In a marathon meeting on March 9th, Mayor John Tory's Executive Committee endorsed City Planning's comprehensive 15-year transit plan, bringing an impressive web of subways, LRTs and SmartTrack—whatever it ends up being—one step closer to reality. Setting the stage for a City Council review of the plans in the summer, the ambitious network was approved despite leaving key questions unanswered ahead of the Council review.
The endorsed Phase 1 of the transit plan calls for a narrower focus on key transit initiatives, advancing the technical analysis and planning process for fine-tuned iterations of SmartTrack, the Scarborough transit strategy, waterfront transit, and the Relief Line. In a city decades behind in building transit, this kind of progress feels exciting. Taking in the scope of the planned network, it's temping to feel optimistic—and also almost impossible not to feel overwhelmed.
For starters, the Phase 1 recommendations unsurprisingly entail erosion of John Tory's signature SmartTrack service, with plans for a parallel heavy rail line alongside GO RER service cited as prohibitively expensive. The unrealistically costly western spur to Pearson Airport has also been removed from consideration, with a westward extension of the Crosstown LRT preferred.
From here, the City will continue to study two options for SmartTrack/GO RER integration, both of which are premised on the addition of new stations along the existing GO corridor. The two surviving options—'C' and 'D'—have been identified as the most viable of the four 'integrated' options studied so far.
Offering higher frequencies (relatively speaking) alongside lower costs and community impacts, both options would add stations in central Toronto, with option C also proposing stations in Scarborough. Option C would add 7 to 8 stations to the 9 that exist now, while Option D would only add 4 to 5 stations, the most easterly of which would be at Gerrard and Carlaw. Both plans aim for "5.5-10 minute frequency in peak period."
Crucially, future progress on SmartTrack is now set to be overseen by the Province "as part of the Metrolinx RER Program" (below). The EA/TPAP process, along with the final design decisions, will now be overseen by the Provincial agency, meaning that SmartTrack will formally no longer be a City initiative. With decisive issues regarding the nature of the service (fare, frequency) remaining unresolved, the lack of control over the future of the process has been strongly criticized by Councillor Gord Perks.
Given that demand models have indicated that "very frequent service (every 5 minutes) at TTC fares" is necessary to attract a substantial ridership, continued ambiguity over service frequency and fare integration leaves SmartTrack's fate highly uncertain. With no distinct SmartTrack trains, no clear progress on fare integration, and a limited ability to increase service frequency to levels required by urban rapid transit, the end of the City's leadership on SmartTrack is another nail in the coffin of Tory's promised 22-stop "surface subway." Indeed, as time passes SmartTrack/GO RER continues to evolve into something else. Something called GO RER.
Besides SmartTrack, Phase 1 of the Transit Network Plan also sets out roadmaps for the Relief Line, the Scarborough subway extension, and the Eglinton and Waterfront LRT plans. In terms of the Relief Line, Planning's preferred 'B1' Queen Street corridor—connecting to Pape—has been endorsed by the Executive Committee. This moves forward a preferred corridor that UrbanToronto recently argued was rushed, with discussion at early public consultations already pushed towards the preferred corridor.
As Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat explained to Executive Committee members, the preferred Queen Street corridor was chosen with respect its place within the city-wide transit network. In particular, one of the justifications for a Queen Street corridor—as opposed to King Street—is the relative lack of interference with SmartTrack services to the south. Despite higher ridership numbers projected for the King Street corridor overall, Planning has argued that a Queen Street corridor is a better fit for the network as a whole. (Although a stop at the Unilever site has been identified as improving ridership, it is unlikely to be included in the preferred corridor due to cost reasons).
While City Planning's holistic approach to creating a more fine-grained transit network may be wise in the abstract, making the Relief Line contingent on SmartTrack is a risky proposition. As transit advocate Steve Munro recently wrote, "[p]art of the justification for keeping the Relief Line alignment to the north along Queen Street rather than King is to avoid competition with SmartTrack. However, there won't be any SmartTrack service for it to compete with, only GO trains."
Finally, the Transit Network Plan also identifies a future expansion of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT to both Pearson Airport and UTSC, alongside an update for the Waterfront LRT Study, expected in June. Effectively restoring the 2009 Transit City plan for the route, the Crosstown LRT has been identified as a superior transit option compared to both SmartTrack's western spur and the three-stop Scarborough subway extension. In both the west and east, the extended LRT has been relatively well-received.
It's tempting to fawn over City Planning's dream map, which promises such a desperately needed and ambitious infusion of new transit to Toronto. Given the uncertainty (to put it mildly) of SmartTrack, however, a transit strategy that definitively organizes individual elements as parts of a symbiotic whole could prove problematic. In particular, assuming a Relief Line corridor along King Street is preferable in isolation, choosing Queen Street based on the perceived benefits of SmartTrack may ultimately deliver less effective transit. (Importantly, however, the Queen corridor does better serve key social equity goals by providing transit access to the Regent Park and Moss Park neighbourhoods).
A lack of information also presents a stumbling block to advancing the plans, with Ward 22's Josh Matlow complaining that the paucity of statistics and ridership projections will make a Council vote more difficult. With ridership figures for the new Scarborough subway extension expected in June, Matlow—as quoted in the Toronto Star—argues that Council will be forced to come to a decision at "the 11th hour." Meanwhile, the Executive Committee has been made to come to a decision long in advance, reviewing a large-scale transit strategy with very limited information.
For its part, Planning argues that ridership projections are not the ultimate arbiter of effective transit, preferring to consider new initiatives within the broader scope of the urban network. For Keesmaat and her team, it's a valid point, and a big gamble.
We will keep you updated as the transit plan continues to take shape ahead of the City Council vote. What do you think of the plans—and the procedure—so far? Feel free to share your thoughts by leaving a comment at the bottom of this page, or by contributing to the ongoing discussions on our associated Forum threads.