Streetcar Toronto

In a simple move, Toronto transforms a streetcar line into something far more useful

» The city’s King Street Transit Pilot is preventing cars from using the street as a throughway. In doing so, it’s showing how other cities might prioritize transit on their busiest streets.

With almost 300,000 daily riders, Toronto’s streetcar system is the most-used light rail network in North America. Unfortunately, for many of its riders, it’s not a particularly pleasant experience.

That’s because most of its streetcar lines operate in a right-of-way shared with automobiles, slowing the system to a crawl. It’s a misery unfortunately shared with most of the new streetcar lines now existing, under construction, and planned in the U.S.—and, perhaps more importantly, with virtually all bus routes.

This week, Toronto has begun piloting one solution.

It has substantially improved streetcar service on a portion of King Street, which runs roughly east-west through the densest portion of the city’s downtown. On the 1.6 miles between Bathurst and Jarvis Streets, King Street has been temporarily transformed through the city’s intervention.

This pilot has significantly reduced space for cars along the street, eliminating parking spaces, adding public art, installing planters, creating small new public plazas, and—perhaps most importantly—prevented people from driving on the street for more than one block or taking left turns.

It’s therefore not a full car ban; some vehicles will still travel in the streetcar right-of-way, a less-than-optimal situation. But it is an effort to ensure that drivers are only using the portion of the street they need. As a result, most of the street is reserved for trains, bikers, and pedestrians.

We’ve yet to see the long-term results of the project, but initial public reaction suggests that the changes have significantly sped up what was once a very slow streetcar line. Riders are saving five to 13 minutes per trip, a massive improvement for such a short trip. Streetcars are running more quickly and less likely to get stuck at lights. Cyclists are riding more safely. And traffic doesn’t seem to have been pushed onto surrounding streets.

It’s too early to know the full impact of the changes, but Toronto will be monitoring transit and street performance over the next year, at which point the pilot may be made permanent. What is clear, however, is that at a cost of $1.5 million, the pilot is a very cheap way to test how to dramatically improve transit service.

It’s also targeted to the right area. Streetcars on King Street carry about 65,000 daily riders, more than any other surface transit route in the city. At the same time, only about 20,000 cars travel on the street on a typical day. In other words, the large majority of people moving on the street are on transit, not in personal automobiles. The city has intervened to prioritize people, not cars.

King Street has not been transformed into a full-scale light rail corridor, and it could certainly use an aesthetic upgrade. It does not go nearly as far as the creation of dedicated streetcar rights-of-way, as was done on other major streets in Toronto, such as Spadina and St. Clair. Yet these improvements are likely to grow ridership, much as those routes experienced.

What’s most exciting about Toronto’s project is that it suggests how other cities with major street-running transit lines might engage to improve the quality of service their riders experience. It suggests a mechanism for cities like Atlanta or Kansas City—which recently opened new, slow streetcar routes that share lanes with cars—to transition to faster, more reliable operations. It shows what is possible to achieve in situations where there simply isn’t adequate support to fully ban cars from streets.

It also is a demonstration of what could be done to improve bus service in the immediate term, at a very low cost, in cities everywhere. Places that lack the funds or interest to roll out a full-scale bus rapid transit route with expensive street upgrades and special streetscapes might, in the meantime, experiment with streets that limit car circulation much as Toronto has done. Executed through a pilot, cities could test options with very limited financial commitment but, in the process, potentially dramatically improve the performance and speed of transit trips.

Implementing this streetcar pilot was no foregone conclusion; just a few years back, Toronto’s then-mayor Rob Ford suggested that he wanted to eliminate the entire streetcars system. Street investments that truly prioritize people over cars require political initiative and will.

Image at top: Traffic on Queen King Street, from City of Toronto.

Commuter Rail Toronto

Make the effort, and commuter rail can be as effective as rapid transit

» Thanks to political initiative and the need to serve a growing region, Toronto’s GO Transit is increasingly making its commuter rail services not so commuter-oriented.

In North America, “commuter rail” has come to mean something very specific: Large, heavy trains operating almost entirely at peak, providing services to downtown in the morning and away from it at night along corridors that extend into the suburbs. It’s a definition that makes sense for a world where regions are structured with one central business district whose workers live in the suburbs and work nine-to-five jobs on weekdays.

