Off the rails, Part 2: Doug Ford’s big plan for transit in Toronto

ANALYSIS: Another premier, another plan to expand the city’s inadequate public-transportation network. How does Ford’s proposal stack up?
By Matt Gurney - Published on May 30, 2019
Minister of Transportation Jeff Yurek and Premier Doug Ford make their way to an announcement about the province’s public-transit plans. (Chris Young/CP)

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This is Part 2 of a three-part series on public transit in Toronto. Click here to read Part 1.

The premier of Ontario stood before assembled media at a Toronto transit facility and pledged to spend billions of dollars on three major projects. “We’re building the kind of integrated rapid-transit systems that a growing, exciting region like this absolutely has to have … [We’re] moving forward,” the premier declared. “We can’t allow Toronto to be dragged back into endless debates. The days of throwing out plans and starting from scratch — those have to be over.”

I’ve carefully left the identity of the premier out of the above. It could be any of them in recent memory, couldn’t it?

In this case, it was Kathleen Wynne. She made the announcement on May 3, 2018, at GO Transit’s Willowbrook maintenance yard, in the presence of Mayor John Tory. The premier committed funds to the Downtown Relief Line, an extension of the Yonge Street subway to suburban Richmond Hill, and a new light-rail line along Toronto’s rapidly developing and transit-starved lakeshore. The province would also continue to support a controversial one-stop subway extension into Scarborough.

Six days after Wynne’s announcement, the 2018 provincial-election campaign officially began; less than a month after that, the Progressive Conservatives won a strong majority. Ten months later, this April, Premier Doug Ford announced his government’s transit plan. It was very different from Wynne’s. The endless debates continued.

Yesterday, TVO.org published the first piece in this series. It traced Toronto’s current transit woes back to the 1970s and right through the recession in the early ’90s. Today, we’re narrowing our focus to the here and now. Specifically, we’re asking what the status quo looks like, what the Progressive Conservatives have proposed, and how their proposal differs from what Wynne and the Liberals had intended to do.

For this piece, I interviewed several transit experts familiar with Toronto’s circumstances. They had a lot of positive things to say about the Toronto Transit Commission. After all, the TTC is, by many metrics, a success story. It’s North America’s third-most-used system, behind only New York City’s and Mexico City’s. Its daily reliability is, in relative terms, high.

But it has real problems. In my conversations, I heard variations on a common theme: Toronto is a city that provides two almost totally different rider experiences.

For some Torontonians, the places where they live, work, and play are all easily accessible by transit. For them, the TTC is a reasonably affordable, safe, and clean way of going about their lives in a bustling city. Others experience the TTC very differently. It doesn’t effectively connect the places they want to travel to and from. It’s slow, unreliable, and frustrating. Many days, overcrowding in stations or aboard vehicles makes commuting unpleasant.

These are not competing narratives: both are true. Toronto has a transit system that was adequate circa 1980, but the city has done little to expand it since. Meanwhile, the region’s population has grown considerably — especially in the 905. Coasting on the foresight of previous generations isn’t an option anymore.

So, what now? What’s needed right away?

It’s a long list, and some of it, including ramping up GO train services in the far reaches of the Greater Toronto Area, falls outside the scope of this series. But for Toronto itself, there’s a clear standout priority — a subway, in some configuration, that provides new access to downtown.

Right now, overcrowding on the city’s main north-south subway line, Line 1, the eastern portion of which runs under Yonge Street, is a severe issue. Commuters from northern parts of the city fill up the trains before they reach downtown; riders boarding at southern stations watch in frustration from crowded platforms as packed trains pass them by. Meanwhile, at Bloor-Yonge, one of three stations where Line 1 intersects with the east-west Line 2 (which runs under Bloor Street and Danforth Avenue), the crush of people transferring between lines isn’t just inconvenient; it’s also a safety risk. A new north-south subway line that would run into (and partially through) downtown from the east has been identified as an urgent need for years — in fact, for almost my entire lifetime.

The problem is that any Downtown Relief Line is going to cost many billions of dollars. The city has been incrementally moving the project forward, conducting engineering assessments and environmental reviews and mapping out preliminary designs, but, for years, it did so without funding for the DRL in place. That’s why Wynne’s announcement in 2018 was seen as a big deal: the province was actually putting cash on the table.

