Light Rail Metro Rail Toronto

In Toronto, the Fight for Transit City Continues

» Facing increasing criticism from a city council, Mayor Rob Ford’s plans for new subways may not come to fruition after all.

Transportation is an intensely political game in Toronto. Canada’s largest city, home to millions of daily transit users, has been fighting for half a decade on how to expand its rail network over issues that might be familiar to inhabitants of many metropolises. Should trains be put in a subway or remain on the surface? Should extensions be developed downtown or in the suburbs? Should funding come from the public or private pocketbook?

The election of Rob Ford to the mayoralty in fall 2010 seemed to answer some of those questions: All new urban rail projects would be built underground in order to avoid disrupting traffic. Most new lines would be designed to extend into suburban business districts, rather than reinforce the network in the center city. And an emphasis would be placed on finding private financing to cover costs. Almost as soon as he entered office, Mr. Ford managed to dismantle the light rail surface-running, publicly funded Transit City plans his predecessor David Miller had imagined and, in one case, actually brought to the construction stage.

In the process, no one seemed to notice that the mayor, who never sought full approval from the council in renegotiating the funding contract with Ontario Province, didn’t have the legal authority to trash the plans.

For Toronto, this once again puts the city’s public transportation future up in the air. Mr. Miller’s project would have funded three new light rail lines and a refurbishment and extension to another by 2020; only a 6-mile segment of the Eglinton Crosstown corridor would have been underground, compared to 29 miles overground on the rest of the plan, all at an Ontario-funded cost of C$8.2 billion. Mr. Ford squashed plans for the Finch Avenue and Sheppard Avenue light rail lines and killed the planned extension of the Scarborough RT; in their place would be a 12-mile fully-underground Eglinton line and a refurbishment of the Scarborough line — a total of about 15 miles of fixed-guideway transit at the same cost, serving far fewer Torontonians in the process. A subway extension along the Sheppard corridor would be paid for by the private sector. In theory.

The new mayor claimed he had a public mandate to build only subways; people hated Mr. Miller’s cheaper light rail lines, he said.

These changes brought on by Mayor Ford’s honeymoon in office, however, have come to an end. Left wing and centrists members of the city council banded together to push back on the administration’s efforts to reduce public services a few months back — and now a majority may be in favor of going back to Mr. Miller’s Transit City plans, especially since many on Finch Avenue northwest of the city center feel completely excluded from current plans. Mr. Ford’s own counselors suggested that private businesses would only be able to contribute 10 to 30% of the Sheppard subway’s costs. Karen Stintz, who chairs the board of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), recommended last week moving parts of the Eglinton corridor back above ground to save up to C$2 billion, limiting the extension of the Sheppard subway to one stop (instead of five) at a cost of C$1 billion, and adding a busway to Finch Avenue for C$400 million.

Mr. Ford’s response so far: “I did what the taxpayers want. They want subways. That’s it. They don’t want streetcars.” At a meeting today, Ford sympathizers on the TTC board voted against continuing to work with provincial planners — despite Ms. Stintz’s recommendations, putting her future in jeopardy, according to one observer. The mayor, who continues to label the Transit City light rail services designed to run in independent guideways “streetcars,” does not take criticism well.

But the mayor may be an increasingly irrelevant player here, since a majority on the council may be able to overrule him. In the process, Toronto may backtrack on its transit policies, taking the city two years back in time.

As for the public reaction, people do not seem to be screaming in the streets about the potential loss of their much-promised subways in favor of twice as many route miles of above-ground light rail. In the name of fiscal efficiency, one does wonder how it ever made sense to anyone to prioritize building subways through areas of only moderately dense development. Mayor Ford’s unwillingness to change rather comes across as the same old fight to “end the war on cars” he promised during the 2010 elections, a stand against getting in the way of a few drivers for the sake of speeding the commutes of many transit riders. In the meantime, the inhabitants of Toronto have seen few improvements to their daily commutes and delays in acting on future proposed services.

Nonetheless, the intense disagreement between Mr. Ford and his council counterparts — one that seems unlikely to die down at least for the next few months — suggests that public involvement is necessary. It might be reasonable to suggest a direct vote on the options available: With C$8.2 billion, what would you do? Think big: You never know what might come next.

Image above: Toronto transit street art, from Flickr user jmv (cc)

38 replies on “In Toronto, the Fight for Transit City Continues”

Just remember, Lloyd, you could live in America.

This message brought to you by an American whose transit system last grew almost a century ago.

Philly? The Broad St Subway extension from Snyder to Pattison/ATT opened in 1973 (and of course the Center City Connection is even newer, if you count regional rail).

