Metrolinx on collision course with residents, council over building part of Ontario Line above ground

Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster says the cost of a tunnel beneath Leslieville is prohibitive and more disruptive. Residents and their local councillor say building transit mega-projects the right way will protect the health and safety of communities.

Toronto city council passes motion calling for section to be built underground

GO Transit is set to put a test train in place on Sunday in Guelph in order to test faster speeds and service improvements. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

Despite opposition from many in the community and from Toronto city councillors, it may be full steam ahead to run the Ontario Line above ground through Leslieville and Riverside.

Phil Verster, the CEO of the province's regional transit agency, Metrolinx, says five options were considered and the benefits of using a portion of the existing Lakeshore East rail corridor outweigh digging a tunnel underneath the two neighbourhoods.

"Yes, anything can be done, but the costs are prohibitive … so there's really no practical reason why it should be done," said Verster.

"Below ground is hugely expensive and more disruptive."

In 2019, Premier Doug Ford unveiled the proposed Ontario Line, a 15-stop subway route that's slated to run 16 kilometres from Ontario Place through the downtown beneath King Street, then north up to the Ontario Science Centre.

The line, estimated to cost $10.9 billion, is expected to be complete by 2030. The plan replaces a subway route the TTC had been planning called the Relief Line, which was designed to relieve the crowding on the Yonge-University-Spadina line. 

Phil Verster, president and CEO of Metrolinx, says the most efficient route from East Harbour to Pape Avenue is above ground and that issues like noise and safety barriers can be mitigated using new technology. (CBC)

Verster estimated it would add $800 million to bury the section of the Ontario Line in question.

"Going above ground is not just the most efficient way to do it, but it's also the most community friendly way to do it."

But people who live in the area disagree, citing noise and the destruction of trees and animal habitats. They also worry about health and safety concerns posed by not just the construction of the line, but increasing the number of trains from 170 a day to around 800.

"It's like talking to a wall," said Eon Song, who belongs to a group called Save Jimmie Simpson, a neighbourhood park locals believe could be jeopardized by an above-ground Ontario Line.

"No information actually ever comes back. And we've raised health concerns that they say they will look and come back to us, but we haven't heard any answers." 

Metrolinx says using the existing rail corridor is the fastest, cheapest and most community-friendly route. (supplied)

Song also says the health impacts of trains rumbling by constantly have not been studied and that the seven-metre-tall sound barrier walls are not only unproven, they will divide the neighbourhood.

"When you cut down all the trees and put up walls, it's going to look like Guantanamo Bay," said Coun. Paula Fletcher, who represents Ward 14, Toronto-Danforth.

This week, Fletcher moved a motion asserting that it is impossible to add three new tracks for the Ontario Line and GO expansion of the Lakeshore East line without "considerable negative impact." The motion, passed by council, also calls for a return to the plan to build that section of the line underground as laid out in the Relief Line project.

"It's pretty clear what our position is. It is important to be on the record," she said of the largely symbolic motion.

"The province ripped up the [Relief Line Environmental Assessment] after three years of working on it. They took the project away. They make all the decisions and the federal government knows it too."

Richard Worzel, who lives north of the area in Riverdale, says the TTC should have been allowed to proceed with constructing the Downtown Relief Line.

Eon Song of the Save Jimmie Simpson group says not enough study has been done on the health impacts of the above-ground plans for the Ontario Line. He says requests for more information have been met with silence. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

"By doing this they've set the whole project back by years and it will be more expensive," he said. 

Residents also are upset with how Metrolinx has dealt with their concerns.

"Everybody seems to feel that this is being pushed through without community consideration and consultation," said Rebecca Wood, who lives in the area.

Claire Hastings and her son Alec, 4, live just across the street from the rail corridor. She's worried about what the Ontario Line will do to her neighbourhood.

Claire Hastings and son Alec live steps away from the GO rail corridor. She can't imagine how two more tracks for the Ontario Line, plus another for expanded GO train service will fit in Metrolinx's current right-of-way. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

"Metrolinx has not listened to the community's preference for burying the line," said Hastings.

"We aren't anti-transit. Everyone here takes public transit. We want to be partners in the process and not be ignored or overruled for reasons no one will share with us."

Metrolinx's Verster says community consultation has been meaningful and will be incorporated at the stage where bidders submit their proposals for consideration.

He says noise and safety concerns will be addressed by bidders with community involvement and that new technologies for sound barriers will address many of the concerns.

"We cannot consult enough. And we understand that. We need to go out of our way to listen, and we do," said Verster, who plans to meet with Coun. Fletcher next week.

Michael Crabb has lived in Leslieville for 37 years and says running the Ontario Line above ground will mean the destruction of trees and wildlife habitats, along with a vibrant community where people want to live. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

But Michael Crabb, who has lived in Leslieville for 37 years, says if the project goes ahead, it will be like an inner city expressway running through a vibrant neighbourhood.

"Why do they want to put this aboveground here where they will totally disrupt the neighborhood and do so much destruction to wildlife habitats as well as to the social life of this community?" asked Crabb.

"This is not just a vacant piece of land."


Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for the National Network based in Toronto. His stories are on CBC Radio's World Report, World This Hour, World at Six and The World This Weekend as well as CBC TV's The National and CBC News Online. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.


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