For more than two decades, Eglinton Avenue has suffered from ever-worsening traffic congestion while political bickering killed plan after plan to build better transit on the busy corridor.
The current plan, negotiated by Mayor Rob Ford's administration to avoid running rapid transit in the middle of the road, would see a light rail line built in an 18-kilometre tunnel. Critics have objected that it lacks the advantages of a full subway, which can carry more people, while having the drawback of being far more expensive than a surface LRT.
Now, the woman Mr. Ford appointed to head the Toronto Transit Commission has added her voice to that growing chorus. Karen Stintz argues it makes more sense to put the LRT underground only along the most congested part of the route, in midtown, while building it on the surface in the spacious suburbs.
"If the decision is to go with an LRT, it should be at-grade," she said. "If there's a decision to put it underground, it should be a subway."
Any rethink on the line, however, would lead to further delays. Metrolinx, the provincial agency building the LRT, has little desire to change course. Renegotiating the plan between the city and province would take time and some already completed design work would have to be redone. Upgrading to a full subway would force Metrolinx to cancel a contract for light-rail cars.
Queen's Park is also wary of past mistakes: in the early 1990s, premier Bob Rae made a deal with the city to build a subway under Eglinton. Construction had already started when Mr. Rae was defeated by Mike Harris, who killed the project and land-filled the tunnel.
"We believe the public wants to see outcomes and results," said Metrolinx spokeswoman Vanessa Thomas, "not more planning and debate."
As a result, the province is forging ahead with a plan that draws fire from one side for falling short of a subway and from the other for sucking up precious transit dollars that could be used to expand the network elsewhere. Last month, Councillor John Parker, normally an ally of Mr. Ford's, dubbed the plan "goofy."
It is also unprecedented in North America. While numerous cities – Boston, Guadalajara and Edmonton, to name three – put parts of their light-rail systems underground, the tunnels are used to get trains through dense downtowns, not suburbia like Eglinton East.
The strength of LRTs is that they can be built in many different ways, a flexibility subways don't have. The TriMet Max light-rail system in Portland, Ore., for instance, uses a mix of dedicated lanes, reserved rights of way on suburban roads and old railway corridors. Building the system entailed taking traffic lanes from cars, but planners say it is worth it.
"You can never provide access by private auto and have as many people move in and out as with transit," said TriMet general manager Neil McFarlane. "LRT can be a chameleon, it can be modified or moulded to the different settings in which it is used."
Stretching a system further and serving more people also helps build support for further expansion, argues Neil McKendrick, Calgary's manager of transit planning. In the past decade alone, the prairie city has built four extensions to its C-Train light-rail network.
"With some money, you can build a little bit of subway and make a few people very happy," Mr. McKendrick said. "Or you can build a whole lot of light rail and make a lot of people happy."
Critics of surface light rail argue such systems can't achieve the same speeds as a subway, but this is not necessarily true. On Martin Luther King Jr. Way South in suburban Seattle – an arterial road similar to Eglinton Ave. East – light-rail trains zip along just as quickly as Toronto's Yonge-University-Spadina line. The reason? Stations are spaced far apart and traffic lights are controlled to ensure trains don't have to stop at cross streets.
Historically, the TTC has also confused people about light rail's potential: Promotional material in the late 2000s mapped the slow-moving St. Clair and Spadina streetcars as LRTs, even though they stop frequently and have to wait at red lights. Suburban light rail is a different animal.
"It's not like you have the stores and houses along Eglinton East to generate the demand for more frequent stops," said transit blogger Steve Munro. "It's not like the Spadina car."
To Jarrett Walker, author of the blog Human Transit, burying the Eglinton line is an expensive exercise in road-improvement.
"Be clear: You're not spending this money on a project to improve transit," said Mr. Walker. "You're spending it on a project to protect motorists from inconvenience."