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Toronto has never been short on transit ambitions. How much of it will become reality is the eternal question here. With city staff working to prioritize projects and a renewed promise of funding, the next year in transit planning will be the most crucial yet. Oliver Moore reports on what's under way, what's approved – and what's still a pipe dream

People board a TTC streetcar after a snowstorm in Toronto.

People board a TTC streetcar after a snowstorm in Toronto.

Mark Blinch for the Globe and Mail

Toronto has seen a lot of pretty transit maps. There's "a civic obsession" with them here, according to Josh Colle, chair of the TTC.

So residents could be forgiven if they tempered their optimism at the latest offering – this one from the planning department – with a dash of weariness. The new map surfaced last month and seemed the transit equivalent of a chicken in every pot. Long-discussed ideas found new life and projects stretched into most parts of the city.

The colourful map comes at a time of optimism in local transit, though, with the province pushing ahead separately on improvements to GO rail service and the federal government signalling a desire to invest billions in infrastructure.

"The endless spin cycle over transit has to stop," Mayor John Tory said this week. "We simply have to get on with more transit for Toronto."

But how real are the city proposals? The short answer is, depends on which line. The next year will be crucial, as staff go through the messy and politically fraught business of figuring out and prioritizing the projects. City politicians have to decide how to pay for them.

And perhaps more importantly, with elections at both the municipal and provincial levels only a few years away, how soon before it all gets blown up again? It's a question that points to one of the most difficult issues in transit planning. Handing decisions to unelected officials robs the process of democratic legitimacy. But leaving it in the hands of politicians, who may care more about the next vote than the next generation, carries the risk of constant detours, U-turns and cynical decisions.

Chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat hopes to try something different. The plan is to finalize the list of projects needed in the next 15 years and bring them to council early in 2017 for approval. And then the crucial next step: amending the city's official plan to include these proposals.

"It's a mechanism or a tool to make it stick," Ms. Keesmaat said.

This means the plans would be adopted as a city bylaw. Altering them would require a comprehensive public process lasting as long as a year, which should eliminate policy changes on the floor of council each time the political winds shift temporarily. If added to the official plan, there's a fair chance that the transit package – whatever form it takes by early 2017 – could survive. And if funding comes through as well, some of it will get built. But the next year offers plenty of pitfalls.

On some projects, the planning is in its infancy and it remains to be seen if they can work as presented. On others – including transit in Scarborough and some version of the SmartTrack proposal on which Mr. Tory ran for mayor – there are concerns that political backing is giving these projects undue influence in the process.

"We will make water flow uphill and repeal the law of gravity so that we can have something called a Scarborough subway," Councillor Gord Perks said.

"Because the mayor and many members of council feel that we have to have something called SmartTrack, we keep re-drawing what we're doing so there is something called SmartTrack, and that's unfortunate."

1. UP Express

Running 25 kilometres between downtown Toronto and Pearson airport, mostly on existing GO Transit tracks, the train was built at a cost of $456-million and started service in June of 2015. It struggled to find enough riders as the "premium" model envisioned by the provincial government and in late February the Metrolinx board voted to reduce fares. The line is expected to be a priority as the province electrifies its GO network, although Metrolinx says it is too early to know either the timeline or the cost estimate to do that.

2. Toronto-York Spadina Subway Extension

The idea of extending one arm of Toronto's main north-south subway line in York Region dates to the last decade. The 8.6-kilometre project has been plagued by delays and problems, as well as escalating costs. After a shakeup at the Toronto Transit Commission, which brought in Bechtel Canada to get the project across the finish line, the latest promise is the extension will be done by the end of 2017. The total cost is set at about $3.2-billion.

3. Eglinton Crosstown LRT

Being built across Toronto's midtown, the 19-kilometre light rail line will run from Kennedy station in the east, to Jane Street in the west. The central 10-kilometre portion will run underground – tunnels are currently being dug – with the rest on the surface. Work on the first station was formally begun last week and the whole project, with a price tag of $5.3-billion, is scheduled to be completed in 2021.

4. Finch West LRT

Envisioned as a surface route, running 11 kilometres between the forthcoming Finch West station and Humber College, this proposal has raised the ire of local councillor Giorgio Mammoliti. Metrolinx is holding firm on the $1.2-billion project, though, and a request for proposals to design, build, finance and maintain the line was issued in February. According to the most recent information, the LRT is scheduled to open in 2021.

