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Traffic in both directions backs up as far as the eye can see beneath a rail bridge on St. Clair Avenue, looking east towards Old Weston Road from Keele, June 14, 2012. This stretch of road has become notoriously gridlocked since the streetcar right-of-way went into service in 2010.J.P. MOCZULSKI

As tight spots go, the stretch of St. Clair West that ducks beneath the Georgetown rail corridor, between Old Weston Road and Keele Street, is as close to a traffic funnel as can be found anywhere in Toronto.

Densely populated neighbourhoods fan out to the east. To the west sit acres of car-friendly big box stores, with more on the way. Since construction this year closed a shortcut around the area, cars, buses and trucks crawl through the underpass, which offers one lane in either direction. Streetcars use a dedicated right-of-way.

"You stand here for a little while and you'll get a glimpse of what the people deal with everyday," Don Panos, chair of the St. Clair Gardens BIA, said recently as he stood at the corner of Old Weston, watching trucks trying to make tight right turns as cars backed up towards Caledonia. "You just see how frustrating it is."

Council is considering how best to break the logjam, recently voting for an environmental assessment. One idea, favoured by the area's representative, Cesar Palacio, is to add two lanes to the underpass, but it's a highly complex venture that would take years to complete and would cost more than $30-million.

Traffic engineers say the problem isn't just the width of the underpass; it also involves the constricted layout of busy intersections at either end, which regulate the volume of traffic passing beneath the 80-year-old bridge.

During the construction of the right-of-way, the intersections were not built according to approved designs because the city wanted to cut the cost of the land acquisitions needed to widen parts of the roadway, TTC experts said.

"We have intersections that are not designed in accordance to what was agreed to," said TTC service planning manager Mitch Stambler. "Decisions were made that were outside the planning and EA process by the construction managers."

Gord MacMillan, the city's director of design and construction, acknowledged that pressure to complete the project made it impossible to buy the additional strips of land for new turn lanes. As well, city project managers encountered technical problems that didn't surface during the planning process, he said.

It's impossible to know if the original design would have eased congestion. Yet the question is not moot. Traffic will swell in coming years with waves of new development. Metrolinx's Air Rail Link, slated to run on the Georgetown corridor starting in 2015, will make it much more complicated to rebuild the underpass once it is operating.

How to open the bottleneck:

The Intersections

The city has started changing the signage at both corners to improve flow, and new $25,000 traffic controllers that can sense waits for left-turns will be installed later this year, said John Mende, director of transportation infrastructure. City staff are also looking to acquire land in front of the Delta Bingo to extend an right turn lane to reduce back-ups, with construction to begin in 2013. Mr. Palacio said the TTC is also looking at relocating the streetcar platforms.

The Underpass

The project is an engineering nightmare: the bridge would have to be replaced in phases because the rail line, which carries GO service as well as CP's main east-west freight trains, is extremely busy. Adding lanes means building a wider span with deeper piers. Also, the underpass will need to be lowered to conform to current building codes, raising the question of whether the new slope leading into the underpass could be too steep for streetcars, said Stephen Lipkus, executive director of Metrolinx's Georgetown South project.

Mr. Lipkus said if the city wants to widen the underpass, it makes sense to do so in the next two-and-a-half years, before the Air Rail Link begins operating. Mr. Mende said such timelines are "extremely aggressive." He also predicted the bridge reconstruction could take two years and possibly involve closing St. Clair.

The Streetcar

City, TTC officials and Mr. Palacio all agree that the St. Clair streetcar should not operate in mixed traffic in the underpass as a means of relieving congestion. Mr. Stambler said such a move would likely disrupt service along the rest of the line, and also has the potential to increase streetcar-vehicle collisions. Mr. Palacio wants the TTC to consider allowing its buses to use the right of way.

The Alternatives

The level crossing at Junction Road and Old Weston carries 7,000 vehicles a day and serves as a relief valve. It will be closed on and off until next year as Metrolinx builds tunnels for the GO/air link tracks beneath the Junction Road crossing. But the environmental assessment, city and TTC officials say, should also look at creating new crossings, either north or south of St. Clair, to provide drivers with other east-west routes.

Special to the Globe and Mail.