LORINC: The War on LRT has begun


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?



  1. This is the reason you don’t cave to bullies. The only language they understand is an equal and opposite display of power. They’ll whine and complain when shut down, but who cares?

    Mayor Cartman can’t be arrested fast enough.

  2. The war on LRT referenced in the headline has been going on for awhile, but I agree that LRTs are going to be very hard to sell in Toronto from here on. However, there is a difference between the two threatened lines.

    On Sheppard, I think the choice is between subways and buses. If the Scarborough RT replacement is going to be a subway going up to Sheppard, there’s no real sense building an LRT between the Sheppard line and the Scarborough RT replacement.

    On Finch, the choice is between LRT and buses. There will be no money for a long, long, long time for a subway of that length and in that location. If Toronto says no to an LRT on Finch, the provincial government would be smart (they’re not) to shift the money to a next-wave LRT project in Mississauga or elsewhere.

  3. Good insight. Just want to share two ideas.

    i) I think the Liberals made one huge mistake not many people point out with how they approached the Scarborough Subway fiasco the last couple of months. Prior to this mess, Toronto’s “centrist” councilors approved new LRT lines (including the SRT replacement) to be built on the premise that both subways and LRTs are appropriate in the right circumstances. This was the view of transit experts. There is no such thing as “pro-subway” or “pro-LRT”. Both can be equally good, and one is more appropriate than the other depending on the situation.

    Ford always presented subways as being superior to LRT, and the Liberals bought into this with how they presented the B-D subway extension to the public. All of a sudden Scarborough residents deserved a subway, and not a crappy second rate LRT. You even have the Transportation Minister stating that LRT is not as good as subways. Now you have a situation where the Liberals have set this precedent, that LRT is inferior. Nevermind that both are supposed to be equally good technologies, depending on the situation.

    ii) I’m 100% pro-DRL, my understanding is that it would not help Milos. He gets on at Lawrence and the DRL sounds like it would only alleviate the portion of the Yonge line south of Bloor? The DRL really should go all the way up to Eglinton.

  4. Cancelling the Sheppard LRT and Finch LRT to build the downtown relief line doesn’t seem like a bad idea to me. Shortening the Eglinton LRT by cancelling the east of Don Mills section and converting it into a subway would seem like a sensible proposal as well. I think that Eglinton and Sheppard make far more sense as subways because Eglinton is largely underground anyway and making it a subway would increase its capacity; and Sheppard is already a subway; Finch doesn’t make sense as a subway though. But the downtown relief line is the one thing that pretty much anyone serious about transit agrees needs to be built ASAP; I would argue that improving GO train service is also really urgent. Since there is only limited funding to go around it would seem like replacing the Eglinton LRT with a shorter subway, cancelling the Sheppard/Finch LRT and replacing the Scarborough RT the cheapest way (rebuilding it using Mark III ICTS cars and not extending it) would free up a lot of cash needed to get the urgently needed downtown relief line under construction as soon as possible. With about $4 billion cost for the Eglinton subway between Don Mills and Black Creek, and about $0.5 billion for rebuilding the SRT, there would be around $5 billion or so left (counting the federal funding and the tax increase council approved for the Scarborough RT subway), which is enough to get the downtown relief line built between Don Mills & Eglinton and Union Station.

  5. I have little faith in what is happening at city hall, someone needs to stand up and take Ford head on, how can one person yield so much power when half of this city didn’t even vote for this jackass. I live downtown and the city is slowly being choked out, and we’re building subway stations in Vaughn? Please explain that to me!

  6. The biggest thing I hate are people who state the number one priority is the DRL, and then they go on to support the proiritization of the Sheppard and Finch LRT.
    The best solution is to spend half of the Federal $660M to elevate the Eglinton line from DVP to Kennedy. Spend the other half on extending the original SRT-LRT plan all the way to Malvern Town Centre. Next, connect the two – instant grade separated transit (i.e. “subway”) from Malvern to Mount Dennis.
    Next, cancel the Sheppard and Finch LRT, add in the $900M in City tax increases and built the first phase of the DRL (Osgoode to Pape).

  7. It should be noted that the Finch bus line is also insanely over capacity, with full buses ignoring waiting passengers etc. And a Finch LRT can be built with existing funding, and a lot more cheaply than a DRL. And it feeds into a subway line that is not over capacity. Dropping those plans would be a terrible idea.

    Also, bear in mind that the Scarborough RT line has always been on the margins of being viable as a subway in terms of usage, projected usage, etc. There was an argument to be made there for that mode, however one feels about the additional cost. The Finch and Sheppard East lines are nowhere near the needed usage, although they are over capacity for regular buses.

  8. They may take away our SRT, but they’ll never take our LRT!

    With apologies to “Braveheart”.