The other two projects that Wynne committed to that day were also important. As noted above, Toronto’s lakeshore is rapidly developing, but it’s seriously underserved by transit. Some streetcars already operate there, but the province was committing to funding a major expansion, a new “Waterfront LRT” that would have served existing and future neighbourhoods. The third project, an extension of Line 1 under Yonge Street into York Region, was hardly a priority for Toronto itself, but it was something that 905 politicians had been demanding for years. Including it in the government’s plan was, for Wynne, good politics, if not great policy.

These subway and light-rail routes were not all that Toronto needed. But the Downtown Relief Line and the Waterfront LRT were (and remain) important projects. And, considered alongside the nearly complete Eglinton Crosstown LRT and the Finch West LRT, for which construction contracts were signed in 2018, it seemed, for a time, as if Toronto might finally start to catch up.

But Kathleen Wynne isn’t the premier anymore.

On April 10, just 11 months after Wynne had stated that the days of endless debates over transit plans were at an end, Ford announced a transit plan of his own. With an estimated budget of $28.5 billion, the proposal contains some familiar sights. It would see Line 1 extended into York Region, as previously planned. Finch West remains on the map, and, according to a statement from Metrolinx provided to TVO.org, construction will begin this summer (preliminary work — erecting fencing, establishing field offices, and so on — has already begun). The Scarborough subway extension remains, too; under Ford’s plan, it would feature three stops instead of one (at additional cost, of course). The Eglinton line would be extended as far west as Pearson Airport, something that had been previously agreed upon in principle but left unfunded.

But there were two surprises: The Waterfront LRT is entirely absent. And the Downtown Relief Line looks a whole lot different.

The city’s vision for the relief line was relatively modest: it would have run east-west through part of downtown before curling north to meet Line 2 near the Danforth. That was what Wynne agreed to fund; there were plans to extend it north at some later date, but there was no firm timeline in place. Ford’s plan calls for a much longer line — roughly twice the length. It would start at Eglinton Avenue, in the northeast, then pass through downtown and end at Ontario Place, in the southwest. This so-called Ontario Line is dramatically different from what the Liberals had planned to fund, but the province has said that, using new technology, it can be delivered for the same amount of money. And faster.

Steve Munro is an expert on Toronto transit. In an interview, he offered cautious praise for this part of the plan. “The one piece I will say good things about is at least the Ontario Line goes to Eglinton right away. The idea that you would stop at Danforth and require a terminal and interchange facilities there, rather than continuing up to Eglinton in one shot … [presents] a lot of technical problems.” Munro has written for years that extending the DRL farther north is absolutely critical. He would prefer that it go all the way to Fairview Mall, in North York, where it would intersect with the Sheppard subway. This, he believes, would provide the most effective relief for the overcrowded Line 1. But building the DRL out to Eglinton is, at least, a major step in the right direction.

Cameron MacLeod of transit advocacy group CodeRedTO likes that aspect of the plan, too. “The map going north up to Eglinton, when Metrolinx studies benefits, they said the best return-on-investment is going all the way up to Sheppard,” he told TVO.org. Eglinton isn’t as good as that, he said, but it’s better than the Danforth: “This is important — it’s vital we get this thing further north.” He hopes that, even if this plan falls through, putting it on the map will at least change that part of the discussion. “We need to shift that Overton window,” he said.

But there are problems with Ford’s plan. Both Munro and MacLeod noted the absence of the Waterfront LRT — condos and office buildings are already being built along the lakeshore, and many exist already. Unless new transit is added quickly, those residents and workers will have a hell of a time getting around. Toronto’s bus capacity is largely maxed out, and it doesn’t have enough garage space to add significantly more buses to the fleet (the opening of the Eglinton LRT line, scheduled for 2021, will make some buses available for redeployment elsewhere). The TTC is desperately short on the funds necessary just to keep in good repair what it already has, and the province has yet to announce how funding for the Eglinton and Finch West lines will work. These are worrying signs.

And Munro noted that, although starting the Ontario Line at Eglinton makes good sense, moving it through downtown under Queen Street before it heads south to Ontario Place would be a major engineering challenge. The tunnels will have to slip carefully between the deep foundations of skyscrapers and condo towers and make an aggressive southward turn to end up at Ontario Place. Possible? Sure. Easy and/or cheap? Not likely.

Which leads us to the next issue: Doug Ford has announced his plan. How likely is it that it’ll ever get built, let alone on time and on budget?

That’s a topic for tomorrow.

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