The revised transit plan gaining support at City Hall is being framed as a compromise between councillors and the mayor. But when all is said and done it could end up looking nearly identical to the Transit City plan the mayor killed last year.
The revamped plan, being crafted by TTC chair Karen Stintz and a handful of other councillors, calls for building an Eglinton LRT line underground in the downtown core, but bringing it above ground in the suburbs where there is more space for surface rail. The estimated $1.5 billion saved by not tunneling underground east of downtown would be put towards a subway extension on Sheppard Avenue.
The Sheppard extension is seen as key to bringing Rob Ford onside with the new plan because while he wants the entire Eglinton line to be underground, the Sheppard subway has long been a project of his. In exchange for breaking ground on a Sheppard subway, Ford might back down over burying Eglinton.
But while Stintz maintains that she's dedicated to Ford's Sheppard subway vision, other councillors involved suggest that the extension, which Ford wants to be 10 stops long, could well turn out to be more of stub-a two-stop expansion that will serve as a link to an eventual above-ground LRT on Sheppard. A Sheppard LRT was a key part of the Transit City plan Ford killed on his first day in office.
"Between Don Mills and Vic Park there's density that merits going underground," says Josh Matlow, one of the councillors working on the revised plan. "East of Vic Park, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense."
A short subway extension from Don Mills, the current end of the line, to Victoria Park would serve two purposes. It would allow the mayor to claim a political victory because it would keep his campaign promise to build more subways, but it would also enable the construction of a terminal station at Victoria Park that could accommodate both LRT and subway lines.
"The existing Don Mills station does not lend itself readily to an ideal transfer from subway to LRT," says Councillor John Parker, an ally of the mayor who is also working on the transit rethink. "But if we extend that line to another station then we could design that next station in a way that provides a more satisfactory transition [to LRT]. That would also help the mayor deliver on his commitment to extending the Sheppard subway. I could see everybody coming out of this scenario with something to show for their efforts."
Stintz denies that there is an LRT line penciled in for completion once the Sheppard extension is built, and says for now she's focusing on the subway.
"At this point, we just want to get shovels in the ground," she said.
But according to transit guru Steve Munro, a decision on Sheppard will have to be made before the new subway stations are built in order to incorporate the transfer to LRT at the end of the line.
"The real issue is that we not underbuild Victoria Park station as if it's only a temporary terminal," he says, arguing that the link to the LRT would have to be built in from the start.
Munro says there is some wisdom in building the subway extension, but is concerned that much of the rationale behind it appears to be aimed at appeasing Ford rather than on sound planning.
"What I worry about is that we're basically spending a billion dollars on a fig leaf for the mayor," he says, arguing that money might be better spent to build a transit line on Queens Quay towards the Port Lands.
Munro also sees problems with the revised designs on Finch Ave. Stintz is calling for a rapid bus line with dedicated lanes to ease the street's clogged commute, but Munro warns that any dedicated bus route would have to allow enough room for buses to pass one another and would end up taking up more road space than an LRT, which could carry more people than a busway and was an original component of Transit City.
Nothing in the revised design precludes an LRT on Finch, and sources close to the new plan say that bus lanes could be converted to rail lines later on. In the meantime, by prioritizing Eglinton and Sheppard, councillors can avoid another fight with the mayor. He is sure to balk at the suggestion of rail lines running down the middle of Finch, but by the time the other two lines are built Ford may no longer be in power.
Ford has been silent on Stintz's revised plans since they became public earlier this week. Amid reports that the mayor has been sidelined, Stintz maintains that she is in close contact with the mayor on the transit file.
"We've been working very collaboratively. We're both committing to getting Sheppard extended," she said.
However, City Hall sources indicate that even some of the mayor's staff are now urging him to give up on efforts to bury the Crosstown and build a lengthy Sheppard subway. In light of last week's budget meeting at which councillors rejected many of Ford's proposed service cuts, it looks increasingly unlikely he still holds enough sway at council to push through his transit scheme.
A report on financing the Sheppard subway is expected to come before Ford's executive committee next month.