From the burly crowd-control crews at the Yonge-Bloor subway station to the floor of city council and even the provincial cabinet table, the hobbled state of Toronto’s transit system transfixed the city’s attention in 2012, dominating the public agenda to an extent not seen for more than a decade.
Tangible changes, both good and bad, became impossible to ignore: new subway trains, super-packed vehicles, and the disruptive presence of an unprecedented wave of construction projects, from the Union Station platform expansion downtown to the suburban traffic snarls around the construction of the Spadina subway extension and the Air Rail Link.
Meanwhile, the transit file generated a fierce political storm that saw Mayor Rob Ford lose control of a central plank in his 2010 election platform.
“This was the year of public transit for all sorts of reasons,” observed Matthew Siemiatycki, a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto. “We did hit a moment where people are saying, ‘we need action.’”
Indeed, Prof. Siemiatycki predicted the tumultuous events of 2012 will set the stage for a historic debate in 2013 about the future of transit in a region whose residents are weary of being squeezed between gridlock on the streets and crowding on the TTC.
“It’s the year when we tackle how we pay for transit.”
The death and life of Transit City
Despite Mayor Rob Ford’s early gambit to shelve Transit City in favour of subways, former mayor David Miller’s $8.4-billion light-rail plan came roaring back from the dead during a gripping spring showdown led by TTC chair Karen Stintz.
After she revealed to The Globe and Mail in late January that she couldn’t support Mr. Ford’s costly pledge to bury the entire Eglinton Crosstown LRT line – a plan that would have left virtually no funding for proposed lines on Sheppard and Finch – the mayor’s supporters on the Commission blocked Ms. Stintz’s bid to get the agency’s staff to scrutinize the viability of the $2-billion proposal.
But during an intense council session in February, Ms. Stintz and 26 supporters struck back with a dramatic vote in support of the original LRT plan. That move effectively slammed the door on Mr. Ford’s pledge to build a privately funded subway on Sheppard and keep the Eglinton LRT off the surface. A few weeks later, the same coalition ousted the mayor’s supporters on the TTC. Finally, in March, an expert panel confirmed that an LRT on Sheppard would be the most cost-effective option. Metrolinx and the city signed the deal to build the LRT lines in the fall.
By mid-2013, said Ms. Stintz, Metrolinx will be in a position to award the multimillion-dollar private-sector contracts to build and maintain the Eglinton line.
Paying the piper
While money is the eternal question with transit, many observers expect that 2013 will be a make-or-break moment in the debate about how the GTA pays to relieve worsening congestion problems. “It will be a profoundly important year as we set our course for the next decade,” predicted Metrolinx chair Rob Prichard.,
The looming battle over how to pay for the agency’s 25-year, $50-billion, GTA-wide transportation strategy, known as The Big Move, will dominate the regional agenda. In May, Metrolinx will release its long-awaited “investment strategy” to Queen’s Park and the GTA municipalities. That report is expected to propose various “revenue tools” – parking levies, sales taxes, road tolls, etc. – for raising billions for LRTs, subways and two-way GO service.
In the interim, Toronto council has launched a broad public consultation, asking residents how the city should pay for new transit projects such as an LRT on Queen’s Quay East. And the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and the federal NDP have been lobbying for earmarked transit dollars in Ottawa’s new national infrastructure program, expected to be unveiled this spring.
The funding fight, however, could by side tracked by possible provincial and municipal elections. “Until the political instability gets resolved,” said Ms. Stintz, “we won’t get advances with transit because there’s no one there to lead the discussion.”
The British are coming
In one of the most emotionally charged episodes of the year, Mr. Ford’s supporters on the TTC engineered the ouster of the agency’s chief general manager Gary Webster, accusing him of failing to support the mayor’s subway agenda. Mr. Webster’s replacement was the TTC’s chief operating officer Andy Byford, an English-born rail veteran recruited in early 2011 as Mr. Webster’s eventual successor.
With an impressive international résumé and a no-nonsense manner, Mr. Byford wasted little time in pressing ahead with what Ms. Stintz describes as the TTC’s “modernization” strategy, focusing on customer service, performance improvements and long-promised upgrades to the TTC’s fare system, including debit-card readers at ticket booths. He won plaudits for stick-handling the TTC’s emergency response to a flood at Union Station.
But he was forced to do damage control after news broke that passengers were kicked off a TTC bus that was commandeered to pick up Mr. Ford’s football team after a fall playoff game. Reacting to reports that the mayor had left messages on his cellphone asking about the whereabouts of the bus, Mr. Byford stated that he would not respond to such requests.
Presto comes to the TTC
After years of stops and starts, Metrolinx and the TTC this year finally agreed to make the reloadable Presto fare card system widely available to Toronto transit users. It was a landmark move: provincial authorities have been angling for almost a decade to create an integrated system for the GTA so commuters wouldn’t have to pay multiple fares when they transferred from GO or 905 vehicles to the TTC.
Metrolinx began rolling out the Presto fare card for GO routes and 905 transit agencies in 2010. But the TTC, which accounts for 80 per cent of all rides in the GTA, remained a hold-out as it pursued a separate technological solution known as “open fare,” which allows riders to tap a debit or credit card on a contactless reader as they board transit vehicles. Under Ms. Stintz, the TTC abandoned its go-it-alone strategy, and the two agencies struck a deal this year.
Presto card readers will begin to appear across the subway network in 2013, but the full deployment of Presto’s own open fare system won’t be available on all TTC vehicles until at least 2016.
The story isn’t all good news, however. Ontario’s auditor-general this month slammed Metrolinx for dragging its heels with the rollout of Presto, and criticized the agency for signing a hefty sole-source deal with Accenture, the consulting firm building the system, that will bring the total implementation cost to $700-million.
Responding to pressure from Toronto council, the Metrolinx board this fall sent a signal that local transit advocates have been anticipating for years: the agency announced it would accelerate the development of the so-called “Downtown Relief Line,” a long-discussed subway loop designed to relieve steadily mounting rush-hour crowding on the Yonge-University-Spadina line.
The DRL – which would run south from Danforth, cut across the core and then head back up to the Bloor line – has appeared on municipal transit planning maps for more than three decades. But the project, which will cost at least $6-billion, has had to take a back seat to other subway expansions, on Sheppard East, in the early 2000s, and then the Spadina extension up to Vaughan, now under construction.
Metrolinx wants to build the DRL within the next 15 years, as opposed to the next 25, as originally planned, although funding sources have yet to be identified. But the project will still compete for funds with other GTA transit requests, including York Region’s desire to extend the Yonge line up to Richmond Hill.