I am not Anti-Subway, I am Pro-Transit


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Thanks largely to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s intransigence, the debate over the future of public transit expansion in Toronto is coming down to a debate between light rail transit and subways. You can read more of my assessment of the current debate here. Gordon Chong, the man Ford appointed to study the feasibility of extending the Sheppard subway from Don Mills to the Scarborough Centre, has added to the debate. His report (which I think was very professionally done) states that the line is feasible (Steve Munro has caveats), but only if new revenue sources (read: taxes) are applied. This looks likely to come to a head at city council in the next couple of months, with a major vote deciding not only whether or not the Eglinton LRT is allowed to operate on the surface for part of its length instead of a $2 billion longer tunnel, but also how relevant Mayor Rob Ford remains on council.

Mind you, the debate between LRT vehicles and subways isn’t new. In the past ten years, I’ve been watching transit enthusiasts fiercely debate the merits of larger subways over cheaper light rail transit, and it always surprises me how heated the debate tends to get. Apparently, instead of there being just transit enthusiasts, there are subway enthusiasts and light rail enthusiasts, and some real tension exists between the two. One cannot exist without usurping the other. Noted activist Steve Munro has been accused of being rabidly anti-subways, simply for suggesting that the light rail Transit City proposal that Rob Ford rails against (no pun intended) is the most efficient way to go.

I’ve never been called anti-subway, but since I often agree with Steve Munro’s assessment of the transit picture in Toronto, I guess the label applies in some people’s mind. Which is sad, because I don’t think it’s true. I am not anti-subway. I’m simply pro-transit.

I love subways about as much as I love streetcars. Yes, I’m a train nut in general, but one cannot deny the fact that subways move a lot of people very efficiently. Living next to a subway may mean the freedom of leaving the automobile behind. I would love for all of the transit lines proposed under the previous administration’s Transit City proposal to have been built as subways. I would further have loved to add the Downtown Relief Line to the mix. It would make Toronto a lot easier to navigate on foot.

But I can only support subways if there if they come bundled with a credible means to pay for their construction and operation, and Rob Ford has already rejected a number of the viable funding suggestions that Gordon Chong brought forward, which is the height of obstinance. Without a credible funding scheme, Ford’s subway proposals are just pie in the sky. And that’s just for Sheppard Avenue. How are we going to get rapid transit service to the other places it’s needed, like the airport, or northern Etobicoke?

In the absence of a credible funding plan for major subway expansion in Toronto, I have to look carefully at the cost of the infrastructure being proposed. Is the capacity that’s being built into the system really merited? Can it be served by a cheaper, more flexible alternative like, say, the subway-surface LRT arrangements seen in Boston? If so, then I have to conclude that LRT construction offers Ontario taxpayers a better bang for their buck, and that this should be the technology we proceed with when building many new lines.

And I am speaking from sad experience, here. I’ve cheered on subway expansion for years, and for most of those years I’ve cheered fruitlessly.

You have to remember that in 1985, I was 13 years old, and I had seen a pretty much constant expansion of Toronto’s rapid transit network through much of my childhood. I remember riding the Spadina subway on its first day, visiting Kennedy and Kipling stations as they opened, and eagerly anticipating the opening of the Scarborough RT. And at the time, Metropolitan Toronto’s planners and politicians had come together to back the ambitious Network 2011 subway extension proposal, which sought to put subways beneath Sheppard Avenue, Eglinton Avenue and Toronto’s downtown within the next thirty years. Total cost: $2.1 billion — 75% of which would be paid for by Queen’s Park if only Bill Davis would say ‘yes’.

To my mind as an eager young teenager, the Network 2011 proposal was the only way to go. There was no question of the province agreeing to funding because the province had always agreed to funding (or, more accurately, had agreed to such funding when it chipped in to help build the Bloor-Danforth subway in the mid 1960s). Toronto had seen a constant state of rapid transit development from 1959 to 1985; it made no sense that it would stop, would it?

One of the great ‘what ifs’ of Toronto’s history is what if Bill Davis had stayed premier for another six months. He didn’t. Upon his retirement, other transit initiatives like the ambitious GO-ALRT project (a proposal to expand GO’s commuter network using LRT) died on the vine. And then the Conservatives fell to David Petersen’s Liberals, who balked at Network 2011’s $2.1 billion price-tag.

