Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Thoughts on phasing

My most recent post, "Thoughts on Priorities", tries to argue that there is no reason why a small, lower-priority project cannot be implemented before a priority project as long as:
  • The small project doesn't affect the speed of the design and implementation phases of the priority project.
  • The small project doesn't prevent the priority project from being funded.
  • The small project doesn't build something that precludes the priority project from being built.
This post aims to look at the issues from a different angle - is it better to implement a complex project in phases, or to wait until the full build can be completed in one operation?

If I were to argue for phasing, I would point out that building the line over 10 years instead of five eases the financial pressure on the funding authority. Much like a mortgage, it allows the government to pay off the project in smaller pieces over a larger time frame. Since governments are more likely to commit to less expensive projects, it might mean the difference between "half now, half later" and "nothing now because there are too many zeros in that number."

If I were to critique my own argument, I would point out that the "half later" part often doesn't materialize due to sudden recessions or changes in government. Despite planning for the wonderful changes that transit will bring to a corridor, we are often left with a corridor divided in two - one half where we are struggling to control the investment that came as a result of the transit line, and the other half where we are nearly begging developers to invest in.

Based on the debate I just had with myself, it's clear that being able to complete the full-build in a single operation is the ideal solution. Unfortunately, the ability to fund projects almost always stands in the way. Transit has to compete with other services like education and health care, and the amount of money available is not infinite. As such, we are forced into the non-ideal position of phasing projects. But, what can we do to ensure that the phasing is done right?

Acquire sources of regular, predictable funding
The problem with phasing transit construction is that funding authorities often grow weary during the first phase and aren't interested in funding additional phases. Having predictable and stable funding - not one-off funding for specific projects - will ensure that we will not encounter this problem.

Use buses in the interim
Simply because we plan to extend the Yonge subway northward from Finch to Highway 7 in the future does not mean we cannot improve bus service in the interim. We live in a growing region, and traffic congestion continues to worsen every day. More buses may be a stop-gap solution, but it is better than nothing.

Design terminal stations carefully
Finch Station is the current terminus of the Yonge subway line, and the bus terminal was built to accommodate dozens of bus routes shuttling passengers further north, east and west. Once the Yonge subway line is extended northwards to Highway 7, much of this complex will be abandoned. With the oldest parts of the terminal being already 35 years old, we can say the investment was worthwhile - but what if the terminal was only built 5 years ago? The terminal is mostly above ground, which makes it very easy to demolish and sell off for redevelopment - but what if the terminal was underground like Don Mills?

If we are going to construct a subway line in phases, the design of the terminus of each phase must have a bus terminal. If the next phase is scheduled to open relatively soon, then the bus terminal should be easy to redevelop when it is no longer needed. However, if the next phase will not be completed for decades, a proper bus terminal should be built.

Be reasonable about how far we can / should extend transit lines
Using the Yonge subway as an example, Steeles is the next logical terminus, followed by Highway 7. However, a justification to extend the line to Hillcrest Mall at 16th Avenue can be made. From there, it's possible to justify going to Major Mackenzie Drive for a connection to the proposed rapid transit line, or to Bernard Terminal beyond Elgin Mills Road. This is true of every transit line - there is often a reason to justify going one stop further. In London, the Central line is almost 74 kilometres in length along its longest branch. But, extending the subway into the far suburbs may not be the best idea.

If the goal is to get people downtown, then more frequent rail service is the most efficient way to go trip originating north of Highway 7. Once that demand is taken care of, I suspect the ridership for people making local trips along Yonge will be much less. As such, BRT or LRT is probably the right choice for north Yonge Street. Under this scheme, once passengers arrive at Richmond Hill Centre they can either get a fast train downtown or take the subway if they are heading to North York or Midtown. The same concept could be used in place of building a subway to Square One. An underground GO Train spur could connect the mall to the main line, and upon reaching Kipling, passengers can choose to stay on the train to go downtown or transfer to the subway to go across Bloor.

Avoid building infrastructure that precludes future enhancements
When constructing a transit project, we should anticipate that faster and more frequent service will one day be needed. As such, we should ensure that any construction made today does not prevent an enhancement from being made tomorrow.

Firstly, we should avoid building infrastructure which will be difficult to upgrade. For example, if there is a possibility that articulated buses could be used on a transit route, the terminal should be built to accommodate this type of vehicle. Similarly, since we have invested in double-decker buses, new highway overpasses should be high enough to allow them to pass even if the vehicles do not operate there today. In both cases, retrofitting the infrastructure to accommodate the new vehicles will be costly and could have been avoided.

Secondly, we should be clear on the long term plan and avoid building an interim solution that can undermine the justifiable long-term vision. For example, the original plan was to build a BRT right-of-way along Yonge Street between Finch station and Highway 7. Since the Metrolinx Regional Transportation Plan recommends, in principle, a subway extension, continuing with the BRT plan could undermine that justifiable long term vision - once things are built, they tend to stick around for 30 years or more. The key here, however, is that the long term vision needs to justifiable under objective planning criteria. Simply because a subway along Highway 2 in Durham Region seems like a good idea does not mean it can be justified. As such, building the proposed BRT or LRT line would not undermine a justifiable long term vision.


While it would be lovely to conduct the full-build of a transit line in one shot, there are many advantages to phasing construction. In addition to lowering the financial burden and making the transit line more likely to be funded, phasing allows the most critical parts of the line to open first. Since the whole exercise is to get cars off the road and people onto more sustainable modes of transportation, phasing is the best option - as long as it's done right.



    At 12/16/2010 8:59 a.m. , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    The stretch along Yonge between Finch and Steeles is horrible. At the very least if the yonge line were extended to Steeles and a good underground bus terminal was built at Steeles it would make it much easier for riders. The Bus lane along Yonge is pointless and mostly ineffective.


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