Of course, that’s not the world we live in. Of the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, only two have a majority of their jobs located within three miles of their downtown, and most suburban workers don’t work in city centers. A sizable share of the population doesn’t work a “normal” workweek.

Yet most commuter rail providers continue to operate as if nothing has changed since the 1950s, and for their clientèle, it hasn’t, because the people who ride commuter trains are mostly the people who work “traditional” jobs at “normal” hours downtown. In the process, commuter agencies have ignored the progress made elsewhere to convert these traditional services into frequent, two-direction, all-day services similar to rapid transit. And they’ve lost out: While ridership on American heavy and light rail systems — which feature the service characteristics of rapid transit — has expanded by more than 90% overall since 1995, ridership on commuter rail systems has increased by only 35%.

In Ontario, GO Transit is piloting a new approach that could serve as a model for commuter rail agencies that need to be brought into modernity. GO has seven commuter lines that feed into Toronto’s Union Station along 280 miles of service, carrying about 200,000 daily train riders, and until recently it’s been primarily focused on the core, peak-hour, peak-direction commute shared with most agencies.

But thanks to the electoral pledge and eventual budget plans of former Premier Dalton McGuinty and current Premier Kathleen Wynne, combined with progressive thinking from agency leadership, the agency has shifted its priorities.

In the 2007 strategic plan, GO chairman Peter Smith emphasized that the agency needed to “grow into an even more comprehensive system that links multiple activity centres and communities,” spreading its mission beyond just serving peak travelers into central Toronto. The plan specified the goal of expanding service to every 15 minutes during the peak hours and every 30 minutes off-peak. In the post recent five-year strategy of GO’s overseeing agency (Metrolinx), the agency lays out its plan to transition to an “all-day regional transit service.” You can be assured that the largest U.S. commuter agencies have no such plans on their radar.

One year ago, GO took the most significant step yet in that direction, bringing all-day, half-hourly, two-directional service to the Lakeshore commuter lines, up from one-hour headways. The change has already increased ridership by 30% on those lines.

The benefits of thinking more broadly about potential riders are very significant. Commuter rail improvements create an opportunity to provide a far faster transit option that traverses the region at commuter rail speeds (which average above 30 mph) at arrival frequencies similar to rapid transit lines (which average 15 to 20 mph). These improvements open suburban markets to transit, giving people who live near stations the kind of service that people who live in denser, urban areas expect as a standard element of city life. They reduce the need for a car for commutes that require traversing large sections of a large region.

Perhaps most importantly, upgrading commuter rail can be done at a reasonable price, since improvements are made on existing corridors.

This year, the governing Liberals (led by Ms. Wynne) promised to bring a service improvement to the Kitchener line by 2016, and more lines will be converted. They also raised the possibility that more frequent service, potentially on electrified lines, could be coming within 10 years thanks to investments in smaller, lighter vehicles. Regional officials committed to transforming GO into “Regional Express Rail“* by providing electric service every 15 minutes (though there is still a need for additional traditional subway service, costs for the GO conversion are not yet clear, and this idea was brought up as far back as the 1980s). The idea was not just supported by the Liberals; Conservatives at the provincial level also indicated their support for the idea. Now the leader in Toronto’s upcoming mayoral election, John Tory, has said he’d like to convert two GO lines to rapid transit standards.

The sudden interest among Torontonians in the improvement of service along the city’s commuter services is partly a reflection of the fact that the region is growing quickly, adding about half a million people every five years, and partly a reflection of the fact that politicians are willing to support big transit projects because people vote for politicians who support using government funds to pay for them. But it is also a reflection of the fact that GO has spent a decade and a half preparing for this transition, notably by increasing its ownership of track miles on which its trains run from 6% in 1998 to almost 70% today. It is no longer at the mercy of freight rail operators in making decisions about how to operate services.

Other American commuter rail operators should closely examine Toronto’s work in improving its commuter rail operations. These transitions will help make the system far more useful for more people, and help adapt commuter rail as a mode to changes in commute and population patterns.

