Is the provincial government prioritizing the success of a three-week-long sporting event over the health of Toronto residents?
That's the allegation contained in a legal application filed last week by the Clean Train Coalition, a residents' group that fiercely opposes the proposed diesel Air Rail Link between Pearson Airport and Union Station.
The ARL is already under construction and the province has signalled that it plans to electrify it eventually, but in order to have it up and running in time for the Pan Am Games in 2015, regional transit agency Metrolinx intends to begin operating it with diesel.
The CTC application is asking a judge to quash the diesel decision and force Metrolinx to study using electric trains from the outset. The group warns that diesel fumes would have negative health consequences for people living near the proposed line, particularly children, the elderly and those with respiratory or immune difficulties.
Saba Ahmad, the CTC's legal counsel, says there's no sound reason not to electrify the line from the start. She argues that by agreeing to meet the 2015 deadline imposed by the province, Metrolinx abdicated its legally mandated responsibility to build sustainable transit that serves the best interests of Ontarians.
"Metrolinx is required to come up with infrastructure projects that have benefits in the long term. Very clearly they said, ‘We are going to allow our decision to be informed by the 2015 deadline,'" says Ahmad.
"That should not be the driver of the technology choice."
According to the CTC, 300,000 people live within 450 metres of the Georgetown rail corridor along which the ARL would run, and the project would affect 37 schools, 40 childcare centres and four long-term care facilities.
While the prospect of yet more trains running through the already busy rail corridor has worried local residents at least since February 2011, when Metrolinx announced the $83 million purchase of 18 diesel engines for the ARL, the CTC felt it had grounds for a legal challenge after the World Health Organization reclassified diesel exhaust as a carcinogen in June.
"[We need] something that is healthy for our communities and not spewing exhaust that the WHO says causes cancer," says CTC spokesperson Rick Ciccarelli. "We should be as concerned about what comes out of those diesels as [we are about] second-hand smoke and asbestos."
The coalition's legal application could go before a judge as soon as this fall. Dayna Scott, professor of administrative and environmental law at Osgoode Hall, thinks the CTC has a good chance of winning.
"I think they have a very strong case against the use of diesel trains, based on the fact that they clearly wouldn't be the best choice in the long-term interests of Torontonians, and particularly residents within that corridor," says Scott.
She rejects Metrolinx data that found there is already so much pollution along the rail corridor that the construction of a diesel ARL would have minimal additional health impacts.
"Sure, we could take a look at every single separate source of emissions in isolation and say it's insignificant," Scott says. "If we don't sit back from a public policy and health perspective and add them all up and say this actually is significant and will have a long-term effect on people's health, then we're not doing our job properly."
Metrolinx doesn't disagree that electrification is ultimately the way to go, although it emphasizes electric's lower maintenance costs and faster travel times over what it describes as negligible health impacts.
There is no timeline for Metrolinx to make the switch, but an environmental assessment on electrifying the ARL is under way and expected to be finished by 2014. The engines on order, which the agency describes as "state-of-the-art clean diesel" trains that already have lower emissions, can be converted to run on electricity for $1 million each. Converting the track itself would be much more expensive: at least $1.6 billion for the Georgetown and Lakeshore corridors alone.
"We're committed to building the Air Rail Link in an environmentally responsible way," says Metrolinx spokesperson Mark Ostler via email. He notes that even as diesel, the ARL would contribute to reducing emissions by taking an estimated 1.2 million car trips off the road in its first year of operation.
With the rail ruckus headed to the courts, Pan Am Games organizers are hoping the legal challenge doesn't derail the completion of the ARL. Toronto's Games committee aims to attract 1 million people to the city for the event, and views a quick connection between the airport and Union Station as key to moving people from Pearson to downtown and on to the Games venues, some of which are as far away as Oshawa, Hamilton and Orangeville.
"It's really important to the Games," says Allan Vansen, vice-president of operations for the Pan Am organizing committee.
CTC spokesperson Ciccarelli says it's not his group's intention to wreak transit havoc during the biggest sporting event ever to be held in Toronto.
"We would like to see transit improved," he says, "but we don't think anybody should be paying with their health."