What a week in Toronto transit!

January 22, 2016

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Well, it has been quite the week for transit planning in the City, one that saw the redefinition of the smart track concept and a reworking of the proposed Scarborough subway to include — of all things — a new LRT.

So let’s recap:

On Monday the latest ridership projections for SmartTrack were released.

The projections were created using the first run of the new GTAModel Version 4 developed by the University of Toronto. This is now the most state of the art demand forecasting model in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. The forecasts were run on the base SmartTrack proposal and used to assist in the assessment of options for the western segment of the proposed alignment between Mount Dennis and the Mississauga Airport Corporate Centre described below.

The key headlines from the projections were as follows:

– Assuming that it would cost the same as a TTC fare, and trains would run every 5 minutes, SmartTrack is capable of capturing significant ridership. Forecasts for 2031 indicate between 282,990 to 321,436 would use the system each day. This is more riders that currently utilize the regional GO network on a daily basis.

– Those high numbers remain regardless of which growth scenario were used (high-low etc.) and horizon year.

– The implementation of SmartTrack, running at 5 minute headways, would relieve congestion on the Yonge Subway line south of Bloor by a significant 17%. This is greater than the 12% reduction that was estimated could be achieved through the first phase Downtown Relief Line Project.

What wasn’t highlighted up-front but is perhaps most critical, is the relationship of ridership numbers to both the cost of the system and the frequency of transit service. The number of riders dropped significantly with each drop in frequency of service. Further reductions in ridership were seen if the cost of the system was increased to the price of a typical GO transit fare (see sample table below).

2031 SmartTrack All-Day Transit Boardings by Headway & Fare* 

Click here for enlarged version

SmartTrack Headway 2031 TTC Fare Scenario 2031 GO Fare Scenario
15 min 76,617 37,680
10 min 154,296 61,358
5 min 314,567 108,014

* Assumes Low population/Medium employment with SmartTrack influence

The implications are that if SmartTrack is unable to achieve a frequency of 10 minutes or less for the cost of a TTC fare then the ridership numbers would be greatly reduced to (in cases) a mere 12% of the projected high ridership numbers.

Tuesday saw the public release of the SmartTrack Western Corridor Feasibility Review.

The report was commissioned by the City to look at the feasibility of extending the proposed SmartTrack alignment west from Mount Dennis Station at Eglinton and Weston Road to the Airport Corporate Centre. You recall during last years’ election this was a big transit issue with John Tory’s opponents claiming the connection as proposed just didn’t make sense. It turns out they were right.

The study looked at the feasibility of extending heavy rail along a 9km stretch from Weston Road to the Mississauga Airport Corporate Centre. At the request of Council, the study also examined the potential to extend the SmartTrack Alignment north along the GO Kitchener Corridor to the Woodbine Racetrack and then back down to the Airport Corporate Centre. After an initial long list of options, the study explored three corridors in greater detail. These included:

– A continuous heavy rail connection from Union Station to Mount Dennis and then along Eglinton to the Airport Corporate Centre;

– A continuous heavy rail connection along the GO Kitchener Corridor to Woodbine and then south to the Airport Corporate Centre; and

– A stand-alone heavy rail corridor between the Mississauga Airport Corporate Centre and Mount Dennis with a transfer to a separate SmartTrack Service running south to the downtown.

The Western Corridor Study Area

Source: City of Toronto / SmartTrack Western Corridor Feasibility Review (Click here for enlarged version)

These three options were assessed by transportation consultant HDR against a base case scenario which was the planned extension of the Eglinton Crosstown line from Mount Dennis west to the Airport. All options were compared using the City’s Feeling Congested framework for assessing transportation projects.

The key conclusions as they relate to the western spur were as follows:

1 – For a number of reasons, the heavy rail corridors would need to be grade-separated from traffic and pedestrians. This would lead to a significant increase in costs ranging from $3.6 – $4.8 Billion for just the western spur, and result in significant community impacts. In contrast the extension of the Eglinton Crosstown line would be less disruptive and cost only $1.3 Billion.

