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Let’s demand justification for every transit choice: James

Feb 2, 2015 5:47:12 PM - 748

Last Friday’s Star carried a story headlined “SmartTrack proposal complicates subway planning.” A colourful graphic accompanied the story, showing nine potential ways to take the Bloor-Danforth subway up to Sheppard Ave.

Suddenly, a transit corridor well served by the Scarborough RT evolved, without debate, to an LRT, then a subway — and now, a bigger subway that must bend itself out of shape to avoid overlapping a SmartTrack proposal that nobody talked about until it showed up in a mayoral candidate’s platform last summer.

Welcome to Transit Planning Toronto style — a maddening exercise that has residents here so discombobulated they have given up trying to understand. Instead, they’ve resorted to the “Just build something” default.

Transportation planners are now out and about asking residents what they think of the subway routing ideas, where the stops should be, and other desires around the planned transit expansion.

The multiple lines on the map give the impression of a mobile game that commuters play on their smartphone, to pass the time. But this is no time-waster. The planners are embarking on a future with or without you. You either seize the opportunity to influence decisions now, or you wake up a decade later wondering why the subway went up the Allen Expressway and not Bathurst St.; why we have a subway along Sheppard; who decided to bypass Centennial College with the new rapid transit line into Scarborough.


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Officially, the city is holding public consultations on route options for the subway extension. The recommendations should arrive at city hall this fall for decisions by the spring of 2016. Then there are environmental assessments and construction, maybe starting in five years, and completion by 2023, if all goes well.

That timeline suggests careful deliberation, if not excruciatingly slow progress. What it should ensure is that the planners get it right. They won’t — if the process is skewed, as it is, towards a political directive of subway, subway, subway.

How we got here is instructive. As early as 1996, TTC planners warned that the Scarborough RT was getting on in age and had to be rehabilitated. The RT used technology developed in Ontario, and the Scarborough line was financed by the province to serve as a demonstration to the world. Over time, others like Vancouver bought our technology and continue to modernize it (see Sky Train).

Facing budget pressures, the city pushed the Scarborough RT rehabilitation into the future. As it got rickety and old, riders grew to despise the clunker.

So, when the province and former mayor David Miller introduced Transit City as a network of light rail transit (LRT) lines, fully funded, the TTC abandoned the orphan RT technology and hitched on to the Transit City.

But the landscape would change again. Rob Ford became mayor. He made it clear he didn’t want those “damn streetcars” standing in the way of his SUV. The LRTs had to go.

That declaration came even though the LRTs are not streetcars. And the Scarborough RT corridor is separated from traffic. And the new mantra was bolstered by a Ford promise to campaign against Scarborough city councillors who failed to give their residents the ultimate in transit — a subway.

Of course, that is not the end of the story. John Tory wins the mayor’s contest. He has a great-sounding idea to use GO Transit tracks for frequent service affecting Toronto residents. But, oops, the GO line with SmartTrack service would be too close to the subway, so why not push the subway further east to Markham Rd., and then curl it back so it can get into the Scarborough Town Centre at McCowan and up to Sheppard.

There are those who will tell you that a modernized RT, in the existing corridor, much like what they have in Vancouver, is the right scale and size for this corridor.

There are those who will tell you an LRT, better than anything we’ve seen in this city — Spadina and St. Clair are streetcar lines, not LRT — is an excellent fit.

There are those who will swallow commonsense and go along with any subway plan, costs and low ridership be damned.

You? You should demand that the planners — and the politicians who frequently circumvent them — justify their every recommendation.

Royson James usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: rjames@thestar.ca

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