As a Torontonian, you’d have to be living under a rock to not have noticed the debate that’s been raging over the transit future of Scarborough, Toronto's eastern suburb. On one side, you have those who want to replace the aging Scarborough RT with an LRT, and on the other side you have those who want to replace it with an extension of the Bloor-Danforth Subway. The City has been locked in this dichotomous debate for over 5 years now, with the preferred option having been changed so often it’s hard for even those following it on a daily basis to keep up with what the plan du jour is. 

There is a third option though, one that could break the cycle of LRT reverting to subway, reverting back to LRT, and reverting to subway again. But before I get into that, I want to outline the advantages and disadvantages of the two options that get the most attention. You'll find them in dark green and dark blue on the map below, namely the Bloor-Danforth Subway Extension, and the Scarborough LRT.

LRT proponents will tout that their option covers substantially more of Scarborough, has more stations (and thus serves more places, like Centennial College and Malvern), will be nearly as fast as the subway, and will be funded 100% with existing Provincial dollars. 

However, the LRT option also maintains the transfer at Kennedy Station (albeit with an improved passenger flow), and would require a 4 year shutdown of the SRT, to be replaced by buses. There’s also the false notion that it will be a streetcar line that will clog up Scarborough’s streets (thank Rob Ford for this disingenuous and extremely ill-informed gem). The LRT plan certainly has its advantages, but it also doesn’t solve a lot of Scarborough’s transit problems that need solving.

Subway proponents on the other hand state that the Scarborough Subway will increase development potential along the line, will remove the forced transfer at Kennedy (providing Scarberians with a one seat ride to Bloor-Yonge), will be faster than the LRT option, will negate the need to replace the SRT with buses for 4 years, and will provide a more convenient transfer to the Sheppard East LRT (although most of them would like to see that LRT disappear from plans as well).

The Subway option does definitely have its drawbacks though. The ridership numbers to justify the expense of a subway are borderline, at best. And that expense, all $3.4 billion of it, is a lot to pay for a suburban subway with barely enough ridership to support it. For those wondering, that’s $1.6 billion more than the LRT option. If the Bellamy Road alignment is chosen instead of the currently approved McCowan alignment, that cost could be even higher.

This brings us to a third option, one that utilizes the best from both the LRT and Subway plans: Building a SmartTrack Spur along the SRT and SRT extension right-of-way. SmartTrack was the transit centrepiece of John Tory's recent mayoral campaign. The plan is not  yet funded, and Council has only given approval for a preliminary feasibility study.

Tory's SmartTrack plan would in essence be a Toronto-specific overlay to the Province's proposed GO RER network, which would upgrade and electrify GO Train corridors to run at near-subway level frequencies. In general, SmartTrack would allow GO RER to focus more on delivering service to the 905, while SmartTrack would deliver service primarily to the 416. To date, Metrolinx has not released details of how SmartTrack and GO RER will be integrated, though they have stated that it is being worked on.

This 'third option', as I'm proposing it, would be a revision to both Tory's SmartTrack and Metrolinx' GO RER plan, to include a spur off the Stouffville GO corridor as a replacement for both the LRT and Subway proposals. Some of the benefits of building the Scarborough transit solution as a SmartTrack Spur are:

  • It would hit major trip generators like Scarborough Town Centre (STC), Centennial College, and the community of Malvern. The Scarborough Subway ignores the latter two. 
  • It would eliminate the forced transfer at Kennedy Station.
  • It would provide a direct-to-downtown option for riders, something that neither the LRT nor Subway options can offer.
  • It would be significantly faster to reach downtown via SmartTrack than either of the other two transit options.
  • It would fit within the existing funding envelope for the Scarborough LRT, meaning funds from the Municipal Property Tax increase and Federal contributions put in place for the Scarborough Subway can be directed elsewhere (potentially towards funding the entire Sheppard East LRT or resurrecting the Scarborough-Malvern LRT).
  • It can be integrated into the rest of the GO RER system.
  • It has the potential to be extended further east, into northern Pickering via the CP Belleville Sub.

A potential service plan for this SmartTrack Spur involves running both SmartTrack and GO RER routes along the same corridor. The SmartTrack route would terminate at STC, while the GO RER route would continue eastward to Malvern or Pickering. This is a similar configuration to the proposed Markham branch of SmartTrack, where it would terminate at Unionville, while the overlapping GO RER route would continue to Mount Joy. A third optional rush hour only route would be to run a “Shuttle” from Malvern to Kennedy Station, to allow riders who aren’t heading downtown to transfer at Kennedy. This would boost frequency on the Scarborough section of SmartTrack, without causing frequency problems along the Lakeshore East corridor.

SmartTrack has been consistently defined by Mayor John Tory as a “surface subway”, a way to get commuters downtown quickly, bypassing the congested TTC Subway system. Given the anti-LRT, “subways, subways, subways” rhetoric espoused by a substantial faction of Council, this definition may prove key to getting support for this option. In reality though, SmartTrack is closer to San Francisco’s BART, Paris’ RER, or Berlin’s S-Bahn. This is exactly what Toronto and the GTA need.

The SmartTrack Scarborough Spur is the only option that combines the advantages of both the LRT and Subway proposals, while staying within the existing funding envelope established by the Province. It’s the most fiscally conservative option, it has a solid planning rationale behind it, and it may be the only option that can get the support of both the LRT and Subway advocates on Council and in the city at large.

Andrew Johnson, B.U.R.Pl