Off the rails, Part 3: The premier has a transit plan. Will it ever get built?

ANALYSIS: Doug Ford’s proposal to expand Toronto’s transportation network is ambitious. It’s also complicated, risky, and light on details
By Matt Gurney - Published on May 31, 2019
Part of the Progressive Conservatives’ transit plan for Toronto includes extending the TTC’s Line 1 subway into suburban Richmond Hill. (Francis Vachon/CP)

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This is the final instalment in a three-part series on public transit in Toronto. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

Over the past two days, TVO.org has explored the challenging situation that Toronto transit riders face. In the first instalment, we looked at some of the historical context, going back as far as the 1970s. In the second, we examined much more recent history: how, in May 2018, then-premier Kathleen Wynne pledged funds for a major expansion of the Toronto Transit Commission’s network, only to lose the provincial election a month later. Her successor, Progressive Conservative Doug Ford, unveiled a new transit plan for the city last month.

Ford’s plan has much in common with Wynne’s: Extending the TTC’s Line 1 subway under Yonge Street into suburban Richmond Hill is a feature of both. So is a new LRT line along Finch Avenue, in the city’s northwest (construction on that is set to begin in a matter of weeks, Metrolinx told TVO.org on Wednesday). Both premiers planned to replace the TTC’s rickety Scarborough RT with an extension of Line 2 into Scarborough (Wynne’s proposal called for one stop; Ford’s calls for three, at additional cost).

But there are also major differences. Wynne’s plan included a “Waterfront LRT,” which would’ve expanded transit service near the lakeshore. That’s missing entirely from Ford’s plan. And the Downtown Relief Line, a new subway route stretching into the downtown core from the northeast, intended to aid overcrowded parts of the system, has been dramatically changed. It’s now twice as long: it extends farther north than originally planned, and it now passes through the entirety of downtown before turning south and terminating at Ontario Place. The government claims that new processes and technologies will allow it to deliver this much longer subway — dubbed the “Ontario Line” — for the same amount of money and in less time.

Will it?

In interviews with several transit experts and advocates, what emerged was a rough consensus that certain elements of Ford’s plan are likely achievable. Though his proposed extension of Line 2 into Scarborough is different from Wynne’s, both the Liberals and the PCs support the idea, in general terms. Likewise, extending Line 1 to Richmond Hill has broad political support at the provincial level, and it’s a vote-winner in seat-rich York Region.

What is controversial is the Ontario Line. It’s arguably the centrepiece of Ford’s plan, and the premier has made bold promises regarding budget and timeline. I asked my experts whether they really thought there was a chance.

Yes, absolutely, said one. Brian Kelcey, vice-president of public affairs at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, thinks that the Ontario Line is doable, at least in broad strokes — because it’s already been done elsewhere, more or less. (Disclosure: the author is a friend of Kelcey’s.)

“If we use a lighter [type of train], we can go to single-bore construction,” he told TVO.org. “That makes what we’re building easier and less complicated. It lets us dig deeper, which means we avoid more utilities and create less disruption on the surface. If you cross the Don Valley with bridges instead of tunneling under, that saves you time and complexity. And one of the reasons [the government is] looking at lighter trains is explicitly because it would make those bridges easier and faster to build.”

Kelcey continued: “We can look at standardizing station design. And we can look to train manufacturers to see what existing designs they already have in production and order more of those. We’ve got to be open to bidders telling us that their vehicle can be provided from an existing production line with existing technology. That reduces a lot of uncertainty and risk.”

“This is how they do it in Spain — a First World, Western country,” he noted. “They’ve figured out how to build subways relatively quickly and cheaply. And, in Paris, they’re building 200 kilometres of subways in mostly suburban areas in 14 years. And that’s considered a failure. They think that’s too slow.”

For reference, the entire length of Line 1, from York Region down to Union Station and back up to Finch, is less than 40 kilometres.

Kelcey is not blindly optimistic. He worries that the city and province will be limited more by outdated and slow political structures than by any construction constraints. But he’s still bullish on the plan. “Even if we’re a year or two late,” he says, “and even if we go over budget at the end, we’re getting twice the line that was originally proposed. We’re bringing subway service to two neighbourhoods — Thorncliffe and Liberty Village — that are desperate for transit but wouldn’t get any under the old plan for decades.” Besides, he notes, there is no reason to assume that the previous plan wouldn’t have run late and over budget.

