This morning Toronto City Council will convene for a special meeting on the future of transit in the city, with the debate focused on what will be built on Eglinton Avenue. Almost five years ago, Mayor David Miller announced the Transit City light rail plan, with Eglinton at the centrepiece of the bold transit expansion strategy. Since then plans have changed a number of times. Here’s how we got to where we are today:

  • 2007: Mayor David Miller introduced Transit City as a network of seven light rail lines covering wide swaths of the city. The flagship of the network was an east-west line on Eglinton, stretching from Pearson International Airport to Kennedy subway station. Only the centre portion between Keele Street and Laird Drive would have been buried, since that section has insufficient space for a surface right of way.

    Map of the original Transit City plan depicting all eight proposed lines. 

  • 2009: The Ontario government announced funding for the three highest-priority lines: Eglinton, Sheppard East and Finch West, along with a plan to renovate and extend the Scarborough RT.
  • 2010: Facing budgetary challenges resulting from the recession, the Ontario government cut the initial build out of all three funded lines. The portion of Eglinton between Pearson and Jane, the portion of Finch east of the future Finch West Station and the portion of Sheppard east of Morningside Avenue were pushed into an unfunded later phase, with the remaining segments set to proceed as planned.

    Map of the revised plan for Eglinton after budget cuts in 2010.

  • 2011: After the election of Mayor Rob Ford, who campaigned against surface LRT, the province negotiated a new plan that would scrap Finch West and Sheppard East, so that funds allocated to those lines could be used to build Eglinton underground from Black Creek Drive to Kennedy station. However, this agreement was never formally endorsed by city council.

    Map of the Eglinton line to be built entirely underground as part of Mayor Ford's transit plan.

  • 2012: 24 City Councillors petitioned for a special meeting of council to revisit the transit issue, which will take place this morning. The councillors have expressed strong public concern about the additional cost of burying Eglinton.

Throughout this saga, the cost of the underground option, and the resultant scrapping of the Finch West and Sheppard East lines, have been the main talking points. But these aren’t the only tradeoffs involved.

An all-underground alignment would offer advantages beyond satisfying Rob Ford’s aversion to surface rail. Since the line would be completely grade separated it would offer a faster operating speed, increased capacity and the option to use automatic train operation over its entire span. In addition, grade separation would enable a direct connection to Scarborough Town Centre over the existing Scarborough RT alignment. It is unclear if such a connection would be feasible with a surface alignment.

However, Metrolinx has raised concerns about how a grade-separated line would cross the Don Valley. The valley may prove too steep for a tunnel, and instead a new bridge would be required, potentially extending construction while Metrolinx completes environmental assessments. The surface alignment would avoid this problem by using the existing Eglinton Avenue bridge.

In addition, the surface option would offer closer stop spacing in the surface section, permitting more convenient access for many. But most importantly, it would free up an estimated $2 billion that could be spent on other parts of the city that are in dire need of improved transit infrastructure.

Despite all the rhetoric, there’s one thing all parties can agree on: it’s time to get shovels in the ground. In fact work is already underway: the launch shaft for tunnel boring machines is under construction at Black Creek Drive. Talk of rapid transit on Eglinton has gone on for decades with nothing to show for it. Whatever happens today, let’s hope it settles the matter once and for all.