Remember SmartTrack, the key transit plank in candidate John Tory's platform during his campaign to become mayor? Tory proposed a rapid transit line with frequent service two ways, all day, every day, along GO Transit rail corridors from Markham, through Union Station to north-west Toronto—and then further west to Toronto Pearson International Airport. Well, SmartTrack is still alive and kicking and, yesterday, Mayor Tory hiked along the GO train tracks to kick off the next phase of the project.
The plan is now, arguably, less Smart and definitely with fewer Tracks, but the Mayor invited members of the media to a level crossing at Huntingwood Drive—between Finch and Sheppard Avenues—along the GO Stouffville line to tell them that the project is definitely… well, on track.
Local City Councillor Chin Lee (Ward 41, Scarborough-Rouge River), City Councillor and Deputy Mayor Glenn DeBaermaeker (Ward 38, Scarborough Centre), City Councillor and Chair of the Toronto Transit Commission Josh Colle (Ward 15 Eglinton-Lawrence) and local members of the provincial parliament Soo Wong (Scarborough-Agincourt) and the Honourable Tracy MacCharles (Pickering-Scarborough East) joined the Mayor during the event. (MacCharles is also the Minister of Government and Consumer Relations and Minister Responsible for Accessibility.)
"We're here today to show that our partnership [with the Province of Ontario] is moving forward and that work is proceeding with a project that will make a real difference to the lives of people," the Mayor said.
Under the revised and shortened plan, the city would work with Metrolinx as it introduces regional express rail (RER) service along five of its GO corridors. The SmartTrack service would expand the RER program with frequent trains speeding along the Stouffville line south of Unionville GO Station and then along the joint Lakeshore East and Stouffville corridors to Union Station. Beyond Union, the trains would continue along the Kitchener-line tracks to a future station at Mount Dennis (Eglinton Avenue West), where passengers could connect with Crosstown LRT trains. The spur to the airport that Tory originally proposed would now be an extension of that light rail line, although officially the city still considers it part of the SmartTrack scheme.
"SmartTrack will give commuters one more option for getting around the city and, most importantly, because it largely uses existing rail corridors, it can be up and running far sooner than other higher-order transit projects. No tunnelling or long-term construction," the Mayor explained.
The Mayor said he had earlier that day spoken to a group of Scarborough residents who were enthusiastic about the fact that more rapid transit service would be coming soon to their neighbourhoods. However, he also acknowledged that many of them didn't know or understand how SmartTrack and RER would affect them. "What I will tell you is, their awareness of the project was low. And that's because we haven't been able to see with our own eyes as we can with this example right here what exactly is happening and that construction is proceeding."
As he spoke, Tory pointed to the tracks on both sides of Huntingwood Drive, where contractors are already working to build sound barriers between the railway tracks and nearby homes.
The main point of the Mayor's press event was to encourage members of the public to participate in the consultation process that the two governments and transit agencies must complete over the next year before they can proceed with the project. This week, the City and Metrolinx are hosting three evening events to gather public input on the nuts and bolts of the plan. These consultations are the only the first series in several rounds of public meetings before the City and Metrolinx can submit a final transit project assessment report for Ontario's Minister of the Environment and Climate Change to approve, hopefully by late 2018.
"Over the past year", the Mayor said, "City staff have been hard at work studying SmartTrack station locations and station designs. And city staff are now ready—and that's why today is an important day—to take those plans to local residents and local businesses."
Last night in the Scarborough Civic Centre, at the first of the three events, staff revealed those plans. The city proposes six new stations to help bring SmartTrack service along GO rail corridors into effect. The six stations include:
- Finch / Kennedy;
- Lawrence / Kennedy;
- Gerrard / Carlaw;
- East Harbour (or Unilever--south of Eastern off Broadview);
- King / Liberty; and
- St Clair / Old Weston Road.
While the Mayor may have found an enthusiastic group of Scarborough residents to talk about SmartTrack that morning, he was less successful that evening. The crowd in the Scarborough Community Council Chamber was less hostile than during the consultation event for the Scarborough Subway last May, but it certainly wasn't an entirely happy crowd, either.
During this event, staff concentrated on the two Scarborough stations, at Finch and Lawrence. The audience heard presentations from James Perttula, the city's director of transit and transportation and Mike Logan of the transit implementation unit—both in the City Planning Division, and from Metrolinx, Karla Avis-Birch, the director of project management programs and systems, capital infrastructure.
Trains would operate on GO Transit tracks instead of the tracks that the TTC uses for its Line 3 Scarborough rapid transit line. In fact, the TTC would demolish its Line 3 transit infrastructure once it started operating its subway extension. Perttula explained that the city, TTC and Metrolinx would have to carefully co-ordinate construction and demolition projects so that parts of the new stations could, possibly, be built, even though the Line 3 trains were still running.
Logan told the crowd that staff revised the initial concepts that Metrolinx had prepared for the Finch station. They eliminated a bus terminal and a large parking lot that Metrolinx originally intended for the site. Instead, bus passengers would connect with trains from stops on both sides of Finch beneath an underpass that would carry the tracks over the street. Elevators or escalators would lift passengers from the street to the platforms.
The new concept for the station at Lawrence was practically the reverse of the Finch design. Buses would stop on top of the current overpass and then descend to track level by elevator or escalator.
The Lawrence station has attracted some controversy. 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 in general and this station in particular.
Scarborough Transit Action points to initial business cases that a private company prepared for Metrolinx that indicate that the stations would attract few new riders to the transit lines. In fact, adding the station may discourage riders from using GO Transit. Trains stopping to pick up or drop off passengers at the new site 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).
In the opinion of the residents in the chamber, the station is problematic in other ways, too. One woman pointed out that many transit users in Scarborough don't travel downtown, but elsewhere in Scarborough. She said she travelled regularly from the east end of Lawrence Avenue to the current Lawrence East Station on Line 3 to eventually reach Scarborough Centre Station. She wondered how SmartTrack and the Scarborough transit plan it supports would benefit her, if the extended subway doesn't include a stop at Lawrence and SmartTrack trains won't visit Scarborough Centre. Not surprisingly she looked incredulous when staff pointed out that future express buses on Lawrence might help her trip--but the buses would first take her one kilometre south to Kennedy station, where she could board the new subway to head northward again.
Many residents were dismayed by the proposed the frequency of the service. "Why is replacing the Line 3 trains with better-than-five minute service at most times of the week with trains operating every ten-to-15 minutes better for us?", another woman demanded.
During this official transit project environmental assessment process, the city and Metrolinx continue to examine the potential affects of each of these new stations, gathering input from the public and stakeholders at several stages. They will determine appropriate measures to reduce the impact of the stations on the nearby neighbourhoods, on natural features and on the transportation system. They will continue to refine the design throughout the process, aiming for final approval in late 2018.
The first round of meetings continue this week, Wednesday in Riverdale/Leslieville, and Thursday in West Toronto, where staff will likely discuss the other new station designs. You can add your comments on the station designs and locations on the City of Toronto's website.
We will continue to update you about these projects as they proceed. You can find out more about the projects from our database files, which we've linked below. Want to talk about it? Leave a comment in the space on this page, or join the conversation in our associated Forum threads.
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