A light rail transit (LRT) line to Toronto's eastern waterfront is very much in the news these days. The proposed line has become key to a proposal by Google sister-company Sidewalk Labs for Quayside, a major mixed-use project at Lake Shore and Parliament that it's developing with Waterfront Toronto.

City Council approved a network plan for waterfront transit in 2018, image City of Toronto

A major stumbling block for any waterfront LRT has been how to connect the line to Union Station. (Although an even bigger stumbling block is lack of funding to build… anything.)

A recent public meeting focused on the connection. The City of Toronto, the Toronto Transit Commission and Waterfront Toronto hosted members of the public Monday, March 4 to review several options, as part of the overall Waterfront Transit Reset Project. The team also revealed which option it preferred: maintaining an underground streetcar, but enlarging the loop at Union and Queens Quay Station.

A waterfront transit line may attract as many as 8,000 passengers during morning rush hours, image, City of Toronto

In 2018, City Council directed the Waterfront Transit Reset team to work with an external consultant to evaluate higher-order transit options to connect Union with current and future light rail transit lines east and west of Bay Street along Queens Quay.

The team considered both streetcars and automated people movers for the link, image, City of Toronto

The 540-metre-long tunnel for streetcars under Bay Street opened in 1990. This infrastructure links the central-western waterfront with downtown--and the TTC's Line 1 Yonge–University subway, GO Transit trains and buses and Union Pearson Express trains. The team has concluded that the streetcar loop at Union Station, only serving passengers to and from the west, is inadequate even for present service levels, because of its single, curved streetcar platform, on a single track, with insufficient space for present volumes of waiting and alighting passengers. Consequently, the loop would not function effectively or safely if the TTC added even more service to and from the east.

Streetcar versus APM: How Union Station loop might work, image, City of Toronto

Recently, the group narrowed down options for the link to a short list of technologies:

  1. expanding the underground streetcar capacity at Union Station; or
  2. "repurposing" the underground streetcar tunnel to use for a cable-pulled transit system, an "automated people-mover" or APM, similar to the LINK train at Toronto Pearson International Airport.

Streetcars at the future Union Station loop, image, City of Toronto

While the APM would have occupied the tunnel, streetcars would either have remained on the surface, operating east and west along Queens Quay or connected with APM trains underground at a new Queens Quay Interchange Station.

APM train at the future Union Station terminal, image, City of Toronto

Before the March 4 event, the team had already conducted a number of exercises to model the various options. They concluded that the people-mover concept with a surface-only streetcar was not appropriate for this location. The idea presented several challenges:

  • Major transfer volumes increase potential for conflicts between pedestrians, cyclists, transit, and vehicular traffic at grade;
  • Insufficient space within the roadway to fit streetcar platforms while maintaining access to Harbour Square; and
  • A major transfer point without weather protection is undesirable.

Streetcar versus APM: How Queens Quay Station might work, image, City of Toronto

The team then compared the remaining two options: APM with underground streetcar or underground streetcar only, while expanding the infrastructure. They considered four key criteria in examining the two choices: passenger experience, costs, transportation and "constructability".

Although the APM-with-underground-streetcar proposal offered a shorter construction timeline and improved service for passengers travelling along Bay Street, it offered a longer trip for passengers heading further east or west through the waterfront area. It also required an extra transfer, while, with the direct streetcar option, riders would travel through the Union Station loop on most trips.

Streetcars at future Queens Quay Station, image, City of Toronto

The underground streetcar plan proposed a wider tunnel at the north end with two tracks. Streetcars would serve passengers at a larger loop, dropping them off on the east side and picking them up on the west. Both east and west sides would have room for two cars. Crossovers would allow moving streetcars to pass stationary cars on either side of the loop.

APM train at future Queens Quay Station, image, City of Toronto

On the other hand, APM trains would both drop off and pick up passengers at a single platform in the centre of the two tracks, reducing congestion as passengers walked between the APM vehicles and the TTC's Union subway station.