5. Regional Express Rail

The provincial Liberals ran on a proposal to significantly improve GO rail service. The plan has been dialled back somewhat – once a promise to have trains every 15 minutes on less-served routes, they will now be that frequent only on the highest-demand routes – but it still represents a major change. The goal is to turn GO from a commuter service into something closer to regular transit, with electrified trains running more frequently. This will require new trains, bridges and tunnels, and 150 kilometres of new track. Work has just begun and additional service will be phased in over a decade. With an estimated price tag of about $13.5-billion, this is the biggest investment for suburban commuters in recent memory.

6. Mississauga Transitway

The idea for this bus rapid transit line, now under construction, dates to the 1990s-era Eglinton West subway plan and was originally intended to begin at the subway's farthest west station, at the edge of Toronto. The current plan involves running buses in 18 kilometres of dedicated lanes from Renforth to Winston Churchill. It has opened in stages and the stretch between Erin Mills and Tahoe is now operational, with the "transitway" shared by GO and Mississauga's MiWay transit agency, offering both local and express service. The capital cost of $500-million is to be split 60-40 between Mississauga and Metrolinx, with the full route scheduled to open in 2017.

7. York Region VivaNext Rapidways

Partly open, this bus rapid transit project is due to roll out in stages and be fully operational by 2020. Using dedicated space for buses, with heated stations, the project now joins Yonge Street to the Unionville GO station and, farther north, to the Newmarket GO station and Highway 404. It is eventually expected to include 41 kilometres of rapid transit, extending north of Richmond Hill Centre and to the west, linking up with the Spadina subway extension. The project has a capital cost of $1.4-billion and includes the addition of some bicycle lanes.

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8. Hurontario light rail

Through Metrolinx, the province promised to pay the full $1.6-billion to build light rail connecting the GO stations at Port Credit and Brampton. Mississauga threw its support behind the project but Brampton council was bitterly divided, ultimately voting to reject the route. Metrolinx has made clear the funding was for this project only and has been sticking to that position. The LRT proposal, now budgeted at $1.4-billion, officially ends at Steeles Avenue and is scheduled to enter service in 2022.

9. Hamilton LRT

After heated debates in Hamilton over the value of light rail versus bus rapid transit, the city opted for LRT, with the province footing the bill for up to $1-billion for construction costs. Operating in dedicated lanes, the LRT will run from McMaster University to the Queenston traffic circle, with a spur line to the new West Harbour GO station. Future plans may include an extension to Eastgate Square and to the waterfront. Procurement on the project is to start in 2017 and construction in 2019. It is scheduled to be operational in 2024.

10. Sheppard East rapid transit

Metrolinx has promised $1-billion to fund and build a 13-kilometre light rail line extending east from the Sheppard subway, with construction likely to take about five or six years and start after the Finch LRT is done in 2021. But some local politicians are holding out hope for a subway and adamantly oppose light rail. The city is proposing an unspecified form of rapid transit on the route – built within 15 years – which would probably take the form of better bus service.

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11. King Street transit priority corridor

Floated early in 2016 by chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat, this is an attempt to make Toronto's busiest streetcar route work better for the roughly 60,000 passengers who ride it daily. The plan is being worked out but could include making the road one way, but changing direction each block to stop through-traffic. Parking could be retained on one side of the street, alternating each block, with the sidewalk broadened on the opposite side. The hope is to get a pilot project off the ground within a year, at a modest but unknown cost.

12. SmartTrack

Toronto Mayor John Tory ran on a proposal to build on provincial plans for improving GO rail service. Dubbed Smart Track, his plan promised 53 kilometres of "surface subway," mostly on GO rail lines, serving 22 stations for a TTC fare. Practical realities intruded, amid work by the province and city to see how the two plans could be integrated, and it has become clear Smart Track is being pared back severely. There will be between four and eight new stations and it's no longer clear if there will be any more service than GO was already planning. Recent ridership modelling shows that Smart Track can, under certain circumstances, attract a large number of riders. But the plan is still very much in flux, with its final shape and price-tag remaining to be seen.

13. Scarborough RT replacement

After many twists and turns, the latest plan is to replace the SRT with a tunnelled subway, running without stops from Kennedy station to Scarborough Town Centre. This plan still needs Toronto council approval, plus rubber-stamping from other levels of government. The project, which has been ball-parked at about $2.5-billion, would not be likely to open until some time in the next decade.

14. Crosstown East light rail line

When city planners proposed the latest version of the Scarborough subway extension, they said it would mean about $1-billion in savings, money that could be plowed into a light rail line in the city's east end. The proposal, which needs city council approval, involves extending the crosstown from Kennedy station to the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus. The timeline remains uncertain.

