Monday, March 19, 2012

Building a subway will avoid future regrets

TORONTO - Over 60 years ago, a streetcar line was planned for Queen St. between Strachan and Logan Avenues, with a tunnel running between McCaul and Church Streets.

The concept was much like the proposed Eglinton Crosstown line today.

While the Queen “streetcar subway” was eventually abandoned, we can now only look back and think: If only it had been built, and built much longer, with most of it underground!

If only Toronto hadn’t been so timid when Controller Horatio Hocken proposed the Yonge St. line in 1911, we wouldn’t have had to wait until 1954 for Toronto’s first subway.

In the 1940s, the City had the foresight and boldness to plan for the post-war future.

Today, we’ve become overly deferential to professional advice, while losing confidence in our own lived experience.

Today, we’ve cast aside our common sense.

We’ve become mesmerized by projections that contradict our own instincts.

In 1954, anyone predicting Scarborough and North York would be as built up as they are today, would have been dismissed as delusional.

The same applies for Markham, Richmond Hill and Vaughan.

Yet today, 60 years later, we can’t seem to accept that 50 to 100 years from now, the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) will need an integrated network of subways and GO trains, complemented by a vast feeder network of buses.

Today, the GTA is paralyzed by gridlock.

The estimated cost of this massive traffic congestion ranges from $6 billion to $9 billion annually. Our future economic development faces a historic threat.

To avoid more “if only” scenarios, we should embark on subway building now, by extending the Sheppard subway from Don Mills Rd.

to the Scarborough City Centre. Let’s finish what was started.

We should not be connecting the existing Sheppard “stumpway” to a surface Light Rail Train (LRT) system.

We know the fewer the transfers from one mode of transit to another, the more likely we will capture additional riders.

We know, too, that unless mass public transit is removed from existing roadways (by putting it underground, elevating it, or putting it in a corridor parallel to a roadway), it will not be as rapid, reliable or frequent as it can be.

It will therefore be incapable of luring motorists out of their cars.

Last year, Mayor Rob Ford resurrected a dormant TTC subsidiary to see whether the innovation and investment of the private sector could be harnessed to complete the Sheppard subway.

Our interim report, Toronto Transit: Back on Track, was recently released.

It concluded there were sufficient grounds and interest to finish the Sheppard subway and carry on to the next phase of the Public-Private Partnership (P3) analysis with the federal government.

Unfortunately, a school yard brawl has broken out at City Hall, precipitated by a clash of tempers, egos and ideologies.

To buy time, an advisory panel was quickly convened (most of whose members had already publicly proclaimed their preferences), and charged with making a recommendation.

An LRT on Sheppard Ave was recommended (to no one’s surprise) based on overly conservative TTC estimates of future ridership and population growth.

This has provoked another round of impulsive utterances on council which has solved nothing and hardened entrenched positions.

Council would best serve taxpayers by declaring a moratorium on Sheppard until the next phase of the federal P3 application is concluded.

Citizens will see whether the private sector comes to the table only when the Request for Proposals is issued.

Then we’ll know, at long last, how going to the private sector compares with the traditional TTC procurement method.

Councillors concerned about tax dollars should reflect seriously on Wednesday’s vote.

The current debate is more about the dissatisfaction a group of councillors have with the mayor than about substance.

But don’t shoot the message, just because you may not like the messenger.

Sixty years from now, how many “if onlys” will the next generation be lamenting?

If only they had built the Sheppard subway; if only they had built an integrated network of subways, including the Downtown Relief Line.

If only …

—Subway advocate Gordon Chong is a former Toronto councillor and TTC vice-chairman

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