Toronto

5 announcements in 3 days: your week in transit news

New money, new maps, new station plans. From Scarborough to downtown to Richmond Hill, here's your guide to all of this week's announcements, and what they might mean for the future of transit in Toronto.

New funding, new maps, new station locations. But what does it all mean for your commute?

Commuters crowd around Pape Station on Wednesday, after a fire alert shut down a large portion of the Bloor-Danforth subway line. (CBC)

It was a whirlwind week for transit planning: the provincial government announced funding for two separate projects, city staff unveiled revised proposals for two new routes, and downgraded ridership projections put Mayor John Tory on the defensive about the Scarborough subway. 

So what exactly is happening?

The downtown relief line

This subway, which city planners have been contemplating for decades, is meant to provide an alternate way into downtown, thereby taking some of the pressure off existing lines. At a public consultation in Scarborough on Tuesday, city staff revealed the latest proposal for the specific route the new subway would take.

In the latest proposed alignment, the new subway line would run south at Pape, turn west at Eastern Avenue, then connect to Queen and Osgoode Stations.

In the latest proposed alignment, the new subway line would run south at Pape, turn west at Eastern Avenue, then connect to Queen and Osgoode Stations. (TTC)

The next day, the provincial government announced $150 million in new funding to develop plans further — though construction of the line itself is not yet funded. Tory has estimated that it will take at least 12 to 15 years before the route could open.

"The relief line has always been the poor cousin to every other transit proposal," transit advocate Steve Munro told CBC News, "because it's too big, and of course because it's downtown."

He said the important thing about the new money is that it will be enough to make real headway on the planning and design work.

The Scarborough subway

City staff also released new figures for the Scarborough subway on Tuesday: according to their latest figures, and as a result of cutting the original three stops down to one, anticipated ridership has dropped by nearly half.

The revised Scarborough subway plan calls for one stop instead of the original three, and a slightly shorter route. (City of Toronto)

That figure, combined with the subway's $2 billion price tag, renewed questions about whether it is the best choice for transit expansion.

But Munro, who has been involved in Toronto transit for decades, says that the ship has sailed on the Scarborough subway, given its political appeal.

At this point, he argues, the better course would be to ramp up and make the route more robust: "If our heart is set on building a subway, let's not mess around."

With the single-stop plan, he continues, "northern Scarborough has lost the connection to the subway that it was going to get."

SmartTrack

The mayor's plan to use rail corridors for a new rapid transit service also saw some adjustments this week, as staff revealed an updated route with fewer stations: seven stops, compared to the 13 Tory campaigned on.

Mayor John Tory and Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca at a transit announcement this week. (CBC)

This is another contentious plan which some observers charge has been motivated by politics rather than good planning. Richard Soberman, a transit planner and the former chair of the University of Toronto's civil engineering department, told CBC News he has concerns about which transit projects are being developed and prioritised.

"Right now the mayor is the big stumbling block. He's saying 'Oh yeah, we could have [the relief line], but I need to have my SmartTrack.'"

In his estimation, the downtown relief line is "unquestionably the most important thing for the city of Toronto," and all available money, including funding earmarked for SmartTrack, should be directed there.

The Richmond Hill subway extension

On Thursday, the province announced $55 million in new funding for the Richmond Hill subway extension, which will see the Yonge subway line expand north from Finch and up to Highway 7.

But Tory has warned that this subway — which could be built faster than the downtown relief line — cannot be built while the existing system is so strained. 

"A precondition to us participating actively and positively in any discussion of extending the Yonge Street subway to the north is that we have to have relief for Yonge street."

SmartTrack and the downtown relief line, he continued, speaking to CBC News from Winnipeg, "have to move forward so that we can even contemplate an northerly extension of the Yonge subway."

So what does it all mean?

Transit advocate Steve Munro told CBC that all-told, this week's series of announcements left him feeling a bit more optimistic than he was before, especially the funding for the downtown relief line. 

He is especially glad the money is going directly to the provincial transit agency, rather than being handed to politicians.

"Because it's Metrolinx's money, it preempts council's ability to have a debate about our priorities."

Commuters on the Sheppard subway line got new trains this past Monday. (Mike Wise/CBC)

He is still concerned about the degree to which politics may take precedence over planning, however — he suspects that the provincial government announced new funding for the Richmond Hill extension the day after it announced money for the downtown relief line, for instance, in order to demonstrate balance in various parts of the city.

Munro also cites the recent decision to revisit new waterfront transit, which he says is a relatively cheap project that many municipal politicians are ignoring because they are wary of projects downtown.

But he said its impact on the community could also be huge.

"It is certainly on a par with, if not higher than, the Scarborough subway in terms of city development."

Planner Richard Soberman agrees, saying he too finds small reasons for optimism, set against a larger backdrop of ongoing politicking. 

"If you're sick you go see a doctor ... you go see someone who knows what they're talking about. The real problem with transportation at the urban level is that politicians don't know what they don't know, but they still control all the decisions."

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