15. Crosstown West light rail line

The Mayor originally proposed a heavy rail line along Eglinton West as part of his SmartTrack campaign promise. Studies eventually showed that critics were right when they said it would be too expensive, leading Mr. Tory to accept that this part of the plan didn't make sense. He said in January that he would back the city planning department's recommendation to run light rail instead, from the Mount Dennis neighbourhood to the airport. This LRT has been ball-parked at about $1.3-billion, although the timeline and exact makeup of the route remain to be seen.

16. Downtown Relief Line

A new subway into Toronto's downtown core has been a dream for decades. It made its way into the Metrolinx "next wave" of projects in 2012, a list that lacked dedicated funding. The line appeared again this year, on a City of Toronto plan for transit to be built over the next 15 years. Recent ridership projections showed that both the DRL and Mr. Tory's SmartTrack plan – provided the latter runs at the lowest-fare and most frequent service of the tested models – will be needed to stop the subway system from overloading. Cost estimates vary wildly, depending on which version of the line is being discussed, ranging from about $3.5-billion to upward of $10-billion.

17. Waterfront LRT

Long the bridesmaid of Toronto transit planning, this project appears to be gaining traction. Developers on the eastern waterfront who had been promised transit are getting antsy, according to people at city hall. And light rail right across the lake was identified in 2014 by TTC chief executive Andy Byford and then city manager Joe Pennachetti as a key priority. The current version –eventually running between Long Branch and Woodbine – appeared on this year's city planning list of projects to be completed in the next 15 years. Although many details remain to be seen, the area being considered for relief stretches from Queen and the Queensway to the lake. The cost is unknown, although previous estimates would suggest it lands somewhere upwards of $1-billion.

18. Yonge subway extension

Politicians north of Toronto are keen to extend the TTC's Yonge line about six more kilometres, to Richmond Hill, calling it a "missing link" in the area's transit network. The idea was listed among the "next wave" of Metrolinx projects and some initial work has been done, but the estimated cost of $4-billion has not been funded. Transit planners and politicians in Toronto are firm that more riders cannot be added to the already crowded Yonge line without offering relief elsewhere in the system. A map from the city's planning department shows this route only as unspecified rapid transit. Metrolinx is currently doing planning and design work.

19. Jane LRT

Originally conceived as part of the Transit City plan announced last decade, this idea was priced at $630-million and expected to take four years to build. It disappeared when Transit City was killed in 2010 but re-emerged recently as part of a city planning list of projects to be completed in the next 15 years. The current plan is to run north from the Bloor subway line, intersecting with the still-under-construction Spadina subway extension above Steeles. Little work has been done to flesh out this proposal, though, and staff acknowledge that studying the idea may show that parts of it are impractical.

20. Brampton Queen Street Rapid Transit

Züm local buses in this area have experienced what Metrolinx calls "significant ridership growth." The transit agency has identified Queen, between Brampton and Vaughan Metropolitan centre, as a priority but has not determined how best to serve it. Late last year, Brampton started a planning exercise to determine the exact route and which type of transit would be best. The province has said it would pay $600-million toward the project, although it is not currently funded. Planning, design and construction would be expected to take about seven years.

21. Dundas Street BRT

Metrolinx has floated a bus rapid transit line running in dedicated lanes west from Kipling TTC station. Stretching 40 kilometres, it would traverse a series of municipal boundaries – crossing Mississauga and Oakville on the way to Burlington – and connect with both the planned Hurontario LRT and GO stations at Kipling and Cooksville. Last year, Mississauga began a study to recommend which type of transit this area needed. Queen's Park has promised to pick up $600-million, although the project is currently unfunded. Planning, design and construction would be expected to take eight years.

22. Durham-Scarborough BRT

A bus corridor stretching 36 kilometres east from Scarborough Town Centre is one of the longer-term proposals pitched by the provincial agency Metrolinx. An early generation, called DRT Pulse, is already running frequent buses along this route in mixed traffic. The project has an estimated price tag of $500-million, to be paid by the province, though it is not yet funded and details of the final project are being hammered out. Planning, design and construction would be expected to take seven years.

Editor's note: An earlier digital and print version of this story incorrectly stated developers on the eastern waterfront who had been promised transit are getting antsy; however, it should have referred to developers on the western waterfront. As well, the two locations the current light rail train would eventually be running between was incorrectly stated. This version has been corrected to reflect these changes.

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