2 – Projected ridership on the base case (The Eglinton Crosstown extension) was highest of the options assessed and estimated to be 39,500 during the peak morning commute. This was more than twice the number of riders of the northern Kitchener GO Corridor Alignment and over three times as many riders as the heavy rail alignment along Eglinton.

Based on the Community Impacts, Higher Costs and Lower Ridership, the conclusion of the report and City Planning’s recommendation to council was that the heavy rail option (as originally proposed) should be no longer pursued. Instead, the lower cost, better performing extension of the Eglinton Crosstown was recommended as the solution for the western spur.

As a side note: one of the most significant but not heavily-discussed observations coming from the report related to the ability for the GO Kitchener Corridor to accommodate SmartTrack. The report noted that in order to accommodate SmartTrack trains running at 15 minute intervals, an additional track would be required and that two tracks would be required for anything more frequent than that. It went on to point out that given the constraints of the corridor, close adjacent development and multiple road crossings, corridor expansion could lead to “untenable costs”, lengthy discussions with impacted owners and/or complex (read costly) engineering solutions. Given the conclusions of the ridership forecasting noted above and the need to achieve frequent service levels, this will prove to be a big but important hurdle and there will no doubt be more to come on this issue.

On Thursday we saw the release of a Staff Report providing a Scarborough Transit Planning Update on the latest work examining the Scarborough Subway Extension.

The extension has been steeped in controversy since it was first proposed. Opponents point to the subway’s high cost, limited three-stop catchment, and questionable ridership numbers as proof that it was a decision based solely on politics and not on the needs of the borough, which they felt could be better served by a network of less-expensive Light Rapid Rail lines connecting all corners of the borough. Meanwhile, supporters of the subway feel that Scarborough has been unfairly denied a subway, while every other former borough has at least one connecting them to the rest of the city. In recent months the subway has seen increasing controversy as it was understood to be competing for riders with Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack, which is proposed to run just west of the subway alignment.

The report dropped a bombshell by recommending that instead of three stops the subway be reduced to just a single stop at the Scarborough Town Centre. It then went on to recommend that the savings from this reduction in stops be used to fund the previously-approved but since unfunded Scarborough Malvern LRT, connecting Kennedy Station with the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus in the east and north to Sheppard Avenue. The LRT would be an extension of the Eglinton Crosstown Line meaning that if completed (and in conjunction with the now proposed western spur extension noted above), in the next decade it may be possible to travel the nearly 40km from Sheppard Avenue East to the Airport via LRT.

Recommended Rapid Transit network for Scarborough (including high frequency bus corridors)

Source: City of Toronto (Click here for enlarged version)

The solution was seen as a great compromise, bridging the gap between the two sides of the debate with the potential to garner greater support in Council. There will still be details that need to be worked out — it is not currently clear whether the final design of the First Phase Crosstown (now under construction) has accounted for an eastern extension, and changing designs in the middle of a P3 process can be tricky, but it has been quite a change of events!

So what did we just see?

1 – A much-needed return to evidence-based planning informed by experts and data;

2 – A Mayor who has shown he can demonstrate flexibility in the face of politics; and

3 – The return to the table of City Planning under the skillful guidance of the ever capable Jennifer Keesmaat…who may just deserve a medal.

We moved closer than ever to locking down our city’s critical rapid transit network. While there are still many questions that need answering and hurdles to overcome (think RER implementation, revised Scarborough subway evaluations and amendments to the proposed Eglinton Crosstown extensions…to name a few), we had a pretty good week for transit in Toronto.


SmartTrack Ridership Forecasts, Release 1, Summary Report (City of Toronto)

SmartTrack Western Corridor Feasibility Review (City of Toronto)

Scarborough Transit Planning Update (City of Toronto)