Toronto needs a downtown relief line — can the city get it built sooner than 2031?

After a week of "abysmal" delays on the TTC, calls to build a downtown relief line are ringing out louder than ever. Can the city get it built before a full-on capacity crisis?

A chaotic week on the TTC has people calling for the downtown relief line to be ready before 2031

Broken switches, a cracked rail and a fire contributed to a disastrous week for commuters. (Tariq Fancy/Twitter)

After a nightmare of a week that featured broken switches, a cracked rail and a near-evacuation of Bloor-Yonge station due to overcrowding, the calls to build a downtown relief line are ringing out louder than ever.

Indeed, everyone from the City of Toronto to the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) and its riders seem to agree — the relief line is a must.

The relief line would ease pressure on Line 1 by tunnelling east from Osgoode Station, across Queen Street and Eastern Avenue and then north under Pape to connect with the Bloor-Danforth Line, giving passengers another route from the suburbs to the downtown core.

The question now: how soon can the city get it built?

The city estimates the long-proposed line has to be up and running by 2031, when Line 1 is expected to reach its capacity of 31,000 riders per hour in both directions.

But if this past week was any indication, a critical mass on the TTC may be closer than previously thought.

"This is sort of the chickens coming home to roost," said Jennifer Keesmaat, CBC Toronto's urban affairs specialist and the city's former chief planner.

CBC Toronto's urban affairs specialist Jennifer Keesmaat says there are strategies that could have the line ready before 2031. (Rob Krbavac/CBC)

A 'perfect storm'

On Tuesday, the TTC experienced a massive delay that saw commuters piled up inside Bloor-Yonge Station at the peak of rush hour.

"I was here for about an hour, I missed like five trains," said Vanessa Floros, who ended up late for class on Tuesday morning. "I've never seen the TTC like that before."

The transit agency's spokesperson Brad Ross spent the following days doing damage control. He chalked up the "abysmal" service to what he called a "perfect storm" of factors, including a frozen switch, a pulled emergency alarm and even a fire.

But to Keesmaat, the delay highlighted the main reason why the downtown relief line is so badly needed: to create an alternative route in a system that currently has none.

"Right now, we do not have any redundancy in the system," she said on Metro Morning. "For many, many years —  you could argue decades —  we've been identifying the relief line as the first step to build redundancy, to build choice, to build capacity."

Getting it built

While the city has determined the proposed subway's alignment, Keesmaat worries the planning stage of the project is dragging.

An environmental assessment that was scheduled to begin in the fall of 2017 has not even started yet, Keesmaat has learned from her former staffers. There is also no funding plan for the actual construction of the multi-billion dollar line.

"We're losing another year," she said of the delay.

To make up that lost time, Keesmaat says the city could skip certain steps and fold others into a more compressed timeline.

Doing so would need a dedicated team working on the relief line full time, something that doesn't currently exist, she added.

"Given the growth that we see, the incredible pressure on transit, that we need to shorten that timeline and build the relief line sooner," she said.

'People are going to be hurt'

Others are proposing the city bump the relief line to the top of its priority list at the expense of other projects.

"Cancelling the Scarborough subway and redirecting funds back to Transit City and accelerating the Downtown Relief Line should be the 2018 ballot box question," Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam Tweeted this Thursday.

"People are going to be hurt —  overcrowding is so dangerous now," she added.

Keesmaat says that idea may be more difficult than it appears. A redesign of the Kennedy Station is already underway, along with work on SmartTrack and the Eglinton LRT which would connect to the extension. All that makes it "impossible" to simply cancel the Scarborough subway extension in favour of the relief line.

However, that doesn't preclude a creative solution to speed up the timeline, she said.

Despite being trapped inside a jam-packed station for around an hour on Tuesday, commuters say they still have confidence in their transit system, so long as the TTC receives the financial support it needs.

"I think that they're trying, but I think they just need some more funding," said Amy Persaud.

"Building more lines is important," added Chris Ohlendorf. "That would be the ideal solution."

About the Author

Nick Boisvert

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Nick Boisvert is a reporter and one-man band video journalist based in Toronto, covering general news, local politics and social justice. Outside work, Nick enjoys cooking, following the NBA and listing things in threes.