  9. Subway….LRT…..Debate……(Repeat). We don’t build transit. We talk about it. We debate it. We study it. We argue and fight about it. What we can’t seem to do, whether it be LRT, subway or a rail link to the airport….is build it. Toronto is choking to death on its own clogged roadways. Millions upon millions of dollars in studies, experts, consultants, more studies, pandering to micro-interest groups (repeat). Those millions have not gotten us one more meter of transit. It has gotten us, quite literally a mountain of studies. We are buried in studies, recommendations and consultants reports. Tens of thousands of pages of what? Reports, predictions, recommendations, expert opinions etc. For gosh sakes just put a freaking shovel in the ground. Build the damn things and start arguing over the next one.

  10. @dylan. Just to be clear, the column doesn’t call for dropping the Finch LRT, just delaying it, given the current political environment and the lack of an active local champion.

  11. I’m afraid I don’t see how a DRL would get Milos on a train more easily at Eglinton, either. His only hope is longer, more frequent trains—or to move up to North York, near the Oriole or Old Cummer GO stations.

  12. Yes, it’s a morass.
    But trans*it expansion has been compromised in big ways since Spadina, then Sheppard, then Sorbara extension where we don’t look so much at the costs of operating these, but get swayed by the cheaper capital dollars vs. ridership/crowding and origin/destination studies 🙂
    With Milos challenges, should he get over to the Spadina station, or is that too far west? And what about starting up some express buses on Mount Pleasant/Jarvis eg. stops only at Lawrence, Eglinton, Bloor and some two other stops in the core?

  13. The Don Mills and City line should be the priority for Toronto and it should run from Eglinton and Don Mills road to Bathurst and Front St. in the first phase. After we figure out the future of the Gardiner we can look at westwards extensions to Liberty Village, the Ex Grounds, (and hopefully to Parkdale) and northwards to Lawrence and eventually Sheppard.

    In the meantime, full day, 2-way train service on the GO lines should be 2nd on the list of priorities and should be implemented as quickly as possible. Aside from daytime service on portions of the existing 7 lines, there is also the opportunity for service to Bolton, a line running across Toronto from Meadowvale to Meadowvale etc.

    LRT along avenues needs to be sold as really great local service rather than cross-city or suburb-downtown service. Metrolinx and TTC eed to pay serious attention to the need for mutli-layered public transit rather than keeping all of the different services inside service silos.

    One example that continues to rankle me is that Milton Line trains stop at Kipling but do not stop at Bloor GO station…adding a stop and and decent service would do a lot to offer an “express” service running more or less parallel to the Bloor subway line.

    Cheers, Moaz

  14. The key is needed capacity, a bus is good for relatively low capacity routes. A subway is good for high capacity. Now LRT splits the difference. The Shepard subway should have been an LRT line which could be extended to meet up the BD extension.

  15. A majority of councillors voted (again) for LRT in 2012, and specifically reaffirmed the other three LRTs a few weeks ago after endorsing the Scarborough subway, including area councillors. The SRT replacement was an exception, not a reason to throw everything away. If the concern is about the Rob Ford Big Lie™ approach for the next election, this is nothing new, except that this time there is 4 years of reality to point to in the face of vague ideas of untapped private sector funding and subways under everyone’s chair.

    The last election came and went and Ford-supporting bus riders along crowded Finch still didn’t know there had been plans for an LRT. Andy Byford is saying Yonge will reach “saturation” by 2031, but this doesn’t mean the rest of the city would be willing to give up their own valid transit improvements potentially indefinitely. I think what we need is better information, better candidates and a chance for voters who didn’t know what they were getting last time to make another choice.

  16. I’ve often wondered why Metrolinx hasn’t just changed the Stouffville, Kitchener line to be more frequent and two way. Obviously there’s the space for the track/stations, but considering the possibility the SRT corridor may be vacant in the future why not? They could probably run trains similar to the UP Express because of their somewhat smaller profile.

  17. The province needs to build a true LRT somewhere in/close to Toronto to showcase what it looks like & what LRT can do. Part of the problem is the constant comparison & slagging of St. Clair coming from the Mayor & his allies. People don’t have a true example to look at & most can’t/won’t take the time to look up LRTs online (i.e. YouTube).
    I would suggest either Finch or (my personal favourite) Hurontario. (Sorry Hamilton, Peel is closer to TO.) If Toronto continues to deride LRT, shift that funding elsewhere. The DRL should be a top priority but even if it’s approved today, detailed studies and long construction times put opening day 10 years away, give or take. That’s plenty of time to build at least 1 LRT. This doesn’t have to be an either or proposition. Toronto & the GTA need all the transit we can get.
    Underlying all of that is the dire need for Go to accelerate the implementation of more 2 way all day train service on every line not named Lakeshore. Even an hourly service would go a long way toward alleviating the pressure on roads, highways and the subways. Instead of this, read (up to) 10 additional train trips during the week (and nothing on weekends as of now) for all the construction & upgrades – $1.2 billion worth – to the Kitchener Line. Along with the UPX, sure, but come on!
    The Liberals are just as guilty of failure on this file because of the constant watering down and delaying of their plans, as well as destroying their credibility in the political scope with all of the wasted Billions on gas plants, Ornge etc. But it’s time to build!