Fortunately, several other cities look like they might be headed in the right direction already. Caltrain, connecting San Francisco and San Jose, is planning a major modernization project that will bring electrified trains and more frequent service along its tracks. Boston’s MBTA and New York’s Long Island Railroad have proposed, though not yet funded, using lighter diesel multiple units on several corridors to increase service.

Many other agencies will continue to resist the change, playing on the argument that their core mission is to serve the peak-hour, peak-direction rider. But if the transportation network as a whole is to make a difference in giving people who live along commuter rail lines faster, more frequent access to transit, thinking about “non-traditional” users is essential.

* The name is clearly a reference to Paris’ RER, which is a network of rapid transit lines running through the city at very fast speeds and onto formerly commuter rail tracks in the suburbs.

Image at top from Flickr user Perry Quan (cc).

Finance Toronto

To Immediate Controversy, Toronto Region Unveils Potential Revenue Sources to Promote $34 Billion in New Transit

» With C$16 billion in transit expansion already underway, Ontario wants to line up twice as much funding for dozens of new subways, light rail lines, and bus rapidways.

The Toronto region* already has one of the continent’s largest funded transit expansions under construction. By the early 2020s, Greater Toronto, Canada’s largest metropolitan area, will have four new light rail lines running on 52 kilometers of track; an 8.6-kilometer extension of an existing subway line; an airport express line; an improved central station; several bus rapid transit lines; and improved all-day commuter rail service. For a growing region with serious congestion problems, it’s a big expansion that will provide more rapid transit more quickly than any city on the continent.

Those improvements, however, hardly satisfy regional officials, who have plans for more than C$34 billion additional new transit lines. But the primary sources of funding for the current projects — Ontario Province and the Canadian federal government — aren’t yet ready to commit to such a significant investment. Thus the regional transit coordinating body, Metrolinx, developed an investment strategy released last month that recommended a variety of new funding sources that could provide the needed revenues to pay for these transit expansions.

Metrolinx’s investment strategy is notable in two ways: First, it takes responsibility for articulating clear new funding streams that would cover the cost of the transportation program. The report provides a compelling argument, founded on international comparisons, that the region must find new ways to sponsor transportation spending or it will suffer from increased congestion and reduced economic activity. It thus offers strong rhetoric for why new revenues must be established, and it documents why certain revenue sources are more effective than others.

Second, in line with the province’s “Big Move” transportation proposal, the investment strategy articulates a bold vision for the future of the Toronto region. Rejecting a car-focused approach, the strategy suggests that almost all new revenues be directed towards new public transportation capacity. Its goals including reducing the average automobile commute distance, reducing the percentage of commutes by car, and increasing the mode share of transit by more than doubling annual transit rides. Though the Toronto region’s transit mode share is currently higher than that of any U.S. city other than New York, less than five percent of employees working in its suburban areas take public transportation to work. There’s a lot of improvement to be made.

The plan does this not by simply stating idealistic goals as policy but by endorsing a more than tripling of the length of the regional rapid transit network (from 500 kilometers to 1725 kilometers) and a doubling of the percentage of people living and working within two kilometers of a rapid transit station (not just any old bus line). Moreover, it prioritizes projects using a series of empirical performance measures that nonetheless recognize the value of investment throughout the region, rather than just within the core city.

There are reasons to suspect that the funding strategy suggested by Metrolinx won’t pass political muster, at least not in its entirety (I’ll get to that by the end of this article), but the regional entity’s entrepreneurial approach to promoting new investment is a model for other urban transportation agencies. Too many U.S. metropolitan areas are content to develop their transit networks line-by-line, hoping that federal funding might parachute in and contribute half the cost. There is usually little thought about how to develop transit from a regional perspective, nor about how to dedicate new funding streams most effectively. Though many U.S. regions hope to reduce automobile mode share, they rarely propose a concrete way in which to accomplish that objective. Toronto is doing just that. Its leaders are promoting an alternative vision: A public transportation network plan whose investments will benefit most residents of the region, backed by dedicated revenues, making a more environmentally friendly, transit-oriented metropolis possible.

The investment strategy

As the following chart shows, investment in public transportation infrastructure in the Toronto region has ramped up tremendously over the past few years, primarily because of increasing support from Ontario Province. Former Toronto Mayor David Miller was a big supporter of transit expansion and was able to convince Former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to invest massively in new light rail lines for the city after decades of regional spending largely constrained to highway expansion. Though Mr. Miller’s transit projects were cancelled by new Mayor Rob Ford, they were put back into play by a rebellious city council and now several are under construction.

