Just Do It: The Saga of Transit Planning and Replanning in the GTA

 Photo: theCrosstown.ca

Photo: theCrosstown.ca

The TTC, GO Transit, and Metrolinx have constructophobia; the fear of building real public transportation projects instead of just drawing lines on a map. Since the 1980s, we’ve been promised time and time again massive transit expansions with only a few of the projects ever coming to fruition. From rapid transit along Sheppard and Finch, to Regional Express Rail (frequent electric train service) and a downtown east-west subway line, we’ve seen it all before. Populist transit plans proposed to garner political support have led consistently to a homeostatic rapid transit system that has not seen major expansion since the 1970’s.    

The greatest example of this is the Wynne government’s high profile project; Regional Express Rail (RER), which would bring fast, frequent train service across southern Ontario, including transit- starved municipalities such as Markham and Brampton. The plan however, is nothing new. In truth, it is very similar to the GO ALRT (Advance Light Rail Transit) proposal of the 1980’s which is virtually identical in technology to RER albeit with smaller trains. The plug was pulled on the ALRT plan in 1985 when Bill Davis was succeeded by David Peterson, who opted for more diesel GO Train expansion (1). The RER plan, which mirrors that of the ALRT, is strikingly similar to its predecessor in that it has no clear construction start or end dates. Instead, Metrolinx offers a timeline by assuring that it will be built within the next 15 years. This ambiguity surrounding Toronto transit projects offers a sense of temporariness and is why a change of government usually means redrawing the transit map, as it has for the past 40 years.

If we look at the Transit situation today, the same issues are being discussed; rapid transit on Sheppard and Eglinton as well as some sort of downtown relief line. But rather unsettlingly, the same mistakes are being made. The Transit City plan would have provided for transit on these corridors but following the election of Rob Ford in 2010, the entire plan was cancelled because of his proposed Sheppard subway extension to be complete by 2015. It’s 2016, and buses still provide service on the thoroughfare East of Don Mills. The LRT on Sheppard, supposed to be completed in 2014, has now been deferred until at least 2021 and has been taken off the current projects page on Metrolinx’s website (2). Mercifully, the same debate of underground vs ground-level transport that rocked Sheppard Avenue has not significantly delayed the Eglinton line, though the current project resembles more closely the original Transit City plan than that of the late ex-mayor. As for the relief line, it has been discussed since the 1960’s as a “streetcar-subway” (similar to the 510 between Union Station and the Waterfront) and since the 1980’s as a full subway line. Mayor John Tory even spoke of this as a critical piece of infrastructure right up until his candidacy for mayor, when he proposed SmartTrack as a cheaper alternative. City planners say that a line is needed, and desperately so, although no funding has been issued (3).

Forty years is long enough to have a debate on transit, especially if virtually nothing has been done since then and now. Politicians in Toronto spend too much time talking about the transit they want to build and it’s hurting everyone. Torontonians now have the longest commute times in North America, and still have the least subsidized transit operators. Torontonians need change now, as the burgeoning city pushes 3 million inhabitants in the coming years. No longer can it be afforded to draw lines on a map and hope that it gets built. Realistic transit that is both funded and comes with clear target operation and construction dates is needed if the city wishes to dislodge the congestion it is choking on.