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Toronto Doubt, confusion hang over Toronto Mayor Tory’s SmartTrack transit plan

A problem cropped up soon after John Tory unveiled his signature “surface subway” proposal during the Toronto mayoral campaign in the spring of 2014: The city had already sold off land it once owned along the route, and tunnelling would have added billions to the cost.

City staff eventually recommended ditching plans for heavy rail on the Eglinton West portion, and a majority of council, including Mayor Tory, voted in 2016 to replace this with an extension of the Crosstown light rail line, a project that was already under construction.

It was one of the first major rejigs to Mr. Tory’s plan, which his campaign team called SmartTrack, but not the last. The idea had been central to Mr. Tory’s mayoral pitch, featured prominently on his lawn signs, and it resonated in a city whose transit system was struggling to keep up with booming growth. SmartTrack’s key promise was that it would get people moving more quickly than a downtown relief line – a proposal that’s been kicked around for decades – could be built. The cost was pegged at $8-billion, and as a candidate Mr. Tory said it could be done at no direct cost to Toronto residents.

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Four years later, Mr. Tory is running again for mayor. He has not announced new transit plans during this race and is running on a broader mobility plan hashed out during his mayoralty. It is this collection of transit lines – some funded and some aspirational – that are featured on the leaflets his team is passing out this time around.

One of these lines is SmartTrack, whose branding survives as an umbrella term for the Crosstown extension along Eglinton Avenue West, the refurbishment of eight GO stations within Toronto and the construction of six others, station work that will be funded by the city and owned by the province. But while the name has been a constant, transit planning staff have had to shape Mr. Tory’s original promise into something feasible.

“Frankly, I don’t know what SmartTrack still is,” said Ed Levy, a consultant and the author of Rapid Transit in Toronto: A Century of Plans, Projects, Politics and Paralysis. “Is it a municipal service? Is it a provincial service? Is it part of GO transit? Is it another [airport express train] in different clothing? I don’t know. I don’t know why it’s being proposed. I really don’t understand it.”

Some confusion over the state of SmartTrack – or whether, as critics suggest, it even exists – is due to the project’s complicated origin story.

The province is in the process of electrifying its GO rail network and increasing service frequency dramatically. The $13.5-billion project, called Regional Express Rail (RER), predates Mr. Tory’s mayoralty. During his 2014 campaign, Mr. Tory proposed taking advantage of this electrification and adding a 22-station transit service, on the same rail corridors, dubbing the plan SmartTrack.

The proposal has since evolved in a number of ways, with several of its key claims failing to withstand scrutiny.

“At a certain point you water something down to the point where it doesn’t exist at all,” said Jennifer Keesmaat, the former chief city planner who is now Mr. Tory’s main electoral opponent. “The mayor ran on a very dramatic proposal that was supposed to solve our congestion woes, and it’s not happening.”

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Mr. Tory acknowledges changing course, saying this was evidence of him listening to the experts.

“It’s happening," he said recently. “Yes, in a different form than I [anticipated] it would, but I’m very happy it’s happening and it is moving forward.”


One decision that would define what SmartTrack is – or isn’t – came early, as city staff determined that running a “separate and parallel” service on GO’s rail corridors through the city was implausible. A report from the city manager in March, 2016, concluded that such a service would necessitate a large amount of land expropriation, raise problems at Union Station and require substantial new track at a prohibitive cost.

Even just increasing the number of stations on the GO lines within Toronto proved difficult. Metrolinx, the Crown agency that oversees regional transit, has traditionally served suburban commuters and did not want to slow its GO trains by having them stop at more stations.

Metrolinx eventually agreed to the new stations, but the Kathleen Wynne government at Queen’s Park played hardball over the cost. Even though the province would pay to build dozens of new GO stations around the Greater Toronto Area, including two in Toronto, the ones that would be called part of the SmartTrack plan would have to be funded entirely by the city. Toronto City Council agreed to that this spring, earmarking $1.195-billion for them, plus $268-million to refurbish eight existing GO stations.

A GO train passes the area behind King's Club that will include a new SmartTrack station.

Wallace Immen

One person who was close to this process said Queen’s Park believed there was no reason the province should pay, since Toronto had already signalled it would. Another said the province knew Mr. Tory needed to deliver on something called SmartTrack, so Queen’s Park came to the table aggressively with a demand that Toronto also pay some of the cost of providing RER within the city, which would have added billions to the municipal tab, and allowed itself to be talked down to having Toronto fund only the stations.

