In a public announcement on May 27, 2014, Toronto mayoralty candidate John Tory unveiled his "SmartTrack" plan for a “surface subway” to run on GO Transit rail corridors. The future mayor claimed that the $8-billion line would be operating in seven years. The mayor also proposed charging potential passengers TTC fares to attract as many riders as possible and relieve pressure on TTC services.

Now, as Mayor Tory prepares to campaign for a second four-year term, the SmartTrack scheme continues to progress, recently passing the second-to-last milestone before it receives the final go-ahead. This month, Metrolinx and the City of Toronto started the final public-review process for the plan. Members of the public and other interested agencies have 30 days to comment on—or object to—the proposal.

The last day for comment is Monday, August 20. If no-one objects, the two government agencies will finalize their environmental project report and send it to Rod Phillips, Ontario's minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, to review. That's usually a routine event, with ministers mostly rubber-stamping plans, particularly when they emerge from another provincial-government agency. But this year… well, more on that later.

A map of the original SmartTrack plan for rapid-transit on GO rail corridorsCandidate John Tory's original plan for SmartTrack, image, John Tory campaign

Originally, the SmartTrack route would have extended from Toronto Pearson International Airport to Union Station, east into Scarborough and north to Unionville in York Region with 22 new stops, mostly on GO tracks. However, the plan also suggested heavy-rail trains along Eglinton Avenue West from Mount Dennis at the end of the Crosstown LRT line to the airport and a future transit hub there.

After Tory's successful run for mayor, the plan began to devolve. Eglinton West is no longer part of the heavy-rail concept: in early 2016, the City of Toronto's then-Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat recommended to City Council that it support, instead, light rail transit along Eglinton west of Weston Road. Council endorsed the report's recommendations, effectively short-turning SmartTrack at Mount Dennis and re-affirming a proposal that was around long before anyone ever thought about SmartTrack—extending the Crosstown LRT further west along Eglinton. Ontario's Ministry of the Environment had already approved the plan for the extension in 2010 as part of an earlier environmental assessment process.

Map of the proposed Eglinton West LRT to the "RTC"--the Regional Transit Centre at Pearson, image, City of Toronto

Last March, the Liberal provincial government proposed reducing GO Transit fares to the same amount as TTC fares in Toronto, as part of its 2018 pre-election budget. That idea, if the government had implemented it, would have finally fulfilled Mayor Tory's dream of frequent local service along GO tracks in the city without passengers having to pay a higher fare.

In April, City Council approved the capital costs for building the six remaining SmartTrack stations on the Stouffville, Lakeshore East and Kitchener GO lines—as much as $1.46 billion. Of that total, Toronto agreed to contribute $878 million. The city proposed raising some of the cost with a tax increment financing (TIF) scheme. Under that plan, it is designating certain areas near the SmartTrack stations as TIF zones, where land values would likely increase due to proximity to rapid transit. The city would borrow money to help fund the project, expecting that its property tax revenues from the TIF zones will increase. Then, it will dedicate the extra taxes it receives from those lands to repay its loans to build the project.

Former Ontario Transportation Minister Kathryn McGarry (at podium), TTC chair Josh Colle and local MPP Peter Milczyn watch Mayor Tory and Premier Wynne sign the MOU, image, @JoshColle

The next month, Tory met then-Premier Kathleen Wynne at a Metrolinx train maintenance facility to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to advance SmartTrack. Premier Wynne also announced funding—totalling as much as $9 billion—to support other transit projects including the relief line subway, a northern extension of the Yonge subway to Richmond Hill and a waterfront light rail transit line. The Government of Canada provided about $4.8 billion of the $9-billion.

Since then, Metrolinx and the City have continued to finalize the SmartTrack proposal, hosting open houses as recently as June to gather more community feedback. They're now promoting it as enhancing the Metrolinx regional express rail (RER) program. RER already would significantly increase rail service by supplying electrified, 15-minute-or-better service on five GO corridors in core areas. To support increasing this service, Metrolinx and the City of Toronto are developing the new SmartTrack stations at Finch-Kennedy, Lawrence-Kennedy, Gerrard-Carlaw, East Harbour, King-Liberty Village and St. Clair-Old Weston Road. These new SmartTrack stations may offer commuters even more frequent service through Toronto—possibly every 5.5 to 10 minutes during rush hours.

Map of new SmartTrack and GO RER stations in TorontoThe city is funding six new SmartTrack stations; Metrolinx is building two more stations in Toronto for RER, image, City of Toronto

Metrolinx also plans to build two more stations—as part of RER, but not part of SmartTrack—on the Barrie GO line at Bloor-Lansdowne and Spadina-Front. It recently opened its plans for those stations for final comment by members of the public, before it submits that environmental project report to the minister. The last day to object to those plans is Tuesday, September 4.

So what happens next, now that a different party rules Queen's Park? The Toronto Star's transportation writer, Ben Spurr, recently reported that:

"Mayor John Tory’s signature transit plan is facing an uncertain future under the new provincial government, with Premier Doug Ford’s Conservatives refusing so far to commit to a key policy that underpins the SmartTrack project.

"In March, the former Liberal government pledged to lower the cost of GO Transit for trips within Toronto to $3 when using the Presto fare card, effectively cutting the cost of journeys within the city in half and pegging them to TTC prices...

"In an email, [Ministry of Transportation] spokesperson Gordan Rennie signalled the government had made no commitment on keeping the $3 fare policy. 'The new government is currently looking at all means and considering all options when it comes to making transit more affordable,' Rennie wrote."

Plan of the future Gerrard-Carlaw SmartTrack stationPlan of the future Gerrard-Carlaw SmartTrack station, image, City of Toronto

Will the possibility of higher fares result in SmartTrack failing? Or, perhaps more to the point, will the new environment minister stall the project, while the government "considers its options"? Minister Phillips certainly has the authority to require Metrolinx and the City to review the project further or to impose conditions on the plans. This may happen if the minister is of the opinion that the project may negatively impact "a matter of provincial importance related to the natural environment or to cultural heritage value or interest" or that it negatively impacts "on a constitutionally protected Aboriginal or treaty right."

Stay tuned for the answers to these and other questions soon, as the new government gets up to speed on the transportation file that was a signature theme of the previous regime.

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