Friday, March 16, 2007

TTC plans light rail web - Toronto Star

TTC plans light rail web
March 16, 2007
Tess Kalinowski
John Spears
Staff Reporters

Only three days before the federal government releases its budget, the Toronto Transit Commission is unveiling an ambitious blueprint for a light rail system that would crisscross the city far beyond existing and planned subway lines.

The 60- to 80-kilometre web of light rail would cost about $2.4 billion, said TTC chair Adam Giambrone.

Some insiders say the plan would improve transit access to virtually every corner of Toronto. It's expected to closely follow the blueprint Mayor David Miller laid out in his election platform last fall, which emphasized dedicated light rail lines along the waterfront, Sheppard Ave., Finch Ave., and north from the Scarborough Rapid Transit line.

The hitch?

The city doesn't have the money yet, despite an announcement last week of new federal and provincial funding that will allow the extension of the Spadina subway line into York Region.

Giambrone stopped short of calling today's announcement an implementation plan with firm schedules and costs.

But he said, "You'd be hard-pressed to build an entire light rail network, looking at the existing environmental assessments, in under 10 years."

He also said the city expects to move ahead with the help of a share of gasoline taxes.

That would be in addition to a substantial slice of the $2 billion federal transit strategy for which Miller and other big city mayors were calling last week.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Premier Dalton McGuinty pledged about $1 billion last week for regional transit improvements. But with a budget, federal and provincial elections looming, and unprecedented public concern for the environment, some transportation experts say there's hope more money will flow for transit.

"There's a tremendous amount of concerted, multilateral pressure that I've never seen before," said transportation consultant Ed Levy.

The mayor's election platform spoke about light rail vehicles running on dedicated rights of way as part of a network of transit lines, including:

  • A dedicated transit corridor on Finch Ave., in part utilizing the hydro right of way, to connect north Scarborough and north Etobicoke to the subway.
  • A west waterfront line linking Etobicoke to Union Station.
  • A line connecting the Sheppard subway with Scarborough Town Centre.
  • Extending the Scarborough Rapid Transit (SRT) line to northeastern Scarborough. Since the SRT is due to wear out by about 2011 in any case, it's the subject of a separate planning process.
  • A dedicated bus line on Yonge St. from Finch Ave. to Steeles Ave.
  • A dedicated bus line on Kingston Rd. from Victoria Park Ave. to Eglinton Ave.
  • Building a dedicated rapid transit line along Eglinton Ave. W., connecting the St. Clair transit right of way to the airport.
Although the plan has been in the works for some time and studies are already going ahead in areas such as the Don Mills corridor, "there are going to be some surprises," Giambrone said.

The TTC blueprint could reduce traffic congestion and pollution and make transit a viable option for more commuters, but it represents a significant expense.

Light rail, which costs about $30 million a kilometre, can be built faster and cheaper than subways, which cost about $250 million to $300 million per kilometre.

That's part of the reason the TTC has shifted its emphasis to light rail, said Councillor Brian Ashton, who is also a member of the Greater Toronto Transit Authority.

"It's cheaper and it also begins to reflect on the suburban reality," he said.

As the city tries to curb sprawl and intensifies development along the avenues of strip malls in Etobicoke and Scarborough, "light rail or street cars become the solution," he said.

He called the subway extension, which will bring the Spadina line two stops into York Region, a signal of how transit will need to connect with Toronto's neighbours in future.

Scarborough councillors yesterday said they're prepared to wait for a subway as long as the TTC goes ahead with interim improvements to the SRT and delivers better service in north Scarborough, particularly in Morningside Heights.

"If (the TTC plan) doesn't incorporate that, you will be hearing about that," said Councillor Michael Thompson.

The city is already planning an extensive refurbishment of the SRT by 2015, including 44 new cars.

That's expected to cost between $300 million and $500 million, rather than the $1.2 billion it would cost to add two subway stops, he said.

"We want a spider web of mass transit to touch every corner of Scarborough," said Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker, who referred to today's announcement as "a miracle plan."

"This plan that's coming out (today) extends that spider web to every single inch of the city of Toronto. It puts new transit facilities in every single ward," he said.

"If you have LRT from one end of the city to the other, it's going to be spectacular."

It could also present an opportunity to consider buying two distinct types of streetcars – compact ones for downtown routes, and larger ones in more suburban areas, said Councillor Adam Vaughan.

"You've got two very different streetscapes."

With narrow streets and high demand for frequent service, the TTC should consider running smaller streetcars that can more easily negotiate turns and slide into underground stations, he said.

For suburban routes, bigger and roomier vehicles might be useful on less frequent but reliably timed routes, he suggested.

Historically, the TTC has been reluctant to buy differing vehicles, Vaughan said.

"It's always one size fits all. But this could be the time to change the thinking."
This is exciting news, and like a kid on Christmas morning, I'll be waiting impatiently for this announcement later today. I'll have more to say by day's end.

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