On a gleaming and deliciously breezy afternoon this week, Ralph McQuinn, who runs Toronto oldest water-taxi service, was working a steady run of business, but he wasn’t hitting it out of the, well, harbour. “I’m doing it all by myself today,” he half-shouted over the engine, his boat en route to a berth at the island yacht club.
Last Saturday, however, was “crazy.” “I couldn’t keep up. I could have had two other boats, four other boats.” With the line-ups at the ferry docks snaking out to Queen’s Quay, he had to press a small flotilla into active service.
In the 16 years Mr. McQuinn and his brother have run the company, business has never been so brisk. It’s grown steadily, especially because the gap between his rate and an adult ferry ticket is now about the cost of a latte. “Who wants to wait with the kids in an hour-long line for $3?”
It’s a question that will almost certainly flit across the irritated minds of thousands of ferry passengers this Canada Day long weekend – Torontonians and tourists alike who decide to make a day of it over at the city’s most iconic public park, only to encounter the soul-crushing experience that awaits on either end of an otherwise postcard-perfect journey across the harbour.
The serpentine lines this spring pose an interesting question: with development coming to the port lands in coming years, should the city seek to create other ways for Torontonians and tourists to access the Islands?
A fleet replacement strategy
Certainly, the current service seems locked in something of a time-warp familiar to generations of residents: After the lengthy queue for tickets, passengers must run the gauntlet of the wickets outside the newly christened Jack Layton Ferry Terminal. Though expanded last year, the wickets have limited payment options, and visitors can’t buy tickets online, as they could at almost any other major tourist attraction. (The auditor-general’s office in 2010 found irregularities in the cash-handling, some of which still haven’t been sorted out.)
Past the turnstiles, the waiting compound – encased in bars and concrete, with amenities that haven’t been significantly upgraded since the 1970s – has been likened to a holding pen for deportees. The aesthetically challenged security features are required by Transport Canada, although city officials concede that they haven’t attempted to devise a more user-friendly design. (A public art mural will be installed this summer. And to reduce sun exposure, the parks department will be spending $200,000 on a canopy that will be complete next year.)
The three main ferries – the Thomas Rennie, the William Inglis and the Sam McBride – are by far the most elderly vehicles in the city’s fleet, dating back to the late 1930s. They were recently fitted with new engines. But as of this year, the 1,000-passenger boats are operating at just 70 per cent capacity because Transport Canada has ordered the city to comply with new international marine safety standards. (The ferries haven’t experienced an accident in decades.)
While the city has petitioned Ottawa to exempt the iconic double-ended ships from those rules because they don’t operate in open water, the restrictions have meant longer lines and more crowding in the compound. James Dann, the manager of waterfront parks, said the ferries last year moved 4,500 passengers per hour, but the rate is down to 4,000 this summer. The city won’t hasten the frequency of service because the aging vessels can’t make the 15-minute crossing any faster. Long-time islander Barry Lipton, who uses the ferries daily, thinks the city should purchase modern ships that can carry 2,000 passengers. And, he points out, with thousands of new waterfront condo apartments, the new owners and tenants should be able to make the crossing more easily. “This,” he observed, “is their park.”
In fact, the city this year initiated a “fleet replacement strategy.” But Mr. Dann said each boat will likely cost about $8-million and the funds have yet to be identified. Nor is it clear whether the city will opt to rebuild the ferry terminals as part of its plan to order new ships that may be capable of carrying more passengers.
The flap over a fixed link
Despite everything, about 1.2 million people make the crossing each year, which produces about $6.5-million in income from ferry tickets. If that sounds like a lot, consider that the Toronto Islands drew about twice as many visitors in the 1920s and 1930s. In that distant era, the islands had ten hotels and a baseball park, while many ferries, mostly private, plied the harbour.
“The city wasn’t as big, but no one was going to the cottage back then,” observes Bill Beasley, whose family has owned and operated the Centreville Amusement Park since 1966. “Times have changed, right?”
The city bought the harbour ferry fleet in 1926 and assigned the Toronto Transit Commission to operate them; passengers could pay with TTC tickets. In 1938 and 1939, the city bought two new ships (Inglis and McBride) with more passenger space, and then added a third in 1951. But Metro wrested the fleet away from the TTC in the early 1960s after complaints about service. The city’s Marine Unit has operated the vessels ever since, with few changes.
Mr. Dann also points out that from time to time, individuals have approached the city with proposals to build a pedestrian tunnel or bridge across the Eastern Gap. It’s not a new idea. In the 1910s, says planning consultant Ken Greenberg, the legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted proposed a bridge over the Eastern Gap as part of his master plan for the new Toronto Harbour Commission. A century later, the Toronto Port Authority is in the midst of building an $85-million pedestrian tunnel under the Western Gap to facilitate passenger access to the Toronto Billy Bishop Island Airport and its tenant airlines, Porter and Air Canada. The tunnel, financed with $20 ticket levies, replaces a shuttle ferry, but there are no plans to extend it past the tarmac to Hanlan’s Point.
Mr. Lipton, for his part, isn't keen on the notion of a pedestrian tunnel to the eastern end of the island, noting that the cost would likely be prohibitive. Further, he also predicted that if the entrance was situated close to the Ward’s Island community, too large, or included some kind of shuttle bus service back to Centre Island, “there would be big push-back.”
Given the city’s difficulty in finding money for new boats and transit service for the East Bayfront, a costly pedestrian link on the island’s eastern flank seems unlikely, at least for the time being.
In the meantime, Mr. McQuinn is going to continue shuttling impatient or over-heated visitors across the bay, especially in nice weather. “If it’s a sunny day,” he said, “people don’t want to stand in that line-up.”