Toronto’s war on the streetcar claims another victim: the sky

Toronto’s war on the streetcar claims another victim: the sky

Vancouver's spanking new Canada Line (Image: Robert Ashworth) 

With Rob Ford’s mayoral victory, it’s become clear that Toronto can have mass transit only so long as it meets two important criteria: 1) it doesn’t interfere with car traffic in any way whatsoever, and 2) it costs less than Transit City would have. At least, that’s the impression we get from the news today, reported by the Toronto Star and National Post, that Metrolinx and the TTC are considering replacing the street-level LRTs of Transit City with elevated light rail lines.

Although Ford has pledged to take transit underground, there are signs he might accept underground LRT, such as that planned for about 10 kilometres on Eglinton, as an alternative to subways.

Bruce McCuaig said there may be other ways, including elevated tracks, to address the mayor’s key concern about leaving room for cars on the road.

Metrolinx and TTC officials will also be looking at places in the existing light rail plan where the street could be widened and the impact on car turning minimized.

It seems like a great bargain: LRTs that are separated from car traffic (allowing both to move more quickly) but without the super-expensive tunnelling of a subway system. There are, of course a few snags. The most common objection to elevated rail is that it’s an eyesore for the people whose neighbourhoods it traverses. No doubt, having what amounts to mini-Gardiner expressways for trains running along Sheppard is likely to cause some uproar. Not too mention that all of the consultations, environmental assessments and other bureaucratic steps that have been completed for Transit City would be useless; we’d have to start all over again.

The costs are pretty mysterious at the moment, but they’re unlikely to be cheaper than the original Transit City plan. The closest comparison for elevated rail is probably Vancouver’s Canada Line, added to its Skytrain network for the Olympics. It cost a bit more than $100 million per kilometre, which was the rule of thumb the TTC was projecting for Transit City. But it’s also possible that the TTC was giving a judiciously inflated figure to avoid being blamed for a St. Clair–style fiasco once more.

Certainly, nobody can point to any reasons that elevated rail would definitely be cheaper. According to Laurence Lui, urban planner, transit advocate and scourge of Rocco Rossi, it’s possible there might be savings from things like fewer roadway disruptions during construction, but Transit City was supposed to do a lot more than just put steel in the ground: it was supposed to improve streetscapes and widen the roads to minimize traffic disruption. On top of that, according to the TTC’s Brad Ross, once we’re talking about building above or below ground, the LRT stations get much more expensive, including things like elevators for wheelchair access.

There’s the added fact of expedience to consider: Toronto is hosting the Pan-Am Games in 2015, and we now have about four years in which to build something, anything, to expand transit service. Transit City would have been fastest, but elevated rail is likely to be faster than boring a new subway tunnel.

All that said, if it preserves something like the scope of the Eglinton, Finch and Sheppard lines from Transit City, people along these corridors might prefer it to the mayor’s current “half a subway to Scarborough” plan. But for a campaign where both Ford and George Smitherman agreed the Scarborough Rapid Transit should be torn down and replaced with a subway, the idea of building more SRT-style elevated rail seems peculiar to say the least.

• Elevated transit among Metrolinx’s alternatives [Toronto Star]
• Elevated trains: Metrolinx offers subway alternative [National Post]