  18. Utilize Lower Bay? I tried to figure out what this meant.

    “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”

    Does it mean that (some) trains coming south on Yonge will short-turn at Bay, heading back down University and up Yonge?

    Does it mean that a short tunnel should be built from Wellesley to Lower Bay, enabling trains southbound from Vaughn to short turn after going south on University and north to Wellesley?

    Does it mean some of the southbound trains on Yonge will divert after Rosedale to short turn at Bay, useful solely for passengers intending to transfer to the Bloor-Danforth Line?

    The last interpretation seems to be the only approach that would be really helpful. Can a tunnel be dug from Rosedale to Bay? Would we need yet another pair of tunnel boring machines? Do the basements of the intervening buildings extend too low for the tunnel to proceed under them? Would it be possible to have the TTC just expropriate a couple of floors of underground parking for the tunnel’s underground right of way?

    Would it be useful for this service to be provided with just a single tunnel, with the train proceeding to Museum, and the other stations on University, prior to its northbound trip on Yonge?

    If the TTC was able to re-use the same tunnel boring machines it used on the Vaughn line could this short tunnel be built for less than $100 million?

  19. I have a couple of questions about the Sheppard subway and the Sheppard LRT.

    Way back in 1975 planners recommended that Sheppard should be served by an LRT with its own right of way. A subway was built, ignoring the advice of planners for very similar short-sighted political advantages to the then current politicians, notably Mel Lastman, Toronto’s 2nd worst mayor in living memory.

    If I am not mistaken the transit planners were proved correct, and Sheppard has never had the ridership to justify a heavy rail line. The TTC runs short trains on it, due to its low ridership.

    Now there are plans to build an LRT, to extend rapid transit service east on Sheppard.

    I am sure that when it gets closer to ground-breaking time Ford and his cronies, if they are still in power, will argue that it too should be a heavy rail subway all the way east. I am sure one of their arguments will be the extra five minutes added to a rider’s trip by transferring from the subway to the LRT and vice versa.

    Well when the Sheppard LRT is built wouldn’t it be possible to retrofit the stations on Sheppard subway line so they also used the LRT rolling stock, so there was a single rapid transit line on Sheppard — an LRT as planners suggested 38 years ago?

    Well, actually, I am sure this is possible. What I am really curious about is:

    (1) How much would it cost to retrofit a subway station to use the LRT rolling stock? Would it be better to knock out the existing platforms to accommodate the lower floor LRTs, or would it be better to build a higher trackbed. If the trackbed is raised will the station have enough room for the trolleypole-like thing — the pantographs?

    (2) Are the existing tunnels tall enough for the pantographs?

    If I am not mistaken the projected maximum capacity of our LRT lines is about 3/4 the maximum capacity of the heavy rail lines. Sheppard is unlikely to ever need that extra capacity

  20. Next subway project will be in North Bay, using the reasons given for the Bloor-Danforth extension further into Scarborough. Build it and they will come.

  21. Chris B, Waterloo Region is building LRT long before Toronto will see its lines open. Shovels are in the ground now for utility relocations, and construction will begin in earnest next year, opening in 2017. In comparison, the Finch and Sheppard East lines won’t be completed until 2020.

    What I find incredible is how Toronto is getting a free ride from all these projects (except now with the Scarborough stubway) In Waterloo, the costs are roughly split three ways between the province, feds, and regional government, and operating costs are all on us. Hopefully, the deal will be as sweet for us as it is for Toronto when it comes time to build Phase 2 of LRT into Cambridge.

  22. The problem for LRT was that people had concerns with the transfer at Kennedy and the length of the closure. The LRT supporters refused to make any concessions and now they have given LRT a bad name.

    If the LRT supporters could have made a few minor adjustments to the Transit City plan, then maybe LRT would not be seen so negatively.

  23. “The consultants are also supposed to look at…”
    No, they *will* look at it. That’s what they are being paid to do. If they don’t do it, they don’t get paid. Very simple.

  24. A quick question: is there anyway to speed up construction on one of the LRT lines, or at least a portion of one, instead of building a bunch that will all open in 2020? Eglinton is the obvious choice, as it doesn’t seem to be on the chopping block, but maybe another would make more sense logistically. Ford is all about delay, delay, delay. People need to see what LRT technology can be like, so that these debates can’t so easily be fueled by ignorance.

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