When the Toronto Environmental Alliance issued the city's 2004 Smog Report Card this week, it was full of congratulatory remarks about the many "clean air initiatives" Mayor David Miller and his left-leaning council have adopted.
There were kudos for a new energy efficiency program, the purchase of bio-fuels and hybrid vehicles for the municipal fleet, the political rejection of an expanded island airport, the recent adoption of a harmonized tree bylaw and the approval of a dedicated streetcar right-of-way along St. Clair West.
"Toronto has become a real leader in fighting smog," Keith Stewart, TEA's lead climate change campaigner, told a news conference at City Hall on Tuesday, October 12.
In just 12 short months, the city managed to improve its grade from a dismal C- to a respectable B+. And the mark would have been even higher (an A) had the powers that be at 100 Queen West gotten around to implementing the TTC ridership growth strategy the previous council approved in March 2003.
"Better transit is the missing piece," said Gord Perks, TEA's transportation guru. "We need to stop talking about ridership growth and start doing it."
TTC commissioner Joe Mihevc couldn't agree more.
"The status quo is not acceptable," the Ward 21 (St. Paul's) councillor says. "We have seen automobile traffic increase by 3 or 4 per cent since about 1970, and we have a lot of lost ground to make up. If we really are interested in improving the economy, cleaning the air and developing our official plan, then we have to get into an expansion mode and put some resources into transit-oriented development. That's the new biblical text that has to govern City Hall for the next while."
To Mihevc, the recently approved St. Clair streetcar right-of-way "shook some people up" and may spark an important debate about the overall future of transit.
"We're at the beginning of asking the question: 'Is this the rebirth of streetcars in Toronto?' We had a very sophisticated light rail transit (LRT) network before we fell in love with buses and subways, and I believe the time for rethinking that is now. What we need is an LRT master plan."
Mihevc spent three days in Atlanta this week at the American Public Transit Association conference with TTC chair Howard Moscoe and came away convinced that light rail transit is making a comeback in the United States.
"The Americans are getting it," he says.
What makes streetcars travelling on dedicated right-of-ways so attractive is their relative low cost compared to the construction of new subway lines.
Laying a kilometre of LRT track costs $10 million compared to $100 million for an equal length of subterranean steel. Add on the expense of building underground subway stations and the costs really start to snowball.
As the mayor, himself a TTC commissioner, is quick to point out in an interview this week, it would cost between $4 billion and $6 billion to complete a subway beneath St. Clair from Yonge to Keele. The bill for the new streetcar line along that route - complete with major street improvements - will be about $65 million.
"They're a way to bring very high-quality transit at a reasonable cost to neighbourhoods that don't have it," Miller says. "I think people will look back on the St. Clair experience and see that it was the start of a way to provide excellent transit right across Toronto."
Like Mihevc, the mayor sees a number of major transportation corridors identified for intensified redevelopment in the Official Plan as prime candidates for future streetcar lines or reserved bus lanes.
"Eglinton, particularly in Scarborough, is ideal for rapid transit," Miller says. He even suggests it may make economic sense to have a streetcar route along Sheppard to Scarborough Town Centre rather than continue the subway line there (at a cost of $2 billion) from where it now ends at Don Mills.
Mihevc offers Finch as another possibility for light rail track to and from the Yonge subway line. The Kingston Road streetcar route could also be extended from where it now ends at Victoria Park all the way to the city's eastern boundary, the councillor says. And the waterfront east of Yonge along Queens Quay and beyond would also be ideal for light rail.
"My hope is that we start to develop some of these lines so that we prompt the next generation of streetcars to be developed earlier than the current 2015 target date," says Mihevc. "These streetcars we have now? They're not streetcars. They're tanks that hold a lot of people, 2.5 times the weight of the sleek European-designed low-floor, wide-door models. What we're aiming for here is an above-ground subway."
Is the councillor dreaming? He doesn't think so.
"The reality of the TTC is that we've had to be obsessed with keeping the system we have in a state of good repair. We haven't allowed ourselves the luxury to dream," Mihevc says. "But now, with the gas tax coming from the province and the feds, we can hopefully start to think beyond state of good repair and bring our ridership growth strategy in line with our Official Plan."
And get Toronto an A on the next smog report card.