be said for ambitious Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, who is a member of the Liberal Party (center-left).
Funding committed thus far to transit expansion in Toronto over the next five years now reaches over $10 billion even without the LRT projects that have yet to be funded, quite a considerable sum matched by few cities worldwide. What’s perhaps most impressive about Toronto’s plans, though, isn’t their scope, but rather their provisions for the city as a whole. While the city’s two major rapid transit routes focus on the downtown area, these new light rail projects will improve crosstown connections, underprioritized in most metropolitan areas. As a result, instead of simply reinforcing the centrality of the core, Toronto will provide mobility improvements and transit-oriented development possibilities to inhabitants throughout the metropolis.