In the aftermath of a council debate that showcased some of the most venal and short-sighted political decision-making I’ve ever witnessed at City Hall, a heretical thought kept nagging at me over the long weekend:
Why are we even bothering with the Sheppard East and Finch West LRTs right now, given the current political climate?
As I predicted three weeks ago, Mayor Rob Ford has emerged from the Scarborough subway debacle not merely emboldened but armed with a made-to-order campaign platform: kill the other two LRT projects. We did it once, we can do it again, folks, etc.
Welcome, everyone, to Toronto, the land of unintended consequences.
Sure, Metrolinx gamely put out a statement last week insisting that those two projects were still a go. But I’ve totally lost sight of the rationale, for four reasons:
First, Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals have demonstrated, yet again, that they do not understand the principles of cost-effective transit planning in general and LRTs in particular. Consequently, their support of those two LRT lines – not to mention the other ones enumerated in The Big Move for Toronto — is likely provisional, and almost certainly irrelevant, given their snowballing credibility deficit with voters.
Second, can anyone out there name a local councilor (i.e., whose ward will include either line) prepared to go to the mat for those projects?
Didn’t think so.
But I can certainly name several councillors (Karen Stintz, Glenn de Baeremaeker, Joe Mihevc, etc.) who assured us for years that they supported LRT-based expansion, but then flip-flopped when the tokens were down. Maybe they’ll do so again. Who knows?
Third, if Metrolinx and other transit experts believe that LRTs are best suited for lower-density suburban corridors, it seems to me that we should wait for a more propitious moment, instead of exposing these politically orphaned projects to the Fords’ Big Lie™ approach to election rhetoric. Isn’t there enough poison in the well?
Last, from the perspective of the viability of the entire network, how is it that Finch and Sheppard take precedence over the [Insert Euphemism Here] Relief Line?
Yes, both will provide rapid transit connectivity to under-served areas. But the prioritization conferred on those projects is a political artifact of the Miller/McGuinty era, not evidence of sound transit planning. The crowding on the Yonge line is terrible now. So to choose an automotive analogy, if you have a dent in your bumper and brakes that tend to fail, which problem should get your attention?
Indeed, it’s increasingly apparent that the DRL could become a heck of a wedge issue in next year’s election. As Ford, demonstrating yet again his fathomless ignorance, told CP24, “[D]owntown people have enough subways already.” But Stintz, to the extent that she’s got any kind of shot in 2014, has been talking a lot about the DRL. David Soknacki, the first declared mayoral challenger, is more or less in favour. And TTC CEO Andy Byford believes it should be job one.
If this debate is, indeed, where we’d headed, I’d like to see far more precision from the pro-DRL crowd. We often seem to talk about this project in the passive tense – it’s needed. But the candidate who can identify and then target the voters who fight to get in and out of the rush-hour subways will have hit political pay dirt.
I know one: my old friend Milos, who works in the financial industry downtown and watches four trains go by at Lawrence every single morning before he can squeeze in. He makes good money, has a nice house in a North Toronto neighbourhood, and is totally fed up. There are many more where he came from.
What’s more, it seems to me that both the TTC and Metrolinx both need to begin talking much more clearly and precisely about what “relief” actually means for Toronto’s transit system. There are lots of studies going on at the moment, but this scoping document – a request for quotes for a “Relief Line Network Study,” issued by Metrolinx earlier this – offers a few clues:
The agency is looking for analysis showing how the network will function in 2031, in terms of travel demand, travel times on the Yonge line, and pinch points. But the consultants have been asked to think outside the tunnel, so to speak, about how to relieve crowding on the existing subway network. That means:
- “Rethinking the relationship between GO Rail and TTC subway services in Toronto such that GO Rail assumes a more prominent function in short and medium-distance commutes”
- “Addressing capacity constraints directly at the location of the issue. In the context of the Yonge Subway this might mean an operational change utilizing Lower Bay Station to offload the segment of the Yonge subway south of Bloor”
- “Identification of concentrations of Yonge subway ridership by area of origin and diversion of those passengers from the at the point of origin to an alternative transit service”
- “Peak spreading potentially using fare incentives or direct interventions with large employers in the downtown core.” (Appendix B, page 15)
The consultants are also supposed to look at a range of capital and operational fixes, such as BRTs on the Don Valley, seven-train subways, new GO Stations within Toronto and expanded ones up in Richmond Hill, and express/local service on the Yonge line. In short, Metrolinx’s view of the relief challenge on the Yonge line includes, but is not limited to, the construction of that great big arc connecting the Danforth to one of the downtown subway stations.
This is all super-long range stuff, but consultant’s report is meant to go to the Metrolinx board next September, in time for the municipal election and possibly even the provincial one. So from a political perspective, the candidate who articulates a broader vision of transit relief — one that doesn’t simply hinge on a multi-billion-dollar downtown subway — may find themselves with a compelling story to tell to voters in both the core and midtown, but also out in the suburbs.
There’s precious little reason for hope. But then again, what’s the alternative?