There was a really exciting, interesting, intelligent transit proposal put forward in Toronto this week, though you may have missed it because it was overshadowed by the flat-out stupid transit debate that occupied much of this month’s city council meeting.
Down at City Hall, a number of councillors, including Mayor Rob Ford and TTC Chair Karen Stintz, were colluding with the provincial Liberals and Conservatives in a shameless vote-buying scam. The shell game involved cancelling a fully-funded light-rail transit line (LRT) that would operate in its own right-of-way—basically an above-ground subway—in order to pointlessly tunnel an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway line instead. It’s not just that the LRT would be cheaper by more than $1 billion, it would be better: a longer line with more stops that could be built in three years and is essentially just as fast as the subway. But some people inexplicably fetishize underground transit, so council seems determined to bury this key piece of Scarborough’s emerging network. The big fear is that chasing subway dreams really would bury them, in a different way—there’s no real funding plan in place so there’s a good chance that subway will never get built at all. And the people of Scarborough, once again, will be left by the side of the road to wait for buses.
The shame of it is that no one who has looked hard at this issue actually believes the subway proposal is a better use of the city’s money, or that it is better transit. Stintz, Ford, the Scarborough councillors, the provincial by-election nominees: All of them know full well that of all the LRTs Toronto is building, this is the one where tunneling would accomplish nothing for commuters except delay the arrival of new mass transit. But most commuters aren’t aware of that since they don’t spend their days researching transit technology and route specifications—they know a subway is fast and comfortable and they have been led to think an LRT will be like the King streetcar. Politicians across the left-right continuum seem to be conspiring to capitalize on the ignorance of voters, playing them for suckers at their own expense.
While our elected officials were debating this proposition, there were countless other things they were not debating: fixing signalling on the Bloor-Danforth line, improving bus service, increasing capacity on the existing, mostly full subway lines, taking steps to make sure the King and Queen streetcars don’t bunch up with such frustrating frequency. If the goal were to actually improve transit, all of those things would be a better use of money than digging a hole beneath the roads in the east end.
Of course, all of those are matters of service improvements—a subject that gets lamentably little attention in Toronto, where everyone wants to focus on shiny new construction projects. But even if we want to keep the debate focussed on expanding the system, there was a more sensible set of ideas on the table: On Monday, a group called Transport Action Ontario released a proposal—the result of two years of research—suggesting that the underused GO rail corridors in and around Toronto could be easily and relatively cheaply converted into “above-ground subways” that would provide high-speed train service across the city and way out into the 905. Their proposal offers the kind of breathtaking map that gets all of us excited: seven lines snaking around the entire city with more than 50 stations in Toronto. Their research says the whole thing could be done much cheaper than the cost of subways or even LRTs, while still providing huge capacity, and may be completely finished in fewer than 20 years.
It would save money, eliminate the need to for a downtown relief subway line, and have the capacity to serve the city’s needs for decades to come, by transforming our existing infrastructure into something bigger and better.
But of course our elected officials aren’t interested in talking about that. They’d rather spend hours rehashing a pointless, expensive big dig so they can announce that the people of Scarborough are getting a subway. The councillors’ hunger for votes gives them tunnel vision, and threatens to bury some of Toronto’s most urgent transportation needs for another generation.