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marcus gee

The St. Clair streetcar line is Exhibit A in Mayor Rob Ford's case against light rail. Building a dedicated lane for the St. Clair car cost tens of millions more than expected and snarled one of the city's main thoroughfares for years. It was such a fiasco, says Mr. Ford, that Toronto must call an immediate halt to Transit City, former mayor David Miller's ambitious plan to lace the city with a network of light-rail lines on dedicated paths like St. Clair's.

"I said after what happened with St. Clair, which I call Transit City 101, we're not going to have 102 or 103," Mr. Ford said in a recent newspaper interview. Instead, "We're going to build subways."

But before the city makes the fateful decision to kill light rail, ending the hope of bringing rapid transit to great stretches of Toronto, it should take another look at St. Clair. What it sees might come as a surprise.

The line has been up and running along its whole length since June and it works remarkably well. It goes from Yonge Street in the east to Gunns Loop, just past Keele Street, in the west, ducking into the St. Clair and St. Clair West subway stations along the way.

The TTC says a streetcar comes every three minutes in rush hour on average. Now that the streetcars don't have to compete with motorists for road space, the average trip takes eight minutes less than before. Streetcars arrive more regularly, so riders face fewer of those annoying long waits. The number of riders is up 15 per cent since before the project began. Far from showing how crazy it is to put rail transit above ground, St. Clair shows how effective it can be.

When I took the 512 St. Clair car westbound one afternoon rush hour this week, it was a smooth and pleasant ride. With its own traffic signals and no cars bringing it to a stuttering halt when they turn left or slow down, the streetcar flew along from stop to stop, giving off its trademark electrical hum as it sped up and slowed down.

Leaving the St. Clair subway stop at 4:42 p.m., I reached Avenue Road by 4:45, Spadina by 4:48, Christie by 4:55, Oakwood by 4:59, Dufferin by 5:02 and Keele by 5:08 - 26 minutes for a 6.2-kilometre ride, which is about how long (27 minutes) Google Maps says it should take.

Joe Mihevc, the local councillor who championed the project and took a lot of flak over the delays, says that the line has helped revive the St. Clair strip, which is attracting restaurants, patio bars and condominiums advertising access to the line. Victor Cappella, who owns a local men's wear shop, says the project gave a facelift to what had become a tired street.

Overhead wires went underground, the new sidewalks are trimmed with handsome black and white brick and art works adorn many of the new streetcar passenger islands. One shows a school of fish, another what looks like scarlet waves.

City officials say that, even though the line took out a lane of traffic, they aren't seeing any big problems with traffic congestion. So much for Mr. Ford's complaint that streetcars always foul up the streets. The worst that usually happens is that motorists get confused by the new left-turn signals or frustrated when they can't turn where they used to. And despite merchants' fears about parking, the redesign of the street actually allows for more parking spaces than before.

The line is not perfect. Commuters say streetcars still sometimes come in bunches, or not at all. Some merchants still say it was wrong to take out a whole lane for the occasional streetcar. Everyone agrees the city made a mess of building the line. Poorly co-ordinated decisions to put in new gas, hydro and water lines stretched construction time from two years to four and costs more than doubled. A lawsuit didn't help.

But it's another thing to argue that, now that it's done, the line is such a disaster it discredits the whole idea of light-rail lines on city streets. "Was St. Clair badly done? Definitely," says transit activist Steve Munro, who has written extensively on the line. "Should it be the whipping boy used to characterize all future transit projects? No."

In fact, the light-rail lines proposed in the Transit City plan for Sheppard, Eglinton and Finch would be a step up from St. Clair. The 512 line is a junior version of real light-rail transit, which has bigger vehicles and fewer stops, making for a faster ride.

The new lines would travel along wide suburban streets, leaving lots of room for cars. Sheppard is so wide that even with a dedicated rail line down the centre, it would accommodate two lanes of traffic each way for 11 of its 12 kilometres. This makes Mr. Ford's insistence that all rail transit must go underground all the more mysterious.

In the end, Toronto may make a different choice and invest in subways. But if it does, it should not base its call on a warped view of the St. Clair line and what it says about light-rail lines. Despite all the troubles building it, St. Clair works. Done right, so can light rail.