Rethinking the Ontario Line

Although we really need more transit, the Toronto region is suffering from decades of mistakes and poor value for the billions spent on past megaprojects

Up to seven years of construction disruption is forecast in the old core of Toronto from the Ford government’s Ontario Line project.

Although we really need more transit, the Toronto region is suffering from decades of mistakes and poor value for the billions (plus extra operating costs) spent on past transit projects. A major issue with the Ontario Line is whether to bury it in total or allow portions to run above ground. Some cures are worse than the disease. At least we’re about to finish Eglinton, 65 years on, but there too there are questions.

Transit boosters who cheer on any transit, despite how conflicted we may be about burying some transit projects and not others, suggest we just get on with the Ontario Line. What’s a few extra billion and years of disruption and the opportunity of a major misspend? 

In the case of Ontario Line, what truly are our transit options? According to a city report, road closures related to the construction of the line will increase commute times downtown by more than 20 minutes and ins some cases an hour. The original relief line planned for the downtown was cheaper and years ahead in planning before Ford came along. Can we achieve a relief function through surface, or largely surface rail? Why can’t we develop a faster sub-regional transit line, from say, Eglinton through Thorncliffe south to Gerrard Street and bypass Bloor/Danforth for the time being? How many billions could be saved by repurposing some of the Don Valley Parkway for transit? Priority bus lanes on the DVP, for example, are one idea.

But we seem poised, if not being steamrollered, into another excessive error even as remote work has led to a drastic decline in transit ridership during the pandemic.

Rather than taking time (and spending tens of millions for basic planning), we may well be brought to committing another major mistake while ignoring basics.

For example, while the Eglinton Line is due to open soon, but we haven’t really factored in what new transfers on to the Yonge line will mean for service despite billions in spending. How bad will the overload be? And is there anything that can be done as triage to fill in that service gap?

Given how the Ford government seems to dislike Toronto and transit, it’s worth considering if the Ontario Line is part of a larger plan to justify billions being wasted on extending the already over-extended Yonge subway line even further north into the suburbs.

Our systems and politicians are seemingly not capable of providing smarter transit. We are forced into underground transit because surface-oriented thinking means inconveniencing motorists. 

And thus, having some small portion of the DVP converted to transit in the place of an Ontario Line, seems impossible when citizens are up against extremely powerful interest groups like developers, construction consortia, and all three levels of government.

While we really need to have better transit, the calls for big spending on most current transit should be called out as BS. We should instead seek real value in our spending in the public interest. Can we really trust the Ford government with our transit future?

Hamish Wilson is a sustainability consultant. 


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