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35 years of Toronto transit that never happened

The Ontario government's plan to build new subways and extend existing lines follows a time-honoured tradition of ambitious and often unfulfilled visions for the future of transit in Toronto.

From magnetic rail pods in 1974 to 2009's Transit City, these plans got thrown under the bus

A TTC subway sign stands in front of Union Station in downtown Toronto, Sunday April 20, 2008. (J.P. Moczulski/Canadian Press)

The Ontario government unveiled a plan earlier this month to build subways and extend existing lines. That announcement follows a time-honoured tradition of ambitious and often unfulfilled visions for the future of transit in Toronto. 

We took a look back at some of the plans that Ontario governments — Progressive Conservative, Liberal and NDP — have made for public transit in and around the city. 

1974: Magnetic levitation

A European magnetic system is tested at the Exhibition grounds in 1974. 1:27

In 1974, the CBC reported that the province had purchased an "unproven" system using elevated tracks that would chart transit routes along existing railways and hydro rights-of-way.

They would spend $750 million on a 56-mile network comprising five routes, three of which would "terminate in Metro centre," with the other two being crosstown routes.

Transit advocate Steve Munro, riding at the back of a streetcar, said the province had failed to consider existing technology.

"When you put a streetcar on a private right-of-way like a railway train, it can run with subway-type service for speed and subway-style comfort," he said.

1982: Extensions to Hamilton and Oshawa

Ontario unveils an 'ambitious' outline for rapid transit within Metro Toronto and beyond in 1982. 1:37

Eight years later, the Progressive Conservatives were still the government in power and reporter Robert Fisher described traffic congestion as a "major problem" that the province was ready to confront.

To that end, Transportation Minister Jim Snow presented a roomful of municipal leaders with a regional transit plan on a map almost as tall as he was.

Its highlights included an east-west rapid transit line north of Highway 401 linking Scarborough with Etobicoke and Pearson International Airport, and lines that extended to Oshawa to the east and Hamilton to the west.  

But the thorny matter of who would pay had yet to be resolved, and it could take 20 years for it all to be completed. 

"As far as I'm concerned, the routes through Metro have got to be paid by the province," said Toronto Metro Chairman Paul Godfrey.

1985: A network 26 years away

Toronto city council considers a 1986 report that will add more subway lines. 1:49

After governing the province for 42 years, the Progressive Conservatives were out, and it may have seemed like a good opportunity for Toronto to get the funding it needed for transit.

That same month, a municipal committee reviewed a report called Network 2011 that envisioned what transit would look like in that then-faraway year.

It would build a subway along Sheppard Avenue stretching from the Downsview area in the west to the Scarborough Town Centre in the east, as well as a downtown subway line from Pape station on the Bloor-Danforth line "right to the downtown office towers."

Eglinton Avenue West would first get express buses, then, "perhaps a subway."

"Here at City Hall only two things stand in the way," said reporter Jay-Dell Mah. "Money and political will."

1986: Tweaks to Network 2011 

Network 2011 emphasizes too much long-term planning, according to a transit consultant 1:51

A year and a half later, Network 2011 had been refined, as reported by Lois Warren.

First would come the Sheppard subway line extending from Yonge Street to the Scarborough Town Centre. (This line did open, in 2002, but did not go to Scarborough.)

"To take pressure off the Yonge-Bloor intersection," the line from Pape station to Union Station was next — but it was not a subway anymore. It was a light rail line.

Eglinton Avenue West would get a busway to the boundary of Mississauga , and last, the subway would be completed west on Sheppard from Yonge to meet up with the top of the Spadina line.

"I don't think ... the Sheppard line is going to do a lot for the downtown-oriented traveller," said transit consultant Richard Soberman, who didn't agree that it should be the top priority.

"In fact, the problems that we're experiencing today ... relate to people who are travelling into Metro Toronto from across the metropolitan boundary." 

1990: Transit for the planet

Concerned about congestion and pollution in 1990, Premier David Peterson describes a Toronto-area transit plan that will cost $5 billion. 1:48

Aside from being annoying for drivers who probably figured everyone else could take transit, traffic congestion had another effect: pollution.

"Every additional passenger on a subway, bus or GO train represents one more small step in a battle won in the fight to preserve the plant," said Premier David Peterson as he announced the next transit plan for the Greater Toronto Area.

The Sheppard subway in North York was by then a certainty, and would be complete in 10 years with "private, provincial and municipal funds," according to reporter Lyn Whitham.

"I'm really happy. It's terrific," said smiling North York Mayor Mel Lastman. "Makes you feel great!"  

A new subway loop at the top would connect the Spadina and Yonge lines, and a holdover from the Network 2011 plan had an express bus route along Eglinton to Mississauga. But a new wrinkle would extend the Bloor-Danforth line west to Sherway Gardens mall.

Unseen on any previous plan was a Harbourfront LRT stretching "from the CNE to the Greenwood Track." 

The mayor of Scarborough was happy to see the RT go north to Malvern, but she wondered who would pay for it.

"It means that we have a lot of negotiating to do," she said. "We don't know what proportion of those costs the province is even prepared to come up with."     

1993: Nothing new, but faster

In 1993, premier Bob Rae shows off a plan to make five projects actually happen. 1:55

Premier Bob Rae brought out a throng of helmet-wearing construction workers to announce the NDP's "exciting" $1.5-billion transit plan for Toronto in 1993.

Rather than showing off any new plans, Rae pledged to "speed up" previously announced projects, said reporter Colleen McEdwards.

That included an extension all the way to York University which had been announced by the city the previous year, and a subway on Eglinton.

One of the construction workers wasn't sure it would all happen as planned.

"You know politicians. I'm always skeptical," he said. "It's definitely encouraging ... he did have this press conference in front of all these people and hopefully he's going to be true to his word." 

2009: Welcome to Transit City

Premier Dalton McGuinty pledges financial support for the city's plan to build a light rain network. 1:37

David Miller had been elected twice as Toronto's mayor, and Dalton McGuinty had accomplished the same as the Liberal premier of Ontario when they got together to announce full provincial funding for a plan, developed by the city, called Transit City.

The plan relied less on subways and more on rapid transit on major east-west routes like Finch and Eglinton.

"Now we have the money," said Miller. "There's no stopping us."

Transit users in York Region were pleased with the news.

"I certainly wouldn't mind getting to work faster," said one man waiting for a bus.  

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