Kelcey’s optimism is enticing, if almost inconceivable for someone used to Toronto’s transit-expansion flops. I’m not the only one who’s skeptical. So is Steve Munro, an author and an expert on Toronto transit. When I asked him if he thought Ford’s plan, particularly the Ontario Line, had a realistic chance, he noted that right now, we don’t really know much about it.

“How many weeks has it been since this whole thing was announced?” he asked. “We still don’t know the technical details. Could they give us a little bit more? Are there other lines in the world that were built the same way that might give us a hint of what kind of technology we’re talking about? There’s nothing.”

This has Munro worried. “Are we at a drawing-on-napkins level of planning here?” he asks. Munro is concerned that a plan so vague and with such an aggressive deadline could leave the government vulnerable to signing a contract it doesn’t properly understand, in terms of risk and commitment. His best-case scenario for the end of Ford’s first term is that there’s some preliminary work underway on both the Scarborough extension and the Ontario Line, perhaps with work having begun on digging launch sites for tunnel-boring machines. That would count as “shovels in the ground.” And that’s as far as he thinks Ford can get in the next three years.

Asking about the first term was, admittedly, arbitrary on my part. Ford may not have anything under construction by 2022, but if he’s able to advance projects to the point where construction is imminent, then he could still run on that during the election campaign. Tricia Wood, a professor of geography at York University, noted that the years ahead need to be devoted not just to building stuff — as important as that is — but also to figuring out how all parts of the plan will operate and fit together.

“All we’re looking at, and measure success by, is building lines. But is it a success if we build a line but can’t keep it in good repair?” Wood noted that, even as the Ford government was announcing the lines it would build in Toronto, it was also withdrawing a portion of gas-tax revenues that the city had intended to use to address maintenance backlogs for its existing transit assets. The TTC is already run-down and, in many places, at capacity, Wood said — and adding a few new lines won’t fix that.

“If you gifted Toronto a new subway today,” she said, “the TTC couldn’t afford to operate it.”

I suggested, naively, that sorting out operations and maintenance would be easier than tunnelling and building stations. But she countered that the kind of work Ford is proposing would require unusually close co-operation between governments. The Line 1 extension to Richmond Hill, for instance, would be operated by the TTC and partially financed by the province, but it would run well into a neighbouring municipality. “Part of of my concern,” Wood said, “is that the city of Toronto and the whole GTA need a really good conversation about planning and financing and governance, and probably needs some reorganization. But we need a good, thorough, proper, evidence-centred discussion. What’s going on now is not that.”

And this isn’t just about governance. Wood is concerned that we don’t have enough time to plan the proposed lines properly. “Consultations matter,” she stressed. “We might spend billions to build a tunnel and then put all the stations in the wrong areas. We need to get that right. Rushing it won’t help.”

Her best-case scenario? It’s too soon to make any guesses about the Ontario Line, she said, though she granted that it might be possible to move forward with the middle section — the part that the city has already closely examined, which would run from Danforth Avenue into the downtown core. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess — at least until we know what kind of technology is being proposed. Wood said that if Ford wants shovels in the ground by the end of his first term, his best bet is the Richmond Hill extension. But if it were to open before the Ontario Line, it would make overcrowding on Line 1 that much worse.

But amid these differing perspectives, there was, to my surprise, a unanimous note of optimism. Good things are coming to the GTA. Cameron MacLeod of the Toronto transit advocacy group CodeRedTO, reminded me that a series of projects are nearing completion. The Eglinton Crosstown LRT is due to open in 2021. Construction on the Finch West LRT is just about underway. Other LRT lines, in Ottawa and Waterloo, will open soon, potentially within months.

“We’re heading into a period where the conversation is going to dramatically change, and not just in Toronto,” MacLeod said. “It will change for lots of really valuable voters, on a provincial scale, in multiple cities. Because now they will have really neat nearby things. Once the bugs are shaken out, these lines will do important stuff that voters have not seen before.”

He’s right. Even just considering what’s already in progress or nearing completion, major changes are taking place. Successful launches of new transit projects, using technologies that are relatively new to Ontario, may finally help prove to skeptical commuters and politicians alike that sustainable and responsible transit development is possible. And after a 40-year pause, Toronto may finally start building the system that a city its size needs.

The author is grateful to Professor Tricia Wood for her assistance in planning this project.

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