Transit: What are we paying for anyway?

While we’re wading through the debate on whether or not and what type of revenue tools taxes we should pay to finance the transit infrastructure that Toronto so desperately needs, it’s worth catching up with the status of what transit is like in this city, since even our elected leaders seem pretty confused by the subject.

Let’s begin with the state of the higher-order transit as it stands today:

We have three subway lines, plus the Scarborough RT – which is a fully grade-separated train system that would be more or less the same as a subway if it worked more than half the time. Together, these have 69 stations spanning 68 kms.

We also have a system of streetcars in the downtown core, of which three operate in their own right-of-ways (St. Clair, Spadina, and Queen’s Quay West). These latter three routes can be classified as LRT-lite, as their speed and capacity is somewhere between those of traditional streetcars and modern LRT systems. There are also eight other routes that operate in mixed traffic.


There’s also the GO Transit system, which connects the suburbs to the core and has seven rail lines with 63 stations (plus numerous bus routes and stations). Because the service is oriented toward commuters from the 905 and beyond, Torontonians tend to underuse this system, so it doesn’t form a big part of our transit discussions. Nevertheless, the system maintains 18 rail stations in the 416 (plus a few bus terminals).


What’s being built now?

The biggest TTC project in a long while is the York Univesity Spadina Subway Extension, an 8.6km extension with 6 stations bringing subway service all the way to a planned new metropolitan centre in Vaughan. It’s set to open in 2016 and construction is deep in progress. It cost around $2.6B, funded 1/3 from each of the provincial and federal governments, and 1/6 from each of the City of Toronto and York Region. (Total Subway: 77km, 75 stations).


Of lesser importance to Torontonians is the Union-Pearson Express train service that Metrolinx is adding. It’s a premium service with only two stops between the main terminals. Paid for by the province with service expected to begin in time for the Pan-Am games in 2015. In the long-term, I expect this service to be folded into either GO or the TTC with more stations added to the line to improve ridership. (Projections are only about 5,000 people per day using the UPE, far less than most TTC bus services, and just 1,000 more than the Airport Rocket from Kipling). A short-term improvement is that this project includes finally connecting GO’s Bloor Station to the Dundas West station on the Bloor subway for improved transfers. This line has potential to vastly improve transit to the city’s west end if it is ordered better.

Then there’s a bunch of capacity improvements on existing services. We’re also getting a brand new fleet of streetcars for the downtown core. The $1B price tag is split 2/3 Toronto, 1/3 Ontario. The new streetcars are meant to improve service somewhat, by using an off-board payment system and all-door loading, plus they’re meant to be more reliable and comfortable. They’ll be so large, several stops will have to be removed from the network, which will help improve speed (and traffic). They’ll begin service on the Spadina line next year with full rollout by 2018.

The city ordered brand new subway cars for the Yonge Line, which are slowly being phased in now and, together with automatic train control which is being installed on the line, will improve capacity by about 20%. The cost was about $650M for the cars.

Related is the Presto payment system, which will make paying your fares faster and easier, perhaps making surface routes move faster. The province has paid to install the system on GO and on local services in the 905, but required Toronto to pay for half its costs through expected savings on fare collections. Total cost for Toronto is about $450M.

Union Station is also getting a $600M upgrade courtesy of three levels of government. The upgrades are meant to improve passenger flow and increase capacity on the subway and train tracks. Unfortunately, the streetcar platform will not get a much needed expansion, but hey, they are building a big mall, so that’s something.

The Big Move Part One

In 2007, the province announced it would build 4 new LRT lines in Toronto, then scaled back and delayed the proposal significantly as a budget crisis hit. Mayor Ford tried to cancel them but Council fought back and won. So now the truncated four lines are being built, but with even greater delay. Still, by the end of the decade, we’ll have a Finch LRT from the new Finch West Station to Humber College, a Sheppard East LRT from Don Mills Station to Meadowvale, an Eglinton LRT from Weston Rd to Kennedy Station (underground for 11kms including 14 stations), and a rebuilt and extended SRT as the Scarborough LRT, with two new stations. By the end of the decade, Toronto will have ~90km of Subway/grade-separated LRT, with 91 stations, plus another 35km of surface LRT.


The Eglinton LRT is already under construction, and work has begun on utility relocation for the Sheppard/Scarborough LRTs. A new maintenance facility for these lines is under tender. The LRT station at Finch West subway station is being built along with the station as part of the YUSSE project.

Of lesser importance to Torontonians, the Big Move part one is also paying for Bus Rapid Transit routes across York Region and in Mississauga, expansion of rail capacity on the GO network, and improved service on several GO Transit routes. The federal government has chipped in token amounts on some of these improvements.

This is what the Toronto Rapid Transit Map will look like once these projects are all complete in 2021:


The Big Move’s Next Wave

The next wave of projects is what we’re being asked to pay for through new taxes totalling $2B/year, of which 25 percent will go to municipalities for local transit initiatives. Metrolinx has decided which projects should get the go-ahead for this wave of projects that will take us to 2031.

Of most importance to Torontonians is assuredly the Downtown Relief Line – a project that will enhance service to from the east end of the city to the core and add more capacity to the overburdened Yonge and Bloor lines. Metrolinx has not decided on a route, number of stations or even where the new subway will end, but it has allocated $7.4B of proposed revenues for the project. We should hope that the initial build gets us at least from Don Mills and Eglinton to the Spadina area. (Since this is more than double the Yonge budget, let’s estimate 13kms and 13 stations).

