As Toronto’s City Council reads over a report issued (very quietly) by the city manager late Friday afternoon they must decide if the City should spend $1.65 million on studies of the Smart Track plan. The plan offers councillors a way to avoid the real issue swirling around transit expansion — funding it. The anti-tax climate in Toronto has created a scenario in which any politician who suggests they might support dedicated transit funding, risks their re-election. It is a situation that would try even the strongest city leader and one that will require steadfast determination and courage to resolve. And while most City Councillors want to find a way to deliver the transit Toronto needs, they are terrified to stand up and take the risk.
Toronto has a gridlock crisis precisely because the city has lacked strong political leadership, someone who would call for the dedicated transit funding required to build the Downtown Relief line, Toronto’s highest priority line. Now more than ever we need smart and honest political leadership. And I am hopeful that we have it. But before tackling the issue of dedicated transit funding Mayor Tory will have to earn the trust and loyalty of his council. And to do that he is offering them Smart Track, more a political strategy than an actual transit plan. It will serve as a way to dodge the issue of dedicated transit funding for the next year. This will buy him the time he’ll need to earn the trust and loyalty of council – and it’s unlikely to survive the studies.
The major flaw with the Smart Track plan is that it ignores the concept of interconnectivity – which, very basically, is the idea that linking express rail from outside the city to a variety of local transit lines (busses, LRT, subway) offers users the fastest route to their destination. Instead Smart Track will need to share the same track as the regional express trains, thus slowing them down and hurting their ability to deliver fast efficient service.
Let me explain, Smart Track is an attempt to re-purpose the high-speed Regional Express Rail lines, in particular the Union Pearson Express, and the Stouffville GO line. The plan doesn’t specifically say if it will simply add trains to these lines, use the existing trains, or add additional tracks. But given the fact that Union station is at full capacity, Smart Track will have to use lines that are currently dedicated to Regional Express Rail (RER) in order to get passengers into Union Station. This will compromise GO’s ability to deliver fast efficient transit to commuters across the region.
History has taught transit planners that a rail line can’t have more than one purpose. The plan for Smart Track rests on it being both a high-speed electric train that serves long distance commuters from Mississauga and Unionville, as well as local train to serve Toronto residents. It’s an attempt to have one line serve two very different types of customers and this has a proven record of failure.
It might be a good time for City Council to look back over Ontario’s transit history in order to understand why interurban transit lines, like the Smart Track line, eventually went the way of the Dodo.
Between 1900 and 1930 the idea of creating an interurban rail system designed to provide both regional and local service, reached its height in the 1920s with electric train lines spreading out of Toronto and across Southern Ontario. But as automobiles and highways expanded, the interurban transit lines couldn’t compete. They didn’t function well as high speed transit between regions because they had too many local stops interrupting their speed; nor did they function well as urban transit because they didn’t have enough stops to allow city commuters to easily access them. They failed because the lines tried to serve two types of users and didn’t deliver effectively to either. Smart Track has this same fundamental flaw.
Since that time, transit planners have focused on connectivity between high speed regional transit and local (slower moving) transit. Experts generally agree that in a developed urban area, transit stops should be a maximum of 400 meters apart in order to serve the maximum number of people, if they aren’t designed this way they get less ridership and often require subsidization. Unfortunately, Smart Track ignores this fundamental principle for local transit and has transit stops at an average of 2.5 kilometers apart making it a less than optimal city line.
The Smart Track plan calls for fewer stops in order to make the claim that it will deliver high speed express train service, in an attempt to use Provincial funding to pay for it. But by trying to be both an express train and a local transit line, the effectiveness of Smart Track to deliver well to both customers will suffer. It will either be a slow version of an express train, making it an uncompetitive option for long distance commuters, or it will be a fast local transit line that doesn’t allow access to enough riders to make it profitable.
As a political strategy the Smart Track plan will buy Mayor Tory time to build support for dedicated transit funding and allow council to avoid the subject of transit funding in the near future. But it is risky, as more time passes, one year can become two, and the need to remain in power rises as the next election looms closer. Like his predecessors he’ll be tempted to avoid the issue transit funding altogether, or to push the responsibility for funding to other levels of government. But unlike his predecessors Mayor Tory has spent years advocating for dedicated revenue tools for transit. He knows that the lack of leadership around transit funding put Toronto into the gridlock crisis we have today.
At some point Mayor Tory will have to stand up and call for revenue tools to fund our transit expansion, he will have to risk his position for the sake of the city. Most men wouldn’t have the balls to do it – I voted for him because I think he does.
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