SmartTrack is a go, Mayor John Tory insists. The experts are working away on reports and studies about the $8-billion transit plan. Squads of officials are shuttling to the provincial transit agency, Metrolinx, to discuss it. Ottawa has signed on with a pledge of $2.6-billion in funding. Justin Trudeau promised during the election campaign that he would come through with the money if he became prime minister.
There is just one problem: No one seems to be entirely sure whether SmartTrack can work.When Mr. Tory rolled out the idea during last year's Toronto election campaign, he called it a "surface subway." Instead of running underground, SmartTrack vehicles would use the GO train tracks that branch out from Union Station, creating a 22-stop high-frequency service that would open in 2021.
To many weary commuters, that sounded dandy. The SmartTrack pitch helped Mr. Tory beat Olivia Chow and Doug Ford for mayor last October. But as was obvious from the start, and is becoming clearer the more officials study the idea, some serious questions need to be answered.
Is there enough demand to justify a project that would be so expensive to build and then to run? No one can say. City staff are hoping a new ridership-forecasting model coming from the University of Toronto will help them figure it out.
Could Union Station handle the extra traffic? The transit hub is already bracing for much more train traffic as GO expands its service. Metrolinx says adding more "will be challenging."
Would SmartTrack riders pay the same fares as TTC users, as Mr. Tory originally suggested, or would they pay the higher GO fares? If they have to pay more, would they even ride the new line? If not, who would pay for running the thing? Fare integration throughout Greater Toronto is under study. No decisions have been made.
Is it realistic to build a SmartTrack spur along Eglinton Avenue West, as Mr. Tory proposed? A new city report says western routes would involve tunnelled and elevated sections (which would be expensive), as well as "significant impacts" on the surrounding community. This part of the plan probably won't happen.
How will Toronto pay for its one-third share of the cost of SmartTrack? Mr. Tory has promised not to charge ratepayers more on their property tax. He would use something called Tax Increment Financing instead. That, too, is under study.
The biggest question about SmartTrack is whether it even makes sense. The provincial government is already promising to spend billions to increase traffic on the GO rail lines, transforming GO from a rush-hour service to an all-day commuter-rail service with electric trains and shorter travelling times. That means running more trains and making the rails more crowded. Extra SmartTrack stations and trains would only increase the crowding. GO doesn't want to see its regional express service clogged by urban train service running on the same corridors.
The SmartTrack idea is turning out to be a classic can of worms. Even its supporters have doubts. "I'm a supporter of SmartTrack, but I'm starting to wonder whether I know exactly what it is," Councillor Joe Mihevc said on Tuesday at a meeting of the city's executive committee. "The whole concept is a bit fuzzy."
Is SmartTrack just an enhanced version of GO, with more stations and more trains, doubters wonder? Or is it a completely separate service, running on the same tracks?
The city report on the project concedes that "reconciling the different objectives" of SmartTrack and GO regional express service and "identifying the optimal service concept and infrastructure plan to best serve Toronto's transit needs will take several phases of analysis."
Mr. Tory, a bushy-tailed optimist by nature, is undeterred. He says he didn't have the luxury of hiring a battery of experts to work out the kinks in the plan when he came up with it in the middle of the election campaign last year. Now that the experts are on it, he says he is confident that they will iron them out. Don't be a "Debbie or Douglas downer," he told his critics on Tuesday. After all, he said, Toronto now has a specific promise from the man who will be prime minister to pay for Ottawa's share of SmartTrack.
What it doesn't have yet, however, is anything near to a solid plan. The fares, the way the city will pay for its share, the exact route, where the stations will go, even the feasibility of the whole thing – all of this is up in the air. One year after Mr. Tory's election, SmartTrack is still more concept than project.