In depth evaluation of the two technologies, image, City of Toronto

At Queens Quay Station, the APM option would require room for the cable-pulling mechanism that pulls the trains back and forth through the tunnel. Passengers transferring from the APM to westbound streetcars would only have to walk across the platform to connect. Eastbound passengers would use an underground ramp to change between streetcar and APM.

The all-streetcar scheme would also expand Queens Quay Station so that two streetcars in each stop on one side at the same time. This would avoid a jam of eastbound cars clogging the ramp from the street as each car waits for passengers to board or exit. Underpasses would permit riders to safely walk from one side of the station to the other, without having to cross the tracks, as they do today.

A closer look at the design of the two stations, assuming streetcar operation, image, City of Toronto

The station would be extended to the north, and new underpasses would be provided both between the inbound and outbound platforms (replacing the existing pedestrian crosswalk over the tracks) and under Queens Quay to an exit near the south sidewalk primarily for the Ferry Docks.

The new station layout would also permit east-west through service on Queens Quay without the Union Station stop, if necessary.

Current, approved plans for the East Waterfront line included a portal east of Yonge Street, image, City of Toronto

Both scenarios would require the TTC to suspend streetcar service through the tunnel--possibly for as long as three to four years--during construction. Instead, the transit agency would have to operate buses throughout the waterfront area, during that time period.

Finally, the team is proposing relocating the eastern portal to and from Queens Quay Station from east of Yonge Street to west of Yonge Street. The city would work with the management of the Westin Harbour Castle Hotel to reorient its entrance to the east side of the building, reconfigure access to the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal and develop a new public space at Yonge Quay.

The team makes its recommendation for expanding the tunnel and maintaining streetcar service to the city's Executive Committee meeting on April 9. City Council will consider the staff's report and the Executive Committee's amendments (if any) April 16.

The new plan proposes a portal into Queens Quay Station west of Yonge, image, City of Toronto

However, the City has not yet secured funding for extending the line through the eastern waterfront, which would likely cost as much as $700 million. And, other transit projects, including the Scarborough subway extension and the Relief Line subway, may have higher priority for city politicians. However, at least one major waterfront player may be willing to help, but its offer has generated controversy. The Toronto Star recently obtained internal Sidewalk Labs documents that revealed that the company may be prepared to build the streetcar line and other light rail transit projects in the Port Lands—at a price.

An article by reporter Marco Chown Oved explains,

"Google’s futuristic development on the eastern waterfront, Quayside, is only the first step in an expansive and ambitious plan to build new neighbourhoods—and new transit—throughout the entire Port Lands...

"In return for its investment in this vision, Sidewalk Labs wants a share of the property taxes, development fees and increased value of city land that would normally go to city coffers.

"Internal documents obtained by the Star show Sidewalk Labs plans to make the case that it is 'entitled to … a share in the uptick in land value on the entire geography... a share of developer charges and incremental tax revenue on all land.'

"These future revenues, based on the anticipated increase in land value once homes and offices are built on the derelict Port Lands, are estimated to be $6 billion over the next 30 years. Even a small portion of this could amount to a large, recurring revenue stream diverted from the city into private hands."

Later comments by Sidewalk suggested it was backtracking from that idea, which the company said was only one of many proposals it was considering, as it mulls ways for its project to proceed.

Rendering of Sidewalk's proposal for Quayside, image, Sidewalk Toronto

More recently, however, Sidewalk chief executive officer, Dan Doctoroff, has mused publicly that "his firm won’t be proposing a smart city project without including plans calling for the extension of the LRT near the waterfront," according to another Star article by Donovan Vincent.

We will continue to update you as the project progresses. But what do you think of the latest plan for the East Waterfront LRT? And perhaps, more importantly, what do you think of Sidewalk Labs plans to possibly pay for the line? Leave your comments in the form below this page, or join the discussion in our dedicated Forum thread.

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