Toronto Mayor John Tory is acknowledging that a key part of the transit proposal he used to get elected does not make sense, saying that making the change leaves the overall package stronger.
During the 2014 election campaign, Mr. Tory brushed aside any and all objections to building a heavy-rail line along Eglinton Avenue, insisting that sheer determination would be enough to make the technical challenges go away. But confronted now with low expected ridership for that section and a bill that could eat up almost the entire budget for the plan, he performed an about-face.
"I accept that heavy rail is not the best option for the western leg of SmartTrack," he told reporters as two reports were released, making clear he would support a much cheaper light-rail line there instead.
"Now that these expert studies are available, you will not see me digging in my heels and insisting on charging ahead with things that don't make sense, which cost too much or which don't provide the most efficient, effective benefit to our residents. And I will try to apply that thinking to all the decisions that I make."
One of the reports said that the price to build heavy rail along Eglinton could have reached $7.7-billion, a rounding error away from the $8-billion Mr. Tory said it would cost to build that spur and increase train frequency and add numerous stations along GO rail tracks in the city.
The mayor also acknowledged that the plan remains in flux. He is no longer promising a set number of stations, only that the train will stop a "goodly" number of times along the route. He refused to "speculate" about how much riders might have to pay after talks with regional transit agency Metrolinx on a broader fare-integration strategy are done.
These differences matter because Metrolinx, which will operate the trains and owns the tracks on which they will run, has conducted its own analysis. It found much lower ridership for a version of the plan that involves less frequency and higher fares.
"It would be irresponsible for Toronto to proceed with SmartTrack until we get commitment from province on fares & frequency," Councillor Mike Layton tweeted a few hours after the mayor spoke.
There are also serious questions about capacity on the rail corridors. The best ridership projections assumed a train every five minutes, and city officials acknowledged in a technical briefing that they have no idea if that is possible or how much it would cost to expand track capacity, if necessary.
Metrolinx is studying the question of whether its tracks could accommodate that level of SmartTrack service, or how much it would cost to upgrade them if they could not. Staff at the provincial agency are expected to report to the board in June and there was no further information Tuesday.
The reports released Tuesday show a substantial potential ridership for a version of SmartTrack, though a great many unknowns remain. The most positive projections assumed factors beyond the city's control.
According to academics connected to the University of Toronto, the service could carry upwards of 300,000 riders a day, more than the GO network, if it runs every five minutes and is priced the same as the Toronto Transit Commission. However, ridership plummets when service is reduced or the price goes up.
If a train came every 15 minutes, at the TTC fare, the ridership would be cut by three-quarters, to about 75,000 people per day, barely more than the King streetcar. And it would be cut in half again if the same level of service was run with a GO fare instead, leaving it around the ridership of the Finch bus.