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Mr. Tory would not be specific about the negotiations and said only that cost-sharing with the province on transit was something Toronto had always expected.

The other big shift was in the west end, the part of SmartTrack that was going to run along Eglinton Avenue.

Observers had already identified the engineering difficulties of the western spur during the 2014 campaign. Mr. Tory waved this off, as well as other questions, saying critics were looking for reasons not to build anything.

The concerns were later validated by city and consulting staff. As a result, the city opted to extend the Crosstown light-rail line toward the airport instead of tunnelling for new heavy-rail tracks. Mr. Tory now points to the extra stations this will involve, likely around 10, to argue that critics are low-balling the true scope of his transit proposal.

One city hall insider said Mr. Tory was very reluctant to make this shift, fearing it would mean the project was no longer SmartTrack. The incumbent candidate called this “cheap fabrication,” saying he had “long ago got over the fact that we had to make a change to the west end.”

To Ms. Keesmaat, though, the four-year evolution of SmartTrack is proof it had little substance to begin with.

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“For several hundred pages of staff reports, well over several million dollars of planning analysis and four years of work, to come out with six new stations?” she said. “Is it something? Yes. Is it even remotely what we need? No, it’s not.”

Mr. Tory maintains that fulfilling the finer details of his 2014 campaign promise was less important than the fact that transit was improving, adding repeatedly that he doesn’t care if the SmartTrack brand survives.

“If you said to me tomorrow morning the name SmartTrack had to disappear entirely and that was a condition of getting the transit built, I’d say that’s fine,” he said.


Cost and funding

Promised: The $8-billion original price, which was not broken down by the campaign, was expected to be split among the federal, provincial and city governments. Toronto’s portion was to be paid by tax increment financing (TIF), a way of capturing development-related municipal revenues, without cost to the city residents.

Expected: Based on independent analysis, city staff concluded that TIFs would generate far less than Mr. Tory assumed. The diminished scope of SmartTrack has also cut its price dramatically, though. The cost for six new stations, and the refurbishment of eight, is pegged at $1.463-billion. Toronto’s portion will be paid through TIFs, development charges and the city-building fund, a 0.5-per-cent property-tax increase implemented early in 2017. The province has argued that its own GO rail work is a sort of in-kind contribution. In April of 2015, the federal government agreed provisionally to cover one-third of the cost of SmartTrack. The final price for the Eglinton West LRT extension remains unclear as study continues over whether to bury parts of it.

Number of stations

Promised: The Tory campaign pledged a 22-station heavy-rail line service, 14 of them new and the remainder refurbished.

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Expected: City council has approved funding for six new stations along GO tracks that run through Toronto. The light-rail proposal is likely to involve about 10 stations, serving the same area as the four stations that had been planned for the western spur it replaces.

Timeline

Promised: The original promise was for SmartTrack to be complete within seven years.

Expected: The latest timeline is for the additional stations along the GO corridors to be done by 2024 or 2025, roughly a decade after Mr. Tory took office.

Service levels

Promised: Mr. Tory promised trains every 15 minutes or better.

Expected: Under its Regional Express Rail program, the province is planning to increase service on the two GO lines along which these stations will be built. The higher frequency will mean GO trains arriving every 15 minutes outside of the busiest times and every 5.5 to 10 minutes during rush hours. A spokesman for Metrolinx said in an e-mail that these service levels were part of GO expansion, but also met Smart Track commitments. Although the final service plan remains to be determined, the city is insisting on the right to withhold payment if these frequencies are not met.

Fare

Promised: Fundamental to Mr. Tory’s 2014 promise was that people would be able to ride SmartTrack for a TTC fare, which is considerably lower than the cheapest GO fare. The most optimistic ridership projections are based on a TTC fare and the models show that demand drops off sharply as the price increases.

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Expected: In its March budget, the provincial government pledged a $3 fare for all GO trips within Toronto, effectively meeting Mr. Tory’s request. The city and province signed a memorandum of understanding that included this fare level in May, one month before the Liberal provincial government was voted out. Although the current government has repeatedly declined to affirm this commitment, Mr. Tory is treating the agreement as remaining in effect.

Ridership

Promised: The Tory team estimated that 200,000 riders would board his transit proposal daily, and that one-third would be new riders.

Expected: The projected ridership has fluctuated over the past few years as different assumptions were made. According to the most recent figures, -- from an April, 2018, report by city staff that assumes the $3 fare is implemented -- the new stations would attract approximately 100,000 riders each weekday. This is about twice as many riders as board the Sheppard subway daily. Roughly one-fifth would be new riders.

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