In New Orleans you might have a point but even they inaugurated the Riverfront Line in 1988. For a truly stagnant transit system you have to look somewhere like Glasgow.

Perhaps he lives in Columbus, Ohio or one of the smaller cities in the US. There are quite a few cities whose transit systems really have done nothing but shrink.

Thanks for covering this. In Canada, all cities have a weak mayor system – they control the agenda but they only have one vote on a council, which in Toronto is 45 strong (including the Mayor).

Please don’t suggest a vote. In Canada, local governments are by representation. Votes can be held, but are generally non-binding and used to inform council.

I’ve been waiting for the opposition to Ford to mount – Mayor’s in Canada just can’t do this and not pay for it. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

The control of the agenda by the mayor is his most powerful weapon, as it means he can prevent items from ever being discussed. For normal meetings, it takes a two-thirds vote to add something to the agenda otherwise. (Which means an item with 50-66% support won’t go through without the Mayor’s approbal.)

However… a special meeting can called by a simple majority, with the agenda set by those calling the meeting, not the mayor. That provides a way for the 50-66% to make something happen.

Great article which indicates how complex this issue is for Toronto. Add to the discussion the results of LRT projects over the past decades. The most recent, St. Clair Avenue could be considered a unmitigated disaster. Construction overruns, enormous pressure on local businesses, severely reduced auto capacity and studies that show that no-one benefited – trips by transit are actually slower now on St. Clair. You touched on this story in May 2010.
It was with this background that Mayor Ford was elected. No one has clearly shown that Transit City was not just another series of St. Clair LRT projects. Any chance that Toronto was signing up for that raises concerns throughout the city.

While St Clair was over budget and late, everybody has benefited. New stores and restaurants have moved in, developers are building piles of new condos, a sign that people want to live near dependable transit. Only a few still consider it an unmitigated disaster. I personally use it often and love it for being fast and dependable; where did you get that line about transit being slower?

Architectural critic Chris Hume wrote last year in response to people calling it a disaster:

“Funny then that the street itself appears to be in better shape than it has in decades. St. Clair, between, say, Bathurst and Old Weston Rd., may not be the most beautiful stretch of the city, but it’s clearly a healthy, even bustling, thoroughfare filled with people and activity, as urban a passage as one could hope to find in a big city.”

Councillor Joe Mihevc says:

“I never had any development applications,” he says. “Now, one project is done, two are in construction and two more are applying. The St. Clair right of way is functioning exactly as we hoped it would. It has revitalized a tired old street. You can smell the money coming in.”

Yup. That sounds like an unmitigated disaster to me. As Chris says, “Needless to say, drivers aren’t happy, but they never are.”

Well. if the powers that be had left St. Clair alone way back 80 years ago or so, then there wouldn’t have been all this expenditure to correct this mistake. I wouldn’t call putting back this right of way a disiaster but the way it was handled sure was.

Well, we can’t argue with that… though Toronto did a lot better than most cities at retaining its streetcars.

Oh, for sure, Nathanael. Among all North American cities which kept streetcars, Toronto probably did the best job of retaining them, although they could’ve done at least a little better at it. But at least they didn’t cut their streetcar system to nothing like almost the rest of North America.

Trips by transit are slower on St. Clair now? Everything I’ve read says there’s been a modest increase in speed, but the main benefit is the increase in reliability, since the cars are no longer subject to rush-hour traffic jams.

The city councillor for that area, who was a major proponent of the right-of-way, was re-elected with a strong majority last year. So it seems that most local people don’t share your opinion that it was a disaster.

Steve Munro has complained repeatedly that the city hasn’t actually implemented transit priority, and that the TTC hasn’t figured out how to run on headways. If those two things were done, St. Clair would be an unmitigated *success*.

Those two things can still be done.

Interesting article. But I have to comment that as an American, I would LOVE it if our parties disagreed as to the types of mass transit to support. Sadly, the right-wing in the USA thinks transit is completely unnecessary.

Wishing for Ford, sometimes support like this is a secret plot to cancel all transit.

IE: Light rail line is proposed. Transit haters form a group called something like “riders for better transit” and propose that a subway be built. It sounds like theyre for transit, but their goal is that the project will be cancelled in full because a subway is too expensive, or the opposite, the project will become a bus line.

“We’re not against transit, we’re just against the specific details of this project” is a common line, but the goal is still to kill transit.

France is an excellent example of a coun try where all political parties and ideologies agree on the need for rail transprotation but not on what type. The left seems to always advocate Light Rail but the right always seems to advocate full subways. That still beats the US and Canada by a longshot.