Ontario Transit Capital Funding

The region’s 25-year “Big Move” transportation plan was approved in 2008. The proposal includes the currently funded lines, but also a slew of other projects that would blanket the region with new rapid transit. By the early 2030s, the plan suggests, the region will have two additional subway extensions, three additional reserved-corridor BRT lines, two additional light rail lines, and a significantly improved commuter rail system that will implement regular all-day service on all lines and electrify two lines. Every area of the region will see improved service, and the large majority of residents would be placed within easy access of rapid transit. The plan’s name is hardly a misnomer.

These projects were selected through a “prioritization framework,” as summarized in the following chart. This included a cost-benefit analysis (“BCA”) for each project, which took advantage of empirical measures such as projected ridership, job creation, travel time savings, and costs. Political issues, such as whether the projects were seen to be a priority to officials and a guarantee that all parts of the region would be included (geographic equity), were then addressed to select the final list of proposed projects.

Strategic Project Priotization

To be fully implemented (including the “Next Wave” future projects), however, Big Move requires at least C$34 billion in new funding, or about C$2 billion more a year.

Metrolinx conducted a series of public engagement processes over the course of the previous six months to determine whether public support for new revenues could be amassed, and what kinds of revenues would be considered most appropriate of 25 potential tax sources. MASS LBP, a firm that specializes in consulting with the public, was hired to run 12 roundtables that engaged stakeholders directly. The firm produced a wonderful piece of marketing called the “conversation kit” that includes a series of information cards that allow the public to quickly evaluate different revenue sources, transportation options, and make international comparisons. Having handled it myself, the kit is a device other agencies attempting to determine public opinions about a project should absolutely engage.

Finally, Metrolinx randomly selected 36 representative citizens from around the region, who committed to four Saturdays to learn about transportation issues and develop a “reference panel” on regional transportation investment. These people, informed by experts but not experts themselves, recommended a series of measures to fund all of the proposed transportation investments in the Toronto region.

Following the roundtables, consultations, and input from municipalities, Metrolinx recommended a series of dedicated revenue sources to fund its new public transportation program. According to the plan, the sales tax in the metropolitan area would be increased by 1 percentage point (up from 8%, contributing about C$1.3 billion per year); an additional five-cent levy would be placed per liter of gas sold (that’s about a 20-cent per-gallon increase in U.S. terms, representing C$330 million per year); a fee would be placed on parking lots owned by businesses (equivalent to about C$0.25/space/day year, and totaling C$350 million per year); and new development charges (C$100 million per year) would be added.

Metrolinx argues that other funding tools, such as toll lanes, paid parking at transit stations, value capture, and the sale of publicly owned land, also be considered. Low-income residents will be provided a tax credit to offset some of the additional fees they would incur.

In sum, the more than C$2 billion to be raised each year would be distributed primarily (75%) to the new capital projects included in the Big Move plan. Once these projects are completed, funds will be used to fund maintenance costs and Metrolinx’s share of operating costs. Of the remaining C$500 million, about C$100 million will go towards improving existing highways, C$300 million to municipalities for local roads and transit, and C$100 million to walking, biking, and other assorted transportation projects.

Metrolinx’s investment strategy argues that the lack of transit system growth in the Toronto region has reduced the quality of life. “The consequence [of a lack of new transit spending] has been an overcrowded transit system, slowed commutes, increased greenhouse gas emissions, and barriers to economic growth,” the strategy articulates. With 100,000 new residents joining the region every year, the problems will increase. New funding is required.

Even with all of the new taxes, the public won’t see a huge hit to their pocketbooks, as the following chart makes clear. The cost of a brand-new transit network will be about 1/20th of the amount the typical Ontario household currently spends on owning personal vehicles annually.

Personal Spending

Political obstacles

The release of Metrolinx’s revenue strategy was greeted with immediate criticism from certain elected officials. Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty flatly refused to consider a sales tax increase only applicable to the metropolitan area, as Metrolinx has proposed (the Canadian government is run by the Conservative Party (on the political right), whereas Ontario is led by the center-left Liberal Party). Toronto Mayor Rob Ford — who is facing a complete breakdown of his power thanks to a drug scandal — has rejected the idea of any new taxes at all, and early polls suggest little public support for the idea.