There’s also an extension of the Yonge Line to Richmond Hill (6km, 5 stations), contingent on the DRL getting finished first (there’s no capacity on Yonge otherwise), and Toronto Council has already indicated multiple times it won’t allow or operate a Yonge extension without the DRL first.

This brings the total TTC grade-separated rapid transit coverage in the 416 to 110km and 109 stations, roughly, plus the surface LRTs. Not a terrible improvement over 18 years, but we could do better.

A few GO lines get electrified (including the UPE), and all lines will feature all-day/two-way service on at least part of the route. The additional capacity this will generate may be enough to encourage the province to finally provide GO fare integration for the TTC, which could finally provide rapid transit service to far-flung neighbourhoods in the 416. Regardless, the GO network will become much more important to Torontonians, especially along the Lakeshore East, Lakeshore West, and Kitchener (to Brampton) routes, which will be electrified express routes.

There’s also a few 905-to-the-subway BRTs, which presumably can be shared with the TTC over parts of their routes to improve bus service in parts of the 416. The affected areas are Dundas St in Etobicoke and Ellesmere in Scarborough.

There’s also LRTs proposed for Hamilton and Mississauga/Brampton, although both have suddenly developed opposition from local councils. If these projects are cancelled or reduced in scope, we could see more money freed up for other projects.


The downtown LRT-lites are in red — I’ve left off the regular streetcar system to keep it simple. The grey line is a proposed route of the DRL — we don’t yet know the actual route, length, or number of stations yet. The dashed line to the airport is the UPE — this map presumes extra stops added at Eglinton and Etobicoke North GO stations. The diamond lines are the new BRT lines being added from the 905. The light green lines are GO services.

What’s missing

Notably missing from the Next Wave is completion of the portions of the LRT projects that were deferred by the province due to budget cutbacks. We’re also not seeing funding for the proposed Waterfront East LRT, or any of the other Transit City LRT proposals (Waterfront West, Jane, Don Mills, Morningside), or proposed extensions, like Sheppard-Zoo,  SLRT-Malvern, or Finch-Pearson.

Transport Minister Glenn Murray pointed this out recently and said the list could be tweaked or expanded, but then backtracked. The list is what it is as far as the province is concerned.

However, that’s not to say we can’t build anything more on top of these projects, or improve service in other ways.

Metrolinx has said that the annual tax haul will be divided with 25 percent going to municipalities to be spent on municipal transit support (15%), improvements to regional highways (5%), and other transit initiatives (5%). Assuming Toronto gets half the $2B/year haul, this translates to $150M for transit, $50M for highways, and $50M for other smaller projects annually.

It’s yet to be determined how Toronto will spend this money, although it’s likely that the $50M for highways will be funnelled into rehabilitating the Gardiner over the next decade. The $50M for smaller transit improvements could go to state-of-good repair and required improvements to the existing system, including new second exits and accessibility improvements to subway stations. It could also be dedicated to cycling and pedestrian initiatives, like trails through our ravine system and Hydro corridors, or separated bike lanes on busy streets. It could also be used to improve traffic signal timing throughout the city.

The city could dump the $150 million entirely into TTC operations to save itself the growing cost of service, but it would be better if the city dedicated at least some of that to capital improvements. Some projects would be relatively cheap and quick to implement with this kind of money, and would lend more credence to the idea that we’re really expanding the system.

Some cheap improvements would include the Waterfront East LRT to serve new developments downtown, or extensions to the Scarborough LRT network to Malvern, the Zoo, and University of Toronto-Scarborough, or the St. Clair extension to Jane St. Or the city could borrow against the dedicated revenue to build larger, arguably more important projects like completing the Eglinton West/Finch LRT to Pearson, extending the DRL north, or the “North York Relief Line.”

Of course, the other partner in this discussion is the federal government. The province is going forward without the feds because they correctly believe we can’t afford to wait until they come on board. But that doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t lobby for more money from Ottawa in the future. With elections coming up in 2015 – during which Toronto will have 25 seats and the GTA will have more than Alberta and British Columbia combined – we ought to demand that the parties commit to helping out with the Next Next Wave. While we focus on local improvements, could Ottawa step up and pay for a regional line like Eglinton West? Or if they agree to share costs on a few already proposed/funded projects, could that free up Metrolinx to pick up a few new projects in its current wave?


In my “Third Wave” model, I’ve had the city finance small extensions to the LRT network branching the Sheppard LRT to Malvern, the Zoo, and UTSC. All of these could also be interlined with the Scarborough LRT(which should probably get a new name to avoid confusion) for customer convenience. The city also finances Waterfront LRT improvements to the east and west. A larger partner or more municipal borrowing gets the Eglinton and Finch LRTs to the airport – although it’s possible by the time Eglinton West is ready to be built a new grade-separated route will take it there (elevated or in the former Richview lands). And the province relents and adds a few more stops on the UPE, turning it into a more useful regional connector. Finally, a “North York Relief Line” connects the YUS – I’ve chosen an interlined extension of the Sheppard subway rather than a Finch LRT extension.

Now we’re in the realm of fantasy, and also talking about dates more than twenty years hence, but I feel like there’s good reason for optimism in Toronto, if only because the already financed and planned additions to the system will be a dramatic improvement over the current state of affairs. What do you think?


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