The actions of every provincial government since Bill Davis has been to try to avoid the high cost of the Network 2011 proposal. David Petersen proposed a Yonge-Spadina subway belt line that eventually got transformed into a subway extension to York University. Bob Rae dallied for most of his mandate and then eventually got construction started on chopped-down versions of the Sheppard and Eglinton West subways. Mike Harris cancelled the Eglinton West subway project altogether, and then pulled the province out of public transit funding a year later, only returning to the venue in 2001 after the sheer stupidity of such a move became clear to all and sundry.

In the twenty-seven years since the day when Metropolitan Toronto announced its commitment to the Network 2011 proposal, exactly six new subway stations have been built. The Sheppard subway is a stubby joke. Although it anchors a significant redevelopment and intensification of the street, its loads can be easily carried by the lighter Scarborough RT. The most successful transit ventures that have been built in this city since 1985 have been streetcar or LRT related.

If we had started building subways in 1985 and never stopped, what a different city Toronto would have been. Maybe. Note that even by the time Metro submitted its proposal to the province, the schedule had slipped. It was called the Network 2011 proposal, but its final phase — the conversion of the Eglinton West busway into a full-fledged subway — would not have been finished until 2014.

But we didn’t do this, and much time and energy has been wasted fruitlessly pursuing this dream when possibly cheaper alternatives could have been sought and actually built.

The Network 2011 proposal stands as one of the great ‘what ifs’ of Toronto’s history, but there is one greater: what if the TTC’s original plan for building rapid transit less expensively than new subway construction had actually bore fruit?

To me, one of the greatest frustrations of Toronto’s rapid transit network is the Scarborough RT. As it stands, it’s a rather useless appendage of the Bloor-Danforth subway — a shuttle between Kennedy station and the Scarborough Town Centre that adds ten minutes of transfer time as most passengers head down four flights of stairs to board the subway. Why was it built as it was? Why wasn’t the Bloor-Danforth subway extended northeast instead?

But if the Scarborough RT had been built as the TTC originally intended it to be built, it wouldn’t just be a useless appendage shuttling people between the Scarborough Town Centre and the end of the Bloor-Danforth subway line. In the 1970s, the TTC, realizing that subway construction was becoming prohibitively expensive, sought a cheaper alternative to bring rapid transit to the lower density suburbs. To them, the solution was obvious: inexpensive streetcars operating on private rights-of-way. Based on the subway-surface model seen in Boston, the Scarborough RT would have been a high-level trunk route, still fully separated from competing traffic, that would have sent streetcars racing to get to the subway. At the Scarborough Town Centre, the streetcars would have continued north and east, branching out, running in the middle of streets, as they followed the tree-like network to its farthest appendages. People as far afield as the Toronto Zoo could have gotten a single seat ride by streetcar to the end of the Bloor-Danforth subway, and the final stretch of their journey would have been very fast indeed.

But it didn’t happen. The province of Ontario wanted the TTC to convert the Scarborough RT into a high-tech transit line using technology that was, at one point, supposed to offer magnetically levitated trains. The magnetic levitation never worked out, and the Scarborough RT vehicles run on wheels instead, but they are pulled by electro-magnets in the middle of the track. The design is elegant, but also complicated and, at the time, untested. The Scarborough RT opened a year late, over $100 million over budget, and had no possibility of being extended out in branches in the middle of major arterial roads.

Imagine what the City of Toronto would have looked like today if the TTC had stuck to its guns in the 1970s, or if the province hadn’t been so enamoured by high-tech that they left a perfectly workable, twentieth-century solution by the wayside. The core subway network in Toronto would be significantly smaller, but it could have been ringed by a network of high speed streetcars operating on grade separated private rights-of-way, as seen in Calgary or Edmonton. They could have stretched all across the suburbs. They were cheaper to build and effective at moving large numbers of people quickly. Unfortunately, that never happened.

How do you correct a thirty-seven year old mistake? Yes, transit expansion needs to happen, but if we hope to catch up on the lost decades of transit growth, the worst idea is to spend far more money than we need to on projects that are well beyond what is needed to serve Torontonians. The surface-subway LRT idea that Karen Stintz wants to see come to Eglinton Avenue has been a long time in coming. It’s time for Mayor Rob Ford to show some real common-sense fiscal conservatism, and let the Eglinton LRT come to the surface to breathe.

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