While I attending Earl Haig Secondary School in the early 1990s, the construction of subway lines suddenly became a fascinating interest to me. There was a debate raging at the local level about whether residents would support North York mayor Mel Lastman’s dream of a Sheppard subway line — which would be built about 1km away from my childhood home. At the same time, a new station was being added to the Yonge line — North York Centre — two blocks away from my high school.
Fast forward a decade: I was working as the art director of The Hockey News and the magazine’s office had just moved from Yonge and College and into the Nestlé building at Yonge and Sheppard. By this time, I was reverse commuting, taking transit from Little Italy up to “downtown North York.” The Sheppard line had been under construction for 2 years and was another year from opening. On the first day the line opened, I took a ride to Don Mills and back. I got out and examined the art on each platform and the architecture of the stations.
At that point, I had spent 10 years listening to my grandparents (active residents association members), neighbours, and local politicians talk about how great the subway was going to be for the area. Sadly, I was underwhelmed. And after another 10 years of watching the subway in operation — mostly as a public space advocate and civic commentator — I still feel that the Sheppard line has failed to meet much of the potential that was promised to residents.
Which brings me to Rob Ford’s promise from the 2010 election. It seems, come hell or high water, he wants to build an extension east from Don Mills station out to Scarborough Town Centre. This may be the only promise he made during the election that he seems willing to keep.
While I would never argue that this part of the Sheppard line should’ve been built when the line was initially constructed, building the extension is certainly not a front-burning transit issue. And the way Ford wants to fund its construction — through development fees and the private sector — is about as misguided and as it gets. The report by Ford’s own advisor Gordon Chong pretty much shoots down the funding model and the TTC’s general manager Gary Webster (and I suspect many of the transit authority’s brain trust) seems to be balking at the need to extend the line any further.
And if you want to look at this extension from the angle of “running a business” — a phrase we’ve heard the mayor trot out at every possible opportunity — the data clearly supports there is no business case to be made. The ridership numbers at non-connecting stations on the Sheppard line — Bayview, Bessarion, and Leslie — all fall within the 10 most under-performing stations in the TTC (Bayview is 10th at 8,196 riders a day; Leslie is 6th at 5,614; Bessarion is the second worst station at 2,588 riders day). The best business option was building the affordable Transit City, but that idea is moot for the time being.
So, with a funding model that seems dead in the water and a business case that is next to non-existent, is there anyway that the mayor could convince me that building a Sheppard extension is a good idea? Maybe. But it wouldn’t be the extension that the mayor has envisioned.
If Ford is hell-bent on using money to build a Sheppard subway it should be to go west, not east: connect the Yonge-Sheppard station to Downsview station. This stretch of 4.5km would connect the University line to the Yonge line, as well as the new University-Spadina extension that is currently being built up into Vaughan.
This kind of connection provides the TTC with all kinds of options. When southbound trains leave from the Vaughan Centre and reach Downsview, trains could alternate between going south or going east along the Sheppard line. This would transform the Sheppard line from being a 5.5km stubway into an integrated 20km east-west line. And it would finally give the Sheppard line a reason for its own existence.
The residents along Sheppard East were sold a bag of bad goods by Ford in the last election. Sadly, their votes were attached to a promise that cannot be delivered by the City, TTC, or the private sector, nor is there any real business or density justification for investing billions of dollars in this corridor.
This reality should make Sheppard East residents wonder what is motivating Ford to build this line. It doesn’t seem to be the best option for riders since an extension would just ferry them into the already overcrowded Yonge line or into the dilapidated Scarborough RT (as well as decrease local bus service along the corridor); If there are not enough riders to support the line with fares, then taxpayers and TTC riders will be subsidizing the line for decades to come; And if the line cannot divert thousands of drivers into the subway system then it doesn’t help the vehicle traffic above ground.
The Ford administration has been making poor decision after poor decision when it comes to public transit and transportation policies. If they somehow manage to cobble together funds for to build a bad subway extension, they could at least waste the money in smarter ways.