When Premier Doug Ford unveiled his scheme for downtown subway relief, the Ontario Line, back in July 2019, the announcement was intended to show a new government with a new plan – one that was longer, better, and cheaper than the Downtown Relief Line.
Details were hard to come by on the proposal to run a subway line from Don Mills and Eglinton to Exhibition Place. Questions brought a response that much design work remained to be done, but that all would be revealed in time.
Fast forward to 2020 and Metrolinx, the province’s transit authority has launched a series of public meetings.
These meetings are supposed to be information sessions, but the presentation boards at the January 28 gathering at Metropolitan Community Church in Riverdale contained little more than the Initial Business Case (IBC) unveiled eight months ago. The same boards have appeared at every meeting.
Staff with varying expertise attempted to answer the many questions from residents, but there was no formal presentation nor Q&A. People were offered fragments, but not the whole story.
Public reaction to the presentation was mixed, especially among those who live in neighbourhoods where the line will be a major invasion of private and public space. Metrolinx officials were unable (or unwilling) to explain just what structures will be involved along the proposed route.
To get definitive answers, I asked a series of questions by email. Many responses were repetitive:
“Planning work is still underway for matters such as this, but once known, they would form the basis of engagement materials we would present to communities in subsequent rounds of consultations,” states an email from a Metrolinx spokesperson on several occasions.
Metrolinx talks a lot about noise and vibration along the route, but is silent on the physical and visual intrusion saying only that they will “ensure designs are sensitive and respectful of communities.” Requests for information about heights and massing of structures such as noise walls, stations, and elevated ways brought come-back-later responses.
Although the IBC claims that the line’s alignment will “evolve throughout design development and procurement,” it’s quite clear that major changes are not in the cards.
Affected communities put their hope in the Transit Project Assessment Process (TPAP) and Environmental Assessments (EA), but these are toothless tigers. The TPAP will not assess alternatives, and the EA will look only at environmental effects, not the larger question of community impacts.
The effects of that will be compounded when the Ford government amends the expropriation and other processes later in 2020 to streamline project approval and construction.
The construction process itself will bring upheaval. The Eglinton-Crosstown project shows what can happen. Metrolinx has yet to explain how (or if) this can be avoided. They have not selected a tunnelling method or design, and yet this will have a major effect on surface structures and construction access.
The new line is supposed to be fully accessible, and Metrolinx plans “to exceed accessibility standards for all our stations, including vertical access standards.” They plan to use a mixture of escalators and elevators. How convenient these will be will depend on station designs, which Metrolinx has yet to release.
Design and engineering studies for the elevated portion of the line are proceeding, and the options “are focussed on how the project can best be delivered under that plan.” Although further consultation will occur later in 2020, this will almost certainly be to ratify the detailed plans, not to change them.
According to Metrolinx, the proposed Ontario Line would cut travel times from Thorncliffe Park to King practically in half.
Demand estimates and projected passenger loads are key to any discussion of what the Ontario Line might look like. Although Metrolinx estimates an all-day demand of 389,000 passengers – and relief of future congestion on the Yonge subway and at Union Station – they have yet to release detailed results showing demand on each segment and station on the line.
A vital factor in demand estimates will be the fare structure for trips transferring between the Ontario Line (a TTC fare) and GO Transit. The modelling was done under the “Double Discount Fare,” which halves the cost of TTC for GO riders. But that fare is set to vanish on March 31, because nobody wants to fund it.
Loads on trains are important both for capacity and comfort, and everyone in Toronto already knows what a line that cannot absorb more riders looks and feels like.
The Ontario Line could reduce crowding at Eglinton and Bloor stations on the Yonge line by 15 and 17 per cent, respectively, says Metrolinx.
The project will cost over $10 billion. Could some components be dropped or postponed? Could the western leg to Exhibition be a second stage? What about SmartTrack stations at Gerrard and Liberty Village now duplicated under the Ontario Line?
Metrolinx plans to open the entire line in one go. As for SmartTrack, they “will be looking at how all our existing and planning transit services work together to ensure we’re building the right projects.”
Metrolinx plans to issue a Request for Qualifications in the spring, followed by a Request for Proposals in summer or fall. The contract award is planned for spring 2022 just in time for the next provincial election.
The Ontario Line’s compressed timetable might show nerve to get things built, but along the way the bulldozers look poised to drive over any criticism.
This column is part of a weekly review by Steve Munro of issues affecting Toronto’s transit system and its riders. It appears Mondays online and Thursdays in print.