Meanwhile, columnist Steve Munro argues that the $2 billion in revenues that the plan would raise may not be enough to fund the proposed projects, and that Toronto city councilors have all sorts of zany ideas about the appropriate projects to be funding, which in most cases do not seem to align with the plans Metrolinx has in mind.

Nonetheless, Liberal Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne has shot back that she will defend the big new investment in public transportation — particularly if the Canadian federal government continues to refuse to develop a national transit funding strategy. She argues that traffic problems in the Toronto region are significant enough to merit new taxes. She and Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig have argued that, rather than endorse a sales tax increase just in the Toronto metropolitan area, they might push a provincial-wide increase.

That would require defending the new taxes and imposing them on people far from Toronto, which might elicit an outcry. Yet Wynne argues that any money collected from outside of the metropolitan area would be spent outside as well.

Metrolinx’s revenue program, then, has a long way to go before it’s the law. But the sheer ambition of the proposal, and, more importantly, the willingness of at least some politicians to promote the tax increases it would include, are positive signs for the future of Toronto. As the investment strategy notes, “We could choose to pause after the current $16 billion investment is completed, and resume an ad hoc approach to transit expansion in our region. But the threat to our economic performance and quality of life is too great to take that risk. The alternative? To reaffirm our commitment to invest in a better future.” Other city leaders could learn to think the same way.

* The Toronto region is known as the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) by locals, including Ontario province, as the region extends far beyond the confines of Toronto. For simplicity’s sake, I call it “Toronto region” here.

Images above from Metrolinx.

Light Rail Toronto

Toronto’s Transit City Back in Play

» Toronto’s regional transportation authority agrees to move forward with a plan for four new light rail routes. Despite opposition from the mayor.

Canada’s largest city may be experiencing the most intense public transportation-related psychodrama in North America. Five years after Mayor David Miller unveiled his Transit City proposal for a citywide network of light rail lines, two years after Ontario government agreed to fund half of them, and one year after a new mayor announced that “Transit City is Dead,” the project finally appears to be moving forward. A unanimous vote by Toronto regional transportation officials today clears the way for C$8.4 billion in new transit investments between now and 2020.

In the process, conservative Mayor Rob Ford, whose antipathy towards alternative transportation modes verged on the truly anti-urban, has lost his influence. It’s an exciting step for a city that has wavered wildly on transportation issues over the past decade, but which is in true need of better public transit.

Before describing the process by which the city endorsed, then rejected, then came back to approving the Transit City plan, the full extent of the 75-kilometer system proposed for the city should be described. At the heart of the network is the Eglinton Crosstown project, which will run east-west 25 kilometers through the center of the city, offering an alternative to the over-capacity Bloor-Danforth Subway; about half of the alignment will be underground, with the other half above surface. Two other routes — along Finch and Sheppard Avenues — will bring surface light rail lines to suburban arterials. And the Scarborough RT, an automated transit service not unlike the Vancouver SkyTrain (though not automated), will be replaced and extended by a new elevated light rail line. Together, the projects will provide relief for a series of neighborhoods with lower densities than the center of the city.

Construction on the Eglinton project is already underway; the other lines will begin in 2014 and 2015, in time for a systemwide completion by 2020.

What Transit City is not is a project designed to serve the needs of downtown commuters, who will remain served primarily by the same two subway lines first constructed opened in the 1950s and 60s and an aging network of streetcars. Nor will it connect to the airport or along a number of north-south routes proposed in the initial Transit City plan (on the Don Mills, Jane, and Malvern corridors).

Yet the investment plan remains a very significant improvement for Toronto, which now can boast of the continent’s second-largest funded rail transit expansion plan by route miles (after Los Angeles).