Beyond political ideologies, this case shows the need to insulate some of the investments from direct political control once the political decisions have been made.

The timeframes for these infrastructure projects are much longer than the timeframes of your average political term in office. A different set of governance structures is often required.

The right-wing in the US doesn’t merely think transit is unnecessary: they view it as a socialist plot to violate the purity of our bodily fluids.

The problem with light rail is that traffic congestion in the suburbs of Toronto is horrible. Highway 401 is ridiculously congested despite being up to 18 lanes wide, I think that the point of building subways on Eglinton and Sheppard is to provide an alternative to driving on the 401.

You actually think a Sheppard Subway is going to relieve congestion on the 401. Do you realize the majority of drivers using the 401 are coming from Peel, and Durham regions? A Sheppard Subway is not going to do squat to relieve congestion.
The point of building subways on Eglinton and Sheppard is because our Mayor is a bone-headed ideologue who believes there is a war on cars, and has a political agenda to build subways.

For relieving 401 congestion, what’s needed is an expansion of GO Transit. Such as the long-delayed and long-postponed Lakeshore Electrification.

On the St. Clair, take a look at and search for St. Clair (Dec 2011). He has three articles with a complete analysis of 2007 (before) to 2011 (after). From his analysis the benefit seems to be new sidewalks and paving, certainly not better running times or reliable headways. I’m a big supporter of public transit, but I think we need a better outcome for our $$.

“…certainly not better running times…”

Except his analysis shows exactly that. He even says it outright. Yes, it’s not by much, but with such short stop spacing a dedicated ROW can’t really do much.

“…or reliable headway.”

From his articles it stems that the headway irregularities are due to bad organization. You can’t blame infrastructure if the operator isn’t going to make a good use of it…

So you found evidence that show St. Clair is not an LRT project, but a corridor revitalization project in which the ROW was a component of.
I do not know how many times it must be stressed, but the 512 is not LRT. It’s a streetcar line with closely spaced stops using old vehicles with front door boarding only.

Mo offense, but you do not seem to know much about LRT, yet you criticize the technology. It has been stated many times that St. Clair is not LRT, but no one wants to listen.

May I just say — Mihevc is a GENIUS. I never thought of this as a possibility — for the Council to simply tell Ford “Sorry, you don’t have that authority. Do what you’re told.” And yet that is exactly what may happen.

There is much to discuss about Toronto’s proposed transit expansion.

A big issue that has not been brought up much is if we really are getting “LRT”.

The Transit City LRT project as it stands, does not really bring the true sense of modern LRT to Toronto. What it brings is limited stop streetcar service, in its own lane, which alone does not bring rapid transit.

Almost everyone I have talked to here in Toronto thinks LRT means the type of LRT in Calgary or Edmonton, or even Manila. When they find out it basically means a streetcar (or LRT train) in the middle of the road, with stations only 500 meters a part, and no full signal priority(as in railroad crossing arms), they fall out of favour for the idea.

Additional questions must be answered as well. Just the one fully grade separated (underground) Eglinton line, would carry more new riders a day, than the all the other Transit City LRT projects combined. Moving the Eglinton line to median street running sections, cuts ridership in half, as people would not ride it, because its too slow.

The actual Transit City LRT lines have proposed low ridership for their projected length, and very low rates of switching people to transit.
So is $8 billion being wasted just improving local transit, when the same could be done with buses for a fraction of the cost?

When looking at transit projects, it is often quality or quantity. One fully grade separated transit line can have more of an affect on regional transportation and serve more people( not everyone has to live right next to the line to be served), than a bunch of slow so called LRT lines.

I live near three of the proposed LRT lines, and I am the biggest transit supporter you will fine. But don’t expect me to support Transit City LRT.

Like most of the people who live in my area of Toronto, we see no benefit in an LRT line which is going to save us at most, 2-3 minutes travel time over our current bus service. That is not rapid transit to us, and it does nothing to rectify the extremely low transit speeds in the outer areas of Toronto, where it takes people an hour to get somewhere that is only 10 minutes by car.

Not gonna happen but… Would it have made more sense to build the Eglinton line as a subway? (Heavy rail subway, not as wholly underground LRT – the Ford/Metrolinx plan was a poor compromise, with all the costs of tunnelling but only the more limited capacity of LRT). How much more would a subway have cost, compared to fully underground LRT? (Ignoring the sunk costs of the LRV contract*) And if it were constructed as a subway, what then for the needs-to-be-rebuilt Scarborough RT? Would that be subway as well? And if so, would it become an extension of the Eglinton subway or the Bloor-Danforth subway? Or both?

