A $27 train ride to the airport won’t ruin Toronto—but delaying building the transit we actually need will

A $27 train ride to the airport won’t ruin Toronto—but delaying building the transit we actually need will

metrolinx-up-express The Union Pearson Express on its way towards the airport for premier Kathleen Wynne’s December 10 unveiling. (Image: Metrolinx.)

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what Metrolinx charges people to ride the Union Pearson Express, Toronto’s soon-to-be-completed train to the airport. If, as announced yesterday to a chorus of groans, it’s $27.50 one way (or $19 with a Presto card), and riders pay it, great. If they don’t, then the line will run a deficit for a while and maybe, eventually, shut down—and then airport users will be able to fall back on any of half a dozen other transit options, including the TTC, which runs an express bus to Pearson from Kipling Station that anybody can ride for $3.

It’s not the price of a ticket that Toronto should be grumbling about: it’s the fact that a luxury like the UP Express is even real. Somehow, the major transit project we need the least also happens to be the only one that’s getting done on schedule.

This city has spent the past twenty years trying to muster the political will to build the basics: desperately needed subways or light-rail lines capable of carrying people to work every day. In this impossible planning environment, the one piece of transit infrastructure that hasn’t suffered so much as a significant delay is the UP Express. Ever since the Ontario government wrested control of the project away from SNC Lavalin in 2010, it has been miraculously hiccup-free.

In December 2011, Metrolinx announced that construction would begin the following spring, and that the UP Express would be in service by 2015. It’s hard to recall another transit-related prediction from the past five years that has ended up being so accurate, so non-embarrassing in retrospect.

It’s not as though the UP Express has been especially lucky. It has faced many of the same problems that plague all huge public-works undertakings in Toronto. Community activists mobilized a protest movement against Metrolinx’s planned use of diesel (as opposed to electric) trains on the line, at one point even dragging the agency to court. City council tried to use its power to add more stops to the line, a scheme that would have turned the express into a local.

There’s only one obvious reason for the UP Express’s perseverance, and it has nothing to do with the line’s merit. The UP Express has had an easier time than other, more critical transit plans at least in part because Ontario’s provincial government deemed it a priority. The airport rail link was a part of Toronto’s bid for the 2015 Pan Am Games, which gave the construction a useful deadline. As a result, there has always been enough political will and enough provincial funding to keep the project moving, even with the occasional irate mob demanding the right to make the UP Express align with its own particular transit fantasy.

In other cases, the provincial government has been more willing to humour fantasies. That’s why we still don’t know exactly what kind of rail will ultimately be built east of Kennedy Station, and it’s why light-rail lines on Sheppard and Finch will be finished years later than originally promised, if ever. It’s why the Eglinton Crosstown LRT spent years in flux while different factions argued over how long it should be and how much of it would run underground. It’s why John Tory was able to win the mayoral election by campaigning on SmartTrack, a rickety plan that has yet to have its foundation inspected by anyone with expertise.

The common element in all these squabbles is Toronto’s city council, whose relative lack of involvement in planning the UP Express has been one of the biggest things working in the line’s favour.

The lesson of the UP Express is that a project’s actual usefulness, in Toronto, has only a passing relationship with its achievability. If there’s any true outrage to be found here, that’s it.