Scarborough transit observers received both good and bad news this week. Determining which is good and which is bad, however, depends on your point of view and whether you're a member of Team Subway, Team LRT or Team Please-Just-Build-Something.
The first news item—it's either good or bad, you decide—is that the City of Toronto has completed its environmental assessment of the project to extend the TTC's Line 2 Bloor-Danforth subway to Scarborough Centre.
The second piece of good / bad news is that a local transit-advocacy group is asking the Ontario Auditor General to review provincial and municipal decision-making on the transit file and that may affect the future of the subway and other projects.
First, the subway news. The City and TTC have proposed building a one-stop express subway extension to replace the current Scarborough rapid transit line—the TTC's Line 3. They're planning a new subway station on the west side of McCowan Road between Progress Avenue and Triton Road under a new roadway that extends Borough Drive further east. The project also includes a large bus terminal at Triton Road with platforms for as many as 34 local and regional buses. The station and terminal sit on or under lands that currently supply parking for shoppers at the Scarborough Town Centre mall.
By completing the environmental assessment, the City is formally announcing that it has also completed all the necessary studies for the project to proceed. During this process, City and TTC staff examined the impact of the project on transit and other transportation networks, the local community, the natural environment and other various other issues. The environmental assessment report also details the route of the line, construction methods and strategies to reduce the effects of construction on residents and businesses.
The City is now ready to submit its report to Ontario's Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change to consider.
But, first, members of the public have another opportunity to review and comment on the project. The plans are available on-line or at a number of sites throughout the City. The deadline for submitting your concerns in writing is Tuesday, September 26.
Then, Ontario government staff will examine the environmental assessment report and any objections for 120 days. At the end of that period, Chris Ballard, the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change will either approve the project or ask the City and the TTC to revise the proposal.
If the minister decides that the project can go ahead, the City will likely proceed to a request for proposals to identify groups that can finance and build the line.
Meanwhile in other good / bad news, advocacy group Scarborough Transit Action has filed a complaint with Ontario's Auditor General Bonnie Lyczyk about how the provincial and city governments have made decisions about transit projects.
According to the Toronto Star, the group has asked Lycyzk's office to "investigate the planned construction of the Kirby and Lawrence East GO Transit stations, as well as the Scarborough subway extension."
The Star's transportation writer, Ben Spurr explains in his article that politics may have motivated regional transit agency Metrolinx to choose sites of the two new GO stations. He reports that "The request [to the Auditor] notes that Kirby station is in the riding of Ontario Transportation Minister Steven Del Duca, while Lawrence East is a part of Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack plan.
The two stations are part of a bundle of new train stops that Metrolinx has proposed to build over the next several years as it develops regional express rail (RER) service on most GO Transit lines. With RER, passengers would receive frequent, all-day service both ways at most times of the week.
Scarborough Transit Action points to initial business cases that a private company prepared for Metrolinx that indicate that the two stations will attract few new riders to the transit lines. In fact, adding the two stations may discourage riders from using GO Transit. Trains stopping to pick up or drop off passengers at the new sites will increase travel times for passengers arriving from points beyond and may, in fact, make driving more attractive than transit, the group concludes and the authors of the business cases support them.
On the other hand, the Star article continues, "Del Duca and Tory have denied doing anything to improperly exert influence over the approval process."
Lawrence East particularly interests the group. Not only is it in Scarborough, but it's one of several stations that then-mayoral candidate John Tory proposed under his SmartTrack plan to add local transit service along GO Transit corridors. Now that Tory is mayor, the new GO station is key to the Scarborough transit plan that Toronto City Council approved earlier this year. That plan includes the Line 2 subway extension and a longer Crosstown light rail transit line, linking Kennedy Station to the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus.
The current Scarborough rapid transit line hosts a station on the site of the future Lawrence East SmartTrack / GO Station, but if Metrolinx decides not to build the new station, passengers traveling from Lawrence Avenue East will have a longer trip by bus to reach rapid transit. Recently, Scarborough Transit Alliance polled commuters at the current station and found that, out of more than 200 respondents, only a small minority--14 per cent--were even aware that the station will disappear. Of these respondents, most were also unaware that a SmartTrack station will replace the current stop. Scarborough Transit Alliance says that, "Furthermore, once they heard of the plan, most were unhappy with such a replacement, given that SmartTrack/Go fares are likely to remain high and offer no free transfer to the TTC network."
Scarborough Transit Action opposes the expensive subway extension, advocating, instead, for a light rail transit line that the City and TTC originally suggested to replace the aging Line 3. That line would have included more stations and extended deeper into Scarborough, to bring rapid transit to more residents that the subway.
This spring, Scarborough Transit Action asked both the City and the province of Ontario to compare the original LRT proposal with the subway extension. City Council rejected that request. The Ontario ministry staff urged the group to voice their objections during the 30-day period for commenting on the City's environmental assessment for the subway plan that's currently in effect. And now, the group is asking the Auditor General to also compare the two lines, hoping that the Auditor can reassure Scarborough residents that they're getting the biggest and the best bang for their transit buck.
What happens next is anybody's guess. The minister could simply note Transit Action's request and approve the project anyway. Or, he could ask the City and the TTC to further analyze the two transit schemes before he decides whether to okay it. Or, the Auditor-General may decide she needs to intervene in the whole process. Whatever happens next, it can only mean even more bad / good news for Scarborough transit.
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