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Moving target




Tonks’ plan aims to put GTA on right track to better transit

By Joseph Hall
Toronto Star Transportation Reporter

To win that race, we must run it on public transit, says Greater Toronto Services Board chair Alan Tonks.

“We will have 2 million more people in the area (within 20 years) and a 45 per cent increase in automobile usage,” says Tonks. “And that is going to be absolutely devastating to the environmental, social and economic character of the area - absolutely devastating.”

To combat road congestion and the urban sprawl that feeds it, Tonks will unveil a plan early in the new year that could enormously boost the capacity and attractiveness of Greater Toronto’s transit services.

Picture s-treetcar lines radiating out from Toronto along underused railway tracks, or huge parking lots along Highway 407 where commuters can dump their cars and catch buses or streetcars into the city.

The plan will attempt to knit the Toronto and 905 region’s commuter structures into a streamlined system, based on new uses of established transit technologies.

Tonks stresses the plan has yet to be finalized and that “nothing is off the table,” but some of the options receiving strong consideration include:

  • Establishing 85 kilometres of new streetcar lines along three underused railway corridors running between Toronto and the 905 regions.

  • Taking one of those lines into the new Pearson airport terminal as a 35-minute transit link to downtown Toronto.

  • Running buses across Highway 407 to service large regional centres and the new streetcar interchanges.

  • Eventually replacing these 407 bus routes with a GO train or streetcar service along a transit corridor beside the highway.

  • Establishing a string of large parking lots along the 407 to feed bus and streetcar links with Toronto.

  • Running high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes on Yonge St. between the 407 and Finch Ave. to feed 905 commuters into the TTC subway by bus.

  • Preserving the Finch Ave. hydro corridor for future transit lines.

“As the GTA develops, it’s rapidly building in a bias against transit in favour of the automobile,” says Tonks, whose board’s ostensible mandate is overseeing transportation issues across the Toronto region.

“And so what we have to do is build more choices, and quickly, to keep up with the commuting decisions that people who are inhabiting these 905 subdivisions are making.”

Tonks says using cheap, established technology offers the most cost-efficient, shortest route to viable public transit for these commuters.

“What you need is the most affordable type of transit and the most applicable and the most flexible, and this appears to be a combination of buses on their own rights of way or in HOV lanes and articulated (extra long) streetcars.”

But to reach their potential, while still being attractive to riders, the buses and streetcars must be deployed on established and congestion-free routes.

For the streetcars, those routes might be available on three GTA railway corridors that have been largely stripped of their freight cargo.

The three - Canadian National’s Weston subdivision line in the west, its Richmond Hill line up the Don Valley and its Markham Stouffville line in the east - currently see little traffic save for morning and evening GO trains.

The streetcar plan, devised by Toronto transportation consultants DS-Lea Associates Ltd., proposes to replace or augment the GO service on those lines with vehicles running at five-to-10-minute intervals throughout the day.

The plan calls for initial use of excess TTC articulated streetcars, which were built with the capacity to have their axle widths increased for wider railway tracks.

For anyone who has ever crawled along Queen or Dundas Sts. in a streetcar, the thought of taking one to Markham or Malton might seem a ludicrously slow proposition.

But as Lea Associates president John Long explains, the cars are only slow in the city because they must fight automobile and pedestrian traffic.

“Most people don’t know this because they travel at an average 14 kilometres an hour in the city, but those streetcars can actually travel as fast as a subway,” Long says.

“They can reach speeds of 90 kilometres an hour, and can accelerate and decelerate very quickly at their stops.”

With that speed, a 23-stop line to Pearson could be travelled in 32 to 38 minutes while a 13-stop line between Markham and the Scarborough GO station could be traversed in 23 to 26 minutes.

These times compare favourably with current GO train runs over the same lines, Long says.

“While GO trains can reach 130 kilometres an hour and make far fewer stops, several conditions on the (three) lines force them to travel at much reduced speed through large segments of the corridors,” he says. The smaller, more nimble streetcars wouldn’t be affected.

Within 20 years, Greater Toronto will have a 45 per cent increase in automobile usage

In addition, the streetcar lines would intersect with almost all TTC subway, streetcar and GO train routes and dozens of bus routes in and outside the city.

They would also pass in close proximity to the largest of the proposed Olympic Games sites.

Depending on load requirements, Long says the streetcars can be hitched together as trains. He also says a low-floored segment can be inserted into each car at their centre connection, making them accessible to the disabled.

But why place streetcars on lines that are already served by GO Transit?

Long and Tonks say the idea would address rapidly changing travel patterns between Toronto and the regions and within the 905 centres themselves.

“What we have to do now is look at many of these 905 areas as urban corridors that no longer justify long GO train stretches with huge distances between stops,” Tonks says.

“It’s no longer people who just want to go quickly through these true urban-type areas to the city core, it’s people taking intermediate trips and people starting to go back and forth along those lines during the day.”

While 60 per cent of people travelling from the 905 area to downtown Toronto do so on transit, the vast majority going between the city’s outskirts and the regions travel by car.

“So the suburban areas are the biggest areas for potential transit growth, and the (streetcar) plan can help address this,” Long says.

Long has yet to estimate the costs of the three-line proposal but says the average price for installing streetcar routes is between $5 million and $15 million a kilometre - as opposed to $125 million to $150 million a kilometre for subways.

However, with much of the track already in place and the possibility of obtaining existing TTC cars, the new lines could come in on the low end of that price range, with a potential total cost of $425 million.

Plans for the 407 corridor would be significantly cheaper in the short run, Tonks says.

He envisions deploying a fleet of express buses that would take passengers between major town centres along the highway. As well, Tonks says, a series of large parking lots near those centres would be built for people wanting to leave their cars and take buses to the subway.

To make these trips as fast as possible, Tonks’ plan will likely call for HOV lanes to be installed on Yonge St. from the 407.

“I see the 407 as the new transit frontier,” Tonks says.

‘Most people don’t know this (but) streetcars can actually travel as fast as a subway’

“And we need to capture in the 407 what we missed in the 401 and that’s the transit orientation. The time is running out to do that.”

All these initiatives, Tonks says, should affect development patterns in the sprawling 905 regions - attracting high-density residential and commercial projects by offering a popular, cheap and effective transportation option for the people who buy into them.

Tonks says his plan will be largely based on dozens of previous transit reports, most of which collected dust for years after they were dismissed or put on hold.

But the former Metro chair says that public frustration over current congestion will force local, provincial and federal politicians to act on his offering.

He’s also counting on public support for his plan to force the province to grant his board the fiscal and legal powers to implement the transit strategies - strategies that are sure to be strongly opposed by many factions.

While Queen’s Park installed the board to oversee all shared infrastructure in the GTA, it was given no legal or financial power to do so.

The board, which is made up of an often bickering contingent of municipal politicians, currently has control over GO Transit and nothing else.

“But people, I believe, now realize the cause and effect of not doing anything and of falling back,” Tonks says.

“And so, yeah, I’m staking my claim in terms of (the GTSB’s) role in getting this plan out there for public consumption and for the public leadership that it will bring toward having it implemented.”