Ontario will start construction on a rail link from downtown Toronto to the airport, so said Premier Dalton McGuinty on Monday.
A rare piece of good news on the city's transit front, right?
Not so fast, say the Air Rail Link's critics. Aside from environmental concerns about diesel trains, opponents of the plan warn that fares for the airport express will be too high for most people to afford, and accuse the province of wasting public funds on a transit system reserved for wealthy jetsetters.
"It's designed to be an elite line, an exclusive transportation system," says Davenport NDP MPP Jonah Schein, a longtime opponent of the province's plans for a diesel link from Pearson Airport to Union Station. "This is using public dollars to build a transit system that only very wealthy people can afford."
According to Metrolinx, the provincial agency in charge of building and operating the "premium express rail shuttle," fare prices won't be finalized until 2014. But they are widely expected to be several times more expensive than GO or TTC fares.
A spokesperson for Metrolinx would only say that the fare would be "competitive" with the cost of taking a taxi to the airport from downtown, which the agency estimates at $60 and increasing. The spokesperson would not confirm if the fare would be close to the initial target of $20, and some observers say it could be closer to $50.
At those prices, many would prefer to take the TTC or a cab, especially if they're not traveling alone and could split the fare.
How much the 23.3-km line will cost taxpayers remains unknown. The project was originally conceived as a public private partnership, but after SNC-Lavalin dropped out in 2010, the province was left on the hook.
Aside from the 3.3 km "spur" that McGuinty announced will break ground next year, for the majority of its route the ARL will run on existing GO lines. But in order to accommodate the airport service GO's existing bridges and underpasses will have to be expanded and some tracks added. The cost has been estimated at $300 to 400 million, while critics argue it will be much higher.
The larger unknown is the cost of electrifying the airport link. In order to have the ARL up and running by the Pan Am Games in 2015, Premier Dalton McGuinty has controversially opted to run "clean diesel" trains on the line, but has pledged to replace them with electric vehicles at some point after the games at an undisclosed expense.
Metrolinx did not return a request for an updated cost estimate for the entire project.
Had the trains been electric from the start, anti-diesel advocates like the Clean Train Coalition say that the ARL would not only be environmentally friendly, but could have made several stops en route and given west end residents a way to get to and from downtown. Diesel trains take longer to stop and start than electric vehicles, and the current design of the ARL calls for only two intermediary stops, at the Weston and Bloor GO stations.
Mike Sullivan, NDP MP for York South-Weston, says that by bypassing most of the communities between the airport and Union Station, the ARL will "freeze out the people who paid for it."
Sullivan suggests an alternate design that would see an electric ARL serve west end residents by building five intermediary stops along the route. Regular GO fares could be charged at those stations, but travellers would pay a premium to leave and enter the airport.
"You build public transit because it's a social need. That's not what this is," he said. "This is private transit for the well-heeled. And private transit for the well-heeled ought to pay for itself. It's not going to. We're going to subsidize every ride they take."
Metrolinx argues that the current design of the ARL will benefit all Torontonians because it will attract investment and be good for the city's overall economy. The agency estimates the link will create 1,200 construction jobs and reduce gridlock and air pollution by saving 1.2 million car trips annually.