Mayor John Tory's SmartTrack transit plan is becoming smaller and cheaper, with the promise of more frequent service, The Globe and Mail has learned.
Staff with the city and the regional transit agency Metrolinx have been working on how to integrate SmartTrack with plans to expand GO Transit rail service, and, according to sources and a draft government document, a revamped version of the plan is taking shape.
The latest estimate is that the proposed integration of SmartTrack would add $2-billion to $3.5-billion to the existing GO plans.
Although details have not been finalized, Metrolinx staff are expected to recommend adding only four or five new stations along the Kitchener and Stouffville corridors, and an LRT – instead of heavy rail – along Eglinton Avenue West to Pearson airport. The plan originally called for three stations along that stretch, but with an LRT, staff are looking at between six and 17 stations.
SmartTrack was central to Mr. Tory's successful mayoral campaign – featured on his lawn signs and referenced in nearly every appearance – even though his policy was not spelled out. As a candidate, and then as mayor, he argued that he didn't have the resources to hire engineers to work out all the details of what he thought would be an $8-billion project.
Those studies were approved by city council, with the results expected to appear in the coming months.
At city hall, staff are expected to concur with Metrolinx that LRT is the best way to serve the western portion of Mr. Tory's plan. And they will suggest that the service from the Mount Dennis neighbourhood in the west to Kennedy station in the east be prioritized, with this U-shaped section and the LRT forming Phase 1 of the project. The northeastern section up to Markham would be pushed into the future.
With ridership modelling showing that the initial proposal to run trains every 15 minutes would not attract a sufficient number of passengers, officials are looking at running trains at least every 10 minutes, and as often as nearly every five minutes in some areas, during peak periods.
Mr. Tory's spokeswoman, Amanda Galbraith, said in a statement that no decisions have been made. "The issues you reference are still being studied and staff have not yet provided recommendations."
City planning and Metrolinx officials either did not respond to requests for comment or said it was premature to discuss the work that's under way.
The expected changes offer Mr. Tory several advantages. During the busiest times, commuters would be able to get train service in and out of the core that would be almost as frequent as a subway. The plan would cost less and the mayor would have the chance to show flexibility in the face of expert opinion.
However, the stations are different from those he promised, and some commuters who expected local access will be out of luck. Operating expenses – which haven't been finalized – would also balloon with more frequent service. The difficulty of running so many trains in a crowded rail corridor, one shared with Metrolinx, will pose logistical hurdles.
In recent months, Mr. Tory has suggested he would take seriously the advice of experts, telling journalists that otherwise, there would have been no reason to commission the reports. He has also seemed to back away from the need to have heavy rail in the west end, suggesting he would be content as long as the area was served by transit.
The so-called western spur of his proposal has long been the most problematic. The Globe reported exclusively in November that, according to still-unreleased parts of a report for the city, running SmartTrack as a heavy-rail option to the airport area would cost $3-billion to $5-billion. An LRT serving the same area would cost $1.3-billion.
Although Mr. Tory regularly presents his transit plan as a sure thing – variations on "SmartTrack is going to get built" are a constant refrain, and he has secured funding promises from other levels of government – the final version would have to be approved by city council. The debate is likely to begin in earnest this spring as part of a broader discussion about city transit that will include new ridership projections for the downtown relief line and the Scarborough subway extension.