In 2007, Mayor Miller took a wild step in announcing that he wanted to bring to fruition a network of eight new light rail corridors along 120 kilometers to serve parts of the city that did not — and like would not, due to density — get new subway service. The Transit City apellation was apt, since what the mayor was proposing was a reorientation of virtually all of the city’s neighborhoods towards new high-capacity rail corridors. It was a dramatic bet, since Mr. Miller did not have the funds to build any of it. By early 2009, though, he had convinced Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty to devote C$3 billion to the program, and by summer, all four of the lines that are in the current plans were funded. It was an arrangement only made possible because of considerable political entrepreneurship. Mr. Miller made transit expansion a serious matter by getting a big vision into the minds of the city’s population, and Mr. McGuinty, with the funds, was convinced to pay up. It’s a model other cities could learn from.

By early 2010, after Mr. Miller decided not to run for election, contenders for the mayor’s office began suggesting their opposition to Transit City, noting the fact that light rail would require surface construction* and the removal of car lanes (despite the ample space available on Toronto’s wide arterials). Rocco Rossi, once seen as a front-runner for the position, said he would put a moratorium on light rail project development were he to win. Rob Ford ran an aggressive campaign premised on attracting the support of city residents far from downtown (“suburbanites” in Toronto parlance) in which he proposed eliminating the city’s streetcars, relegating bikes to nature paths, and replacing the light rail plans with subways, which he claimed were more in sync with the city’s mentality. In other words, they were more in sync with the city’s drivers.

As we know, Mr. Ford won. He used his election as evidence that the city’s residents abhorred the idea of building more light rail and announced that he had canceled Transit City immediately. In March of last year, he signed an agreement with the Ontario government that eliminated the Finch light rail line (in favor of the mythical “better bus”), pushed the Eglinton Line fully underground, and promised to build an extension of the Sheppard Subway, rather than a surface light rail line as had been previously proposed. The problems were two-fold: The new transit lines would serve far fewer people than Mr. Miller’s proposal, at a higher cost; and there was no funding for the new Sheppard Subway because of the massive cost increase Mr. Ford subjected to the Eglinton Line because of his insistance that it be placed underground.

By summer 2011, it was clear that the “private partners” Mr. Ford wanted to pay for Sheppard Line were imaginary. The city was thus left with only the Eglinton Line and Scarborough Lines, 43 kilometers of new routes when it had once had 75 kilometers on the books. It was a waste of money and a disappointment for commuters.

These facts were impossible to ignore, and the city council rebelled. In January, Counselor Karen Stintz took charge, essentially dismissing Mr. Ford’s argument in favor of subways. In February and March, the council determined that Mr. Ford had acted without the council’s advice in dismissing Transit City and they returned their support to the previous plan, despite the Mayor’s vocal outrage. Metrolinx, the regional transportation body, released its study of the issue, agreeing with the council, and the body’s governing board action earlier today means that Transit City’s 75 kilometers, most of which will be surface-running light rail, will be built. The Sheppard Avenue line will open in 2018, four years after it was supposed to.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, this sage is not over, thanks to the obstreperous Mr. Ford, who is so devoted to the subway concept and the need to keep trains out of the street that he plans to make subways an election issue once again in the 2014 election, even though construction will have begun on several lines by that point. For the sake of Toronto’s near-term future, one hopes he doesn’t get the opportunity.

Oddly enough, the success of proponents of the light rail scheme in pulling together support for their project has encouraged others to note that the project’s shortcomings — notably its failure to mitigate the congestion on transit lines downtown — will remain struggles for this region after 2020. The redevelopment of Union Station and the improvement of GO commuter rail service, in addition to the demand from the new light rail lines, will overload the subway system. Thus the long sought-after Downtown Relief Line, which would double the Bloor-Danforth line downtown, has been brought up again by official and non-official sources. The paradox of investing in investing in new transit capacity is that more capacity brings more ridership. Yet that is a problem for another generation of leaders to solve.

Examining Toronto’s history, it is difficult to ignore referencing parallels to New Jersey, or Wisconsin, or Florida, where the entry of new conservative governors hostile to the idea of spending public funds on major new rail programs resulted in the cancellation of projects that would have cost those states very little in terms of actual expenditures had they been built. One hopes that, as in Toronto, the need to make rational investments in transportation will become clearer over time.

* This was a significant concern for residents of the city at the time due to the construction mess between 2006 and 2010 caused by the reconstruction of the St. Clair Streetcar to provide it dedicated lanes in its right of way.

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)