In the positive spirit of the New Year, it's worth noting that some exciting things are happening in the world of Toronto transit.
The long-delayed renovation of Union Station, the city's biggest transit hub, is well under way. Early work is beginning on the air-rail link between Pearson airport and Union Station, which will give Toronto something that other leading cities have had for years: a direct train route from airport to downtown and back.
New, dedicated bus lanes are being built in York and Mississauga to speed commuters through heavy suburban traffic. Premier Dalton McGuinty has promised to bring all-day service to the GO train system. The Toronto Transit Commission has agreed to adopt the Presto smart card payment system, already rolling out on the GO network and suburban transit services. And work continues on the northward extension of the Spadina subway.
Most ambitious of all is the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown Project, a new 25-kilometre light transit line that will take riders from Black Creek Drive to Scarborough city centre. A new report says the $8.2-billion line is the most expensive infrastructure project in all of Canada. In its annual report on the country's top 100 infrastructure projects, ReNew magazine pegged the Crosstown at No. 1.
Construction is already in progress. Workers are digging a giant hole near Black Creek and Eglinton. Massive boring machines will be lowered into it to begin tunnelling for the underground stretch of the line. Metrolinx, the regional transit agency, expects it to open by 2020. ReNew calls it "one of the largest public transit investments in Canadian history."
All of this has to be encouraging for hard-pressed Toronto commuters, who have waited decades for serious expansion of the transit network. The Yonge subway line opened in 1954, the University line in 1963, the Bloor-Danforth line in 1966, the Spadina line in 1978 and the Scarborough RT in 1985. Since then, the only new line has been the five-station Sheppard "stubway" in 2002. Even as the population boomed with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of new immigrants, the transit build-out stalled.
Now, at long last, things are happening – and about time, too. Demand for transit is rising fast, with more than 500 million riders expected to take the TTC this year, a new record. The city has a chance to catch up for years of transit delay and neglect.
But given Toronto's sad history of stop-and-start transit planning, it's only reasonable to wonder whether it will all unfold just as planned. A previous attempt to build an Eglinton subway fell apart when Premier Mike Harris cancelled it to save money. Then, as now, the provincial government faced a massive budget deficit.
Big-ticket transit projects make easy targets for budget cutters. Don't forget that the McGuinty government itself delayed billions in funding for the Transit City light-rail project, later killed by Mayor Rob Ford. With credit-rating agencies breathing down its neck, will it be tempted to pull back funding for the Crosstown?
Mr. Ford forced up the cost of the line by around $2-billion when he insisted that most of it travel underground, even the stretch along the eastern reaches of Eglinton that were supposed to go on the surface under the initial plan. For that reason, the project moved from No. 4 to No. 1 on ReNew's top 100 infrastructure list. Queen's Park bean counters may wonder whether going back to Plan A wouldn't make more sense.
Another big question mark floats over Mr. Ford's cherished Sheppard subway extension. Because all or most of the money from Transit City is now going to build the Crosstown, a provincial project, no one quite knows how Sheppard is going to be financed, if it happens at all.
So it goes in the world of Toronto transit. Good news for the present, yes, but reasons for worry about the future.