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Union facelift aids Games bid

It’s the ‘first step,’ Collenette says

By Paul Moloney
Toronto Star City Hall Bureau

Upgrading Union Station is key to redeveloping the city’s waterfront and capturing the 2008 Summer Olympics, Transport Minister David Collenette says.

“This is, in effect, the first step to the waterfront rejuvenation, the first step to our Olympic dream being realized,” Collenette said yesterday.

The federal government will chip in $25 million toward improving the station building, which the City of Toronto is buying from the railways.

The co-operation of the two governments on Union Station bodes well for a wider collaboration on the waterfront, said Robert Fung, head of the waterfront task force.

“It’s all part and parcel of the whole downtown city of Toronto and the waterfront moving forward,” Fung said. “What you’re seeing here is a real working relationship between the federal government and the city.”

As the proud new owner of Union Station, the city realizes only too well it has a fixer-upper on its hands.

The heritage structure, opened by the Prince of Wales in 1927, has been sadly neglected, and the plumbing and electrical systems are outdated.

But that will change, Mayor Mel Lastman vowed at a news conference in the building’s Great Hall yesterday.

“We will restore the glory of this marble palace,” Lastman promised.

Union Station needs $14 million in work just to meet building code standards.

The city is buying the property from Canadian Pacific and Canadian National North America for $80 million.

Of that, $55 million comes from GO Transit in return for a 99-year lease and the city is writing off $25 million owed by the railways in back rent on the city-owned land beneath the station.

Union Station also will be the starting point for a rail link to Pearson International Airport, said Collenette, who is also minister responsible for the Greater Toronto Area.

Costing between $250 million and $300 million, the link will be built entirely by the private sector and will whisk passengers between the two facilities in 20 minutes, he said.

The city, which estimates redevelopment of Union Station will cost $200 million, plans to find a private developer to bring in new retail, entertainment and office tenants.

The goal is to make Union Station not only a transportation hub but a destination in itself, Lastman said.

“There will be fun places to be and fun places to enjoy,” he said.

Toronto has studied other train station redevelopment projects such as Washington, D.C.’s Union Station and Grand Central Terminal in New York City.

A $160 million makeover of the Washington station has produced annual rental income of $12.7 million and sales last year of $116 million.

Lastman said the city will search for development partners worldwide in a bid to out-do the U.S. centres.

“I’ve seen New York - it won’t be nearly as nice as what we do here,” he said. “I have not seen Washington but I have seen pictures of (Washington’s) Union Station and ours will be nicer.”

John Bitove Jr., chief executive officer of the Olympic bid group TO-Bid, was happy with the news.

“It’s a great step in the commitment to do the best job possible of hosting the world in 2008,” said Bitove.

“It all comes down to the kind of job you can do and the commitments behind it.”

TO-Bid has until June 20 to give the International Olympic Committee answers to a detailed questionnaire about Toronto’s readiness to hold the Games.

Toronto’s facility has 100,000 square feet of 1950s-era office space sitting vacant and 100,000 square feet of vacant and under-used retail space.

“I have heard informally from the contacts that I connect with that they think this is a great spot to be,” said Mike Garrett, Toronto’s chief administrative officer.

“It’s the middle of a transportation hub and you get 100,000 people a day passing by,” Garrett said.

“We understand that this will be prime space.”

The Toronto Maple Leafs had earlier proposed building a new arena and office towers over the tracks on the south side of Union Station. While not in current plans, trackside development has not been ruled out.

The mayor hopes a private sector partner will be selected this year, and that work will begin early in 2001 and be carried out over the next two years.

Toronto is moving forward after years of battles with the railways over rent for the city’s land and protracted negotiations to purchase the building.

“It’s taken a while but it’s worth it,” said Councillor David Miller, a Toronto Transit Commissioner.

“The city is extremely proud because this is the heart of Toronto.”

Fixing up Union Station is long overdue, said Alan Tonks, chair of the Greater Toronto Services Board, which oversees GO Transit.

“We’ve always realized that Union Station (upgrading) was the key that unlocks additional transit opportunities for the rest of the GTA,” Tonks said.

“It’s 1920s technology and it’s caught in a kind of time warp. This announcement will help us get on with a future that works.”

Missing from yesterday’s announcement was funding to add a second subway platform at Union, to augment the dangerously narrow platform.

There’s also no word yet on money for a new GO Bus terminal on the east side of Bay St., and other improvements GO Transit says the station needs to handle a doubling in passengers to 200,000 daily over the next few years.

Garrett said GO Transit needs $100 million annually over the next 10 years - of which half would have to come from city coffers and half from 905 municipalities served by the system.

“In the scheme of things, spending that much on an inter-regional system that serves the employment areas we have in Toronto, it’s not outlandish,” he said.

Garrett expected the 905 funding partners will be supportive of increasing the system’s capacity.

“In fact, they’re arguing for it more than we are at this point. It’s good for us though, because it gets people coming in by transit to downtown rather than using their cars.”