*If the penalties for cancelling the LRV contract are fairly high (and perhaps regardless of that), would it not make more sense to make the entire Sheppard line LRT? That is, retrofit the existing Sheppard subway as LRT, rather than the ridiculous notion of keeping the existing stub and forcing a transfer on to LRT at the current eastern terminus. (I don’t know enough about that part of Toronto, but could it then link up with the Finch West LRT to create a more northerly crosstown route?)

Of course, the silly thing about Ford’s recent stance that it’s all about subways (new lyrics to the tune Ending the War on Cars) is that the most desperate need for a subway has hardly been mentioned in all of this: the Downtown Relief Line. Even just building the roughly 6km eastern half from Union (or Queen) station to Pape would presumably cost less than $8 billion (especially if existing surface ROW is used for part of it).

I could have been clearer: To my understanding, the main reason the fully underground version of the Eglinton line would have been LRT rather than subway is because the order for the LRVs has already been placed. However, by using those trains on another line, there would be less of a reason to prefer LRT to subway for the Eglinton line (unless the costs for subway construction are so much more – though I can’t see why).

Of course, there’d be lots of private investment no money left over for Sheppard (plus that is the mayor’s fetish subway anyway. Sigh.)

But why do we always think subways. As someone who does not support the current Transit City LRT lines, it does not mean that I only want subways.
I want to know why Toronto has not thought about elevated rail like the Skytrain, etc. In the suburban districts, there is room for elevated lines done in a creative way. It could cost much less than tunneling.

I think Toronto is a little more leery about building something elevated due to it’s experiences with the Gardiner. Granted the corrosive element of road salt probably won’t come into play but the mental picture is there. Similar to how LRTs are associated with streetcars, elevated ROWs will probably be associated with the Gardiner and all that that entails.

The only examples of elevated ROWs in Toronto are short segments such as Midland to McCowan on the SRT, either side of Keele station on the Bloor line and both Victoria Park and Warden stations. The latter three seeming as imposing as the elevated lines in NYC. The other associated downside with an elevated station (granted this would also be true for a surface one as well) is the exposure to the elements. Anyone using Scarborough Centre station in the height of winter will surely attest to how miserable that can be.

Toronto is definitely in need of an intermediate mode of transportation. They just need a better way of portraying that mode clearly to the public.

The writer argues, “In the name of fiscal efficiency, one does wonder how it ever made sense to anyone to prioritize building subways through areas of only moderately dense development.” The point, surely, is that subways GENERATE development along corridors in ways that no other form of mass transit can. Much of that development creates increased assessments for taxation purposes as well as dense corridors of transit riders who make the “uneconomic” proposal far more palatable.

It is also instructive to note that the Toronto transportation debate is not new. Many decades ago, the Rob Fords of the world were arguing in favour of the Prince Edward Viaduct system (Bloor Street) with — if one can believe the temerity — provision for subways built right in. Referendums were held repeatedly from 1910 to 1913, with many residents adamantly opposed to the exhorbitant cost. The Rob Fords of the day prevailed, and costs rapidly rose beyond projections, but Toronto had the transit adjunct it has needed to this day.

Everyone keeps saying that subways generate development along their corridors, pointing to the Yonge Line as an example. Unfortunately the subsequent lines have yet to see that level of development. The majority of the built form along the Bloor-Danforth line remains unchanged from when streetcars used to ply the route with only high density occuring where a commuter line intersects with the subway.

The Spadina line has seen no growth whatsoever. One can blame the Allen Expressway for stunting growth. Hopefully the redevelopment of Flemingdon Park will spark some growth. The route of its expansion leaves few places for development to occur, even at the stations.

The Sheppard line has what appears to be massive growth, but it concentrated solely at the stations. The areas in between still resemble suburban low density. NIMBYism in these neighbourhoods is preventing additional high-density development.

If the City is looking to consistenly increase densitites along the length of these corridors they need to carefully consider what they will use to stimulate it. Concentrated growth at certain areas brings its own set of problems. Perhaps diffusing that growth over a larger area would also lead to great acceptance by the community at large.

Mayor Ford did lose the vote for his subway plans and Council boosted LRTs back up onto the agendas again, with a bit of detail remaining ahead of final finalization after a year of lost time, and yes, it’s worth being suspicious about real agendas…

But Mr. Ford didn’t like what Mr. Webster the TTC’s manager said on Council and a very slim majority of the TTC Board just axed him but without cause – just because he looked at numbers and gave advice the Mayor didn’t want to hear.

Meanwhile, the Star provided excellent perspective on it today…

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