Not any more

The cost of putting the brakes on Transit City – The Globe and Mail

In Canada on December 12, 2010 at 21:08

The promise of a light-rail transit artery and transformed streetscape were what persuaded Kal Brach and her husband to sign a 15-year lease and invest in an ambitious renovation for their Sheppard Avenue dental office.

Ms. Brach hoped the planned Sheppard line would turn a commuter route used by people to get from Point A to Point B into a place where they might stop for a coffee – and maybe notice the local dental office.

“It’s very much a commuter type of street,” she said. “We’d love that to change.”

Every week for nearly three years, Ms. Brach met with Toronto Transit Commission staff to pore over plans for her neighbourhood at Sheppard Avenue and McCowan Road and an ambitious transit line that – they promised – would link it with subways in the west and Scarborough’s rail transit in the east.

So Ms. Brach was more than a little shocked to find out earlier this month that the line is in limbo, with the city’s new mayor declaring Transit City dead in its tracks on his first day in office.

“I’m disappointed,” she said. “That was a waste of time, quite honestly.”

Mayor Rob Ford, his new TTC chair, transit staff and the province are all quick to assure Torontonians they’ll get their promised transit network. However, it’s not clear what form that will take – even transit staff and TTC chair Karen Stintz refuse to guess whether the revamp they’ve been tasked with bringing to the commission next month will cost more, push back timelines or mean the same amount of transit as promised. (Ms. Stintz did suggest, however, that they might look to the private sector to help cover the cost of subways, which cost three times as much per kilometre as at-grade light-rail transit.)

And that uncertainty is what’s worrying residents, businesses and investors after the city spent years planning its growth around a transit backbone whose execution is now in doubt. By putting the brakes, even rhetorically, on Transit City, the city is throwing into confusion its own plans for densification, investment and development. What can be built, where and how high is contingent on zoning that’s based in large part on planned transit lines and the number of people they’re expected to carry from one place to another every hour.

Don’t get Steve Diamond wrong: Like Mr. Ford, he likes subways.

The former development lawyer and president of Diamondcorp likes the idea of buying and building up land along an underground transit artery whose construction won’t paralyze his street, but which will have the capacity to carry thousands of people into nearby stations every hour.

And as someone who tried, along with RioCan’s Ed Sonshine, to get a residential and retail development off the ground in east Scarborough only to find there wasn’t enough interest in that kind of density so far off the beaten subway tracks, he likes the idea of extending transit to corners of the city that now lack it.

But Mr. Diamond, like anyone eyeing Toronto’s volatile real-estate market, also likes to know what he’s getting into.

“The private sector, in order to make some investments, needs some certainty,” he said. “If we are going to go with a subway system, then we need to know what that entails. If we’re going to go with a light-rail transit system, we need to know that’s certain. And if it’s going to be a combination of the two systems, we need to know that, as well.”

“The uncertainty does put the city at risk,” Mr. Diamond said. “And what we can’t go through is four years where there’s no improvements to the city’s infrastructure in terms of transportation.

“That would be a disaster.”

Ms. Stintz, whose first week on the job has been spent dealing with responses ranging from overjoyed to furious to merely confused, is quick to note the apocalyptic demise of Transit City has been much exaggerated.

“Now the TTC and Metrolinx are looking at these four [projects] and saying, ‘Given that there was an election around subways, what can happen, where’s the flexibility there?’”

The task before the transit staff is largely tweaking, she said. Yes, it may affect the city’s official plan in terms of what Toronto wants to look like decades down the road – but that plan was up for review this year anyway, she said.

And despite her mayor’s suggestions to the contrary, Ms. Stintz – along with Ontario Transportation Minister Kathleen Wynne – said at some point council will have to vote on the plan.

“It would be my expectation that council would have input and have a vote,” she said, adding that October’s election should be enough to prove Torontonians want something other than Transit City.

“Ideally, we’d have transit on every major line. And it would be underground. But, you know, you do need to make choices. And what I do believe strongly is that we’re going through the right process,” she said. “We did have a referendum – it was the municipal election. … Transit City was not endorsed as the transit vision for Toronto.”

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