The massive Aura condo project on Toronto’s Yonge Street is near completion, with only a few of its 78 storeys still to go up. This one building alone will add 985 condo units to the downtown core – and squeeze yet more riders onto the dangerous ledges of the College subway station below.
The platforms at College are so narrow, and the rush hour crowds so big, that only the most intrepid passengers dare elbow their way to the front of the line lest they end up on the third rail. With its dingy tiles, the station is a dirtier and smellier version of your least favourite public washroom.
The Toronto Transit Commission is finally replacing its 40-year-old subway cars. But on most days, you still have to board one of the old clunkers, which screech so piercingly while riding along the metal tracks and their many turns that you often end up nursing a pounding headache for hours afterward.
It would not take an alien long to diagnose what ails the third-busiest subway system in North America after New York and Mexico City. Decades of underinvestment in existing infrastructure, combined with rapidly increasing ridership in the downtown core, have left Toronto’s main subway lines in a pitiful state of disrepair, hampered by innumerable bottlenecks and antiquated technology.
Yet the politicians who decide how scarce transit dollars get spent could not seem to care less. Andy Byford, the highly competent head of the Toronto Transit Commission, has been pleading for a so-called “downtown relief line” to take the pressure off existing stations in the core. But politicians only have eyes for voters in suburban Scarborough, announcing billions for a new subway that promises to be one of the most underused undergrounds in North America.
It’s a similar situation in Montreal, where the provincial Parti Québécois government just (re)announced a commitment to extend the city’s least-used subway line farther east through fertile PQ ridings. You’d think there would be widespread outrage, given the state of public finances and the rapid dilapidation of Montreal’s once world-leading Metro in the downtown core.
But in Quebec as in Ontario, subways for the people least likely to use them continue to unite politicians of all stripes. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s relentless campaign for the Scarborough subway may just have made him unbeatable in next year’s election. A few months ago, no one would have been caught dead siding with the controversial mayor. But Mr. Ford, who has also gone fishing with Stephen Harper, this week snagged $660-million from Ottawa to build a subway through hotly contested Scarborough ridings.
Even the usually uncynical Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne proved she can cynically buy votes with the best of the old boys. She jumped on the subway bandwagon just before last month’s provincial Scarborough by-election. Before that, Ontario had correctly concluded that cheaper light-rail transit was the best option for Scarborough. But electoral exigencies soon trumped sound policy-making.
No matter the incontrovertible expert advice about where they should and should not be built, politicians oppose subways at their peril. Ms.Wynne figured that out in the nick of time. Her candidate won.
The sad part is that most of the Scarbourough residents clamouring for a subway have no intention of using it. They just want what their neighbours in York Region are getting, not to mention the boost to property values that comes with an underground. They sure don’t want the higher-density development that subways are supposed to promote, and they will fight it tooth and nail at city council.
A decade after yet another electorally motivated underground expansion opened in Toronto, the Sheppard line draws barely 50,000 of the TTC’s nearly 1.3-million daily subway passengers. Despite new condo development along Sheppard, the car-loving residents on adjacent streets prefer detached dwellings on sizable lots. Overall densities along the Sheppard line are nowhere near the levels needed to fill a subway.
Only 2,000 commuters pass through the Sheppard line’s Bessarion station on an average weekday, compared to about 400,000 at the Yonge-Bloor interchange. The Sheppard line’s per passenger operating losses suck TTC resources from where they’re really needed – repairing the oldest and busiest stations and building a new downtown relief line. It will only get worse if the Scarborough line is built.
The one bright spot is that the Scarborough subway’s projected ridership, even under the rosiest scenarios, means you will always get a seat.