Toronto transit descends from tragedy to farce

The Globe and Mail

Countless failed expansion plans have left Toronto with a stunted subway network that falls far short of filling the needs of a growing metropolis. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

In his 2012 book Straphanger, Taras Grescoe travels the world riding subways, LRTs and buses to size up the future of mass transit. He calls his chapter on this city, where he was born, The Toronto Tragedy. The tragedy, he writes, is that a city “that was for many years on the right track has lately experienced a catastrophic derailment.”

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Sad, but true. Toronto has one of the busiest, most extensive transit systems in North America, once seen as a model by other places. But after decades of underinvestment, it is shabby and out-of-date. Countless failed expansion plans have left it with a stunted subway network that falls far short of filling the needs of a growing metropolis.

A friend visiting from out of town this week remarked that, when he lived here 25 years ago, the subway map looked more or less the same as it does today. Beijing, where his family lives now, also had two main subway lines when he first arrived from Canada. It has 14 now, with many more under construction or on the drawing board. While other world cities have been digging subways, subways, subways, Toronto has been talking, talking, talking.

It is a tragedy indeed, and now it has descended into farce. The back-of-a-napkin plan by Transportation Minister Glen Murray to convert the tinker-toy Scarborough RT to a subway is only the latest in a dizzying series of plans and counter-plans, feuds and food fights that have plagued transit planning for Canada’s biggest city.

Even a close follower of the transit saga must strain to remember all the twists and turns. First Mayor Rob Ford cancelled the Transit City plan for an extensive light-rail network. Then the provincial government agreed to replace it with a single, underground light-rail line along Eglinton.

Mr. Ford pushed for an extension of the Sheppard subway into Scarborough, but city councillors decided he had no plan to pay for it, voted him down and brought back Transit City. Queen’s Park said okay and signed a “master agreement” to build it.

But then council decided it didn’t like part of the plan: replacing the Scarborough RT with new light-rail. It voted instead for a subway to Scarborough on a different route. Now Mr. Murray wants to overrule that plan, putting an above-ground subway on the same route as the RT. All clear now?

Is there another city that has seen such wild disarray in its transit planning? No plan is ever fixed or final. All agreements are subject to change. Every decision is political. Projects worth billions are started, then stopped, then started again, causing tens of millions in delays. When Mr. Murray unveiled the latest, newest subway plan, he couldn’t say for sure when construction might start or even how many stops there would be.

Every level of government bears some of the blame. Conservative premier Mike Harris cancelled the Eglinton subway in mid-construction and filled in the hole. Liberal premier Dalton McGuinty scaled back the Transit City plan, then rolled over when Mr. Ford decided to kill it. Mr. Ford demands subways, but won’t put up the cash.

Ottawa’s contribution to rapid transit has been paltry compared to what many other national governments are doing. City council first stayed silent when Mr. Ford cancelled Transit City, only to rebel a year later. Metrolinx, the arm’s-length agency that was supposed to take the politics out of transit, lamely acquiesces to every new order from its provincial masters.

To call this a circus is to grant it too much dignity. Even a circus has a ringmaster. Asked on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning this week who was actually in charge of transit planning, Toronto Transit Commission chair Karen Stintz could only reply that it was a very good question.

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