All the hype and posturing that accompanied this weekend’s subway opening effectively obliterated a bit of news about a small transit infrastructure project that will almost certainly be a game-changer, provided local and provincial authorities can, well, connect the dots.
In recent months, Metrolinx notified the new owners of The Crossways, the looming apartment complex at the south-east corner of Bloor and Dundas West, that it will expropriate space under the building for a tunnel connecting the Bloor West GO/UPExpress platform and the Dundas West subway station. (The previous owners for years resisted requests to build such a connection.)
At the same time, Metrolinx is preparing to put out an RFP for contractors interested in building a second tunnel and an elevator at the Randolph Ave. cul de sac, which dead ends on the east side of that GO/UP Express (UPE) station. That entrance will provide residents living in the Junction Triangle with convenient access to both stations, something for which they’ve fought for years.
When the tunnels are completed in two years, Metrolinx will have created a living, breathing transit interchange between GO/UPE and the TTC – something that doesn’t exist anywhere else on the system except at Union Station and Kennedy. The tunnel, Metrolinx officials say, will cost about $23 million, or about three quarters of one percent of the amount spent on the Toronto York Spadina Subway Extension. (Correction: There is a tunnel linking the Milton GO line and the Bloor-Danforth subway at the Kipling station, and a direct subway-to-GO transfer between the TYSSE and the Barrie GO at Downsview Park station will open soon.)
In effect, that interchange, when combined with UPE’s current service and Metrolinx’s eventual plans to for all-day/two way trains on major corridors, could become the western half of the relief line, thus relieving the mounting pressure at Yonge/Bloor and St. George/Bloor, both of which are rapidly near capacity.
Will commuters heading downtown from points west make the switch? That long-sought interior connection – so common in most large cities with extensive rapid transit networks and intermodal stations – is a necessary condition, but is it sufficient?
Metrolinx, in recent months, has begun promoting a bundling deal that will give Metropass holders with Presto cards a discount, allowing them to transfer to an UPE train heading downtown for just $1.50 extra.
When Metrolinx adjusted prices on UPE in the months after the service launched in 2015, commuters quickly responded – an acknowledgment that the initial cost-recovery business model for UPE was mostly magical thinking and didn’t reflect the reality that rapid transit in the vast majority of big cities is not a profitable enterprise. It seems reasonable to predict that many commuters will also respond to this enticement, and do so in growing numbers once those linking tunnels are finished.
Yet the fact that Torontonians have to pay a premium to dodge a worsening bottleneck created by years of political inaction serves as another reminder that the region is still light years from figuring out how to properly integrate transit service and thus maximize the gains that networks confer on residents, the environment and, yes, drivers, who benefit from increased transit usage.
How does the Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension (TYSSE) figure in this west end tunneling tale? It’s true this line will mainly serve York University students and faculty, coming from both the north and the south, in the near term. But as more commuters in the city’s north-west suburbs, as well as those living in Vaughan, opt to take the subway downtown instead of a car or a GO train, the St. George interchange will become increasingly clogged, making a western relief route that much more important.
There’s an indirect but looming cost element here, too – one that is almost certain to become a pain point for Toronto council in years to come. The TYSSE was built with capital dollars provided by the City of Toronto, York Region, and Queen’s Park. But it is owned and operated by the TTC, which means Toronto residents are on the hook for that portion of the operating shortfall associated with running trains into Vaughan/York Region.
About a quarter of the TTC’s annual operating revenues come from taxes levied by the City of Toronto on property owners, businesses, etc. If live in York Region and plan to ride the TYSSE, Toronto taxpayers will be subsidizing your ride – a classic externality. And if 905ers decide they like commuting to work on this new line in large numbers, Toronto residents who board south of Steeles will get a second hit, in the form of jammed rush hour trains with no seats and, eventually, no space (it’s quite common now for commuters at stations like Lawrence and Eglinton to watch stuffed southbound trains go by during peak period).
These are the logical consequences of always building line extensions instead of expanding and strengthening the network, and there’s no evidence I can see that the political classes have truly absorbed this fundamental lesson about transportation planning (the professional planners working at both levels certainly do). Indeed, Patrick Brown’s Tories are heading into next June’s provincial election all but pledging to sink $5 billion into the Yonge North subway to Richmond Hill – an utterly ridiculous project that will effectively strangle the system, absent major investments in network diffusion.
In this light, Metrolinx’s GO/UPE/Dundas West tunnels — and that $1.50 premium fare — are work-arounds – necessary (and welcome) measures that treat the symptoms, but not the disease.