Following decades of virtually no progress on building a Relief Line to alleviate congestion on the Yonge Subway, recent months have seen Toronto City Planning spring into action. City Planning's preliminary study of alignments for the much-needed route was released in mid-February, setting out a clear preference for a Queen Street alignment to Pape Station. Ahead of March 9th's Executive Committee meeting, we take a look at the Relief Line plans so far, reviewing the recently identified preferred alignment along Queen Street.
The Corridor Evaluation compares six alignments—discarding a wider array of less realistic options—all of which would be routed along either King or Queen. From there, the King and Queen corridors were both studied in greater detail, with three options presented for each. The potential alignments were studied running to either Broadview or Pape, with an additional Pape alignment—via the Unilever site—also considered for both the King and Queen corridors.
A scoring summary compares the relative strength and drawbacks of each of the six alignments, each of which divert "a similar number of riders from the Yonge subway, south of Bloor." The Corridor Evaluation tallies the results of 50 criteria to create a comparative cost/benefit analysis for each option.
For starters, both routes to Broadview—via either Queen (A) or King (C)—were quickly discarded, as both iterations of the Relief Line to Broadview were identified as having the fewest benefits and the most drawbacks, with the lack of an inline interchange station with SmartTrack/GO RER cited as one of the crucial drawbacks.
Putting aside the Broadview alignments—which score badly overall—the more contentious analysis compared the impact of two interrelated factors in finding an optimized alignment to Pape Station. The comparative advantages of King (D1, D2) and Queen (B1, B2) alignments—both of which facilitate an interchange station at Gerrard and Pape with SmartTrack/GO RER—were analyzed, alongside the additional impact of adding a station at the Unilever site for either alignment.
Of these options, the 'B1' Queen-Pape alignment (above) bypassing the Unilever site has been selected as the preferred corridor. Overall, a Queen alignment was preferred over the King Street options due to less "overlap with existing and planned public transit," with a greater separation distance from the SmartTrack/GO RER lines to the south, as well as the potential East Bayfront LRT. The Queen Street corridor has also been prioritized for its impact in achieving social equity goals, serving the Regent Park and Moss Park neighbourhoods more directly than a King alignment. Also, the lower cost of alignments avoiding the Unilever site—which would require a deeper tunnel under the Don River alongside additional soil stabilization costs—is also listed as a benefit.
For the B1 option, City Planning cites the intangible symbolic benefit that a City Hall station would have along Queen Street while providing "easy access" to the PATH system despite not spelling out where the connection would be made. A single station at Nathan Phillips Square, called the "psychological heart of the City" in the recommendation, would however make for long walks to either Osgoode or Queen stations for those wishing to change lines, instead of the quick transfers that an interchange station at each would provide.
Notwithstanding property acquisition expenses, the baseline construction cost for both the King and Queen alignments to Pape is estimated at $3.7 billion by the TTC. Both corridors would become more expensive with the addition of a station at the Unilever site, with costs projected to rise to approximately $4 billion. However, ridership estimates for both alignments are also higher when the Unilever station is added, while King Street options also post higher overall ridership numbers again. A report prepared for the City by Dr. Eric Miller shows the highest ridership figures are projected for a King-Pape alignment which includes a station at the Unilever Lands.
As noted by transit advocate Steve Munro, the City's evaluation of the 'B1' Queen-Pape "depends very much on the presumed presence of frequent SmartTrack service in the rail corridor." If that is found to be impractical," Munro continues, "then the relative importance of the RL changes along with its appropriate alignment to serve the core. This is particularly critical at the Unilever site which would have only SmartTrack serving it if the RL stays on Queen Street."
"In summary, the choice 'makes sense' in the limited context that a frequent SmartTrack service will actually be feasible and will be built," Munro concludes. "If SmartTrack cannot be provided on a five minute headway with a low fare, then the entire planning process will require a major rethink."
Indeed, the preferred B1 alignment's strong reliance on SmartTrack could prove problematic given the questions that remain regarding the viability of John Tory's continuously revised campaign promise. In addition, the lack of concrete figures provided at public meetings so far—where attendees are given only the comparative charts—makes an open, transparent dialogue about the Relief Line alignments more difficult.
Furthermore, the "psychological heart of the city" at Nathan Phillips Square also seems an odd justification for the alignment when considered against the tangible, far-ranging benefits of new transit. Within the broader context of ridership figures, accessibility, and social equity, how much does having a subway station at "the heart of the city" really matter? Otherwise at the public meetings, the notion of building a network is voiced again and again, even while undermining a strong network by advocating for potentially long inter-line transfers near City Hall.
Alongside other elements of City Planning's comprehensive new transit network, the Relief Line plans are set to be reviewed by City Council later this year. However, the Toronto Star recently pointed out that critical information regarding many of the new plans is still to come, with a number of new ridership projections expected just two weeks ahead of the summer Council meeting. As quoted in The Star, Ward 22 Councillor Josh Matlow argued that the "11th hour" numbers would not provide a sufficient basis for a thought-out decision.
Yet, in City Planning's new vision of an integrated, symbiotic 'transit network,' each new initiative is considered within the larger framework of regional transit, arguably making individual ridership projections less important. (This holistic reasoning in part justifies the preferred Queen Street alignment, despite its lower overall ridership). Nonetheless, a more comprehensive comparative analysis of the plans is difficult without further information and without a more realistic understanding of which projects will actually be undertaken, raising the possibility that a preferred RL corridor was chosen too soon.
So, is tomorrow's vote on the preferred alignment for the Relief Line at the City's Executive Committee premature? There remain a few public consultations on the line, and there remains the online materials with the possibility of response from the public here or here, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, so the rush to move the discussion solely toward the B1 preferred option needs to be questioned. Without giving Torontonians enough information (few tangible figures) to properly consider the higher-ridership but more costly King Street alternatives, City Planning is arguably railroading the decision, with the public consultations on the Relief Line playing out more like briefings to prepare us for a pre-determined outcome. Torontonians deserve more fully fleshed-out information on the alternatives before any are thrown out.
As more information becomes available, we will return with a more complete analysis of the plans. In the meantime, public consultation's regarding Toronto's ambitious new strategy continue, with the three final meetings planned this month:
Tuesday, March 8
Robert Bateman High School
5151 New Street, Burlington
6:30 - 8:30 PM
Wednesday, March 9
Lakeshore Collegiate Institute
350 Kipling Avenue, Etobicoke
6:30 - 8:30 PM
Tuesday, March 22
Nelson Mandela Park Public School
440 Shuter Street, Toronto
6:30 - 8:30 PM