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The Sheppard Line subtext

Some call it the ‘subway to nowhere.’ Mel Lastman knows better

Malcolm Kelly
National Post

Carlo Allegri, National Post
Ian Ward-McNally, left, the resident superintendent of the Bessarion Road and Bayview Avenue stations on the Sheppard Line, in the nearly completed tunnel.

Carlo Allegri, National Post
Sheppard Avenue seen looking east from Yonge Street along the new Sheppard subway line: On the horizon is where the Don Mills Station is located. Below: Workers at Sheppard-Yonge Station.

Carlo Allegri, National Post
Photo of workers working on the Sheppard Subway Line.

Walking eastward down the quiet westbound tunnel of Mel Lastman’s “Subway to Nowhere,” still two years away from seeing its first official train in mid-2002, a thought suddenly strikes: Despite its now well-known nickname, the new Sheppard Avenue line does indeed go somewhere.

At a cost of $932.9-million, the subway goes to Fairview Mall. And it goes to the North York General Hospital and Seneca College’s Leslie Campus.

And to the Bayview Village Shopping Centre, Michael of Willowdale’s Hair Design and the Altima Dental Centre.

It goes to a pair of Esso stations and a Shell station. And to Ikea.

It’s Mel’s Subway to a Shopping Mall.

Was the Mayor out of his mind when he proposed this? Or was he smarter than the rest of us?

If you stand in the midst of the noise and dirt of construction, down a 20-metre hole in the middle of Yonge and Sheppard, you find yourself on what will be the centre platform of the new Sheppard Station.

Sheppard will be the western terminus of the new line when it opens. But don’t look east, where the trains will head down the five-stop line. Look west, where the long “tail track” goes off into the distance.

That tail quietly wags all the way to Welbeck Street, four blocks away.That’s almost half the distance to Bathurst Street, which is itself the only reasonable stop on a westbound extension that would connect the Yonge line with the University-Spadina line. Such a connection would give passengers two choices for getting downtown while relieving the pressure on the already overcrowded Yonge route.

And that centre platform you’re standing on? It’s not going to be used when the new line opens — passengers will embark and disembark on side platforms. The centre is for “future expansion.”

At the end of another platform, this one at the Don Mills Station down the eastern end of the Sheppard line, you can peer around the plastic drop sheet, shuffling your feet on the terrazzo that’s currently hidden under a couple of millimetres of dirt, and see what’s beyond — another stretch of platform that can be accessed as soon as traffic justifies stretching from four-car to six-car trains. There’s also a false wall that can be popped out whenever the Subway to a Shopping Mall becomes the Subway to Scarborough, where it would link with the existing LRT line.

The conclusion here is obvious: Machiavellian Mel knew all along this is what was going to happen. If he could get any sort of line along Sheppard, one day the city would have to make sure it was finished.

“That’s fair. There’s no way they can stop it. And hopefully they won’t,” said Mr. Lastman. “I’ve always said you’ve got to get it started to get it finished. It’s only practical, it’s the only right way to go.”

The TTC understood as well.

“We all know we built half a subway and sanity will prevail and we will go there [to Scarborough],” says Rick Ducharme, Senior General Manager for the Toronto Transit Commission. “It won’t be paid for by the city, though. And if the province and the feds aren’t there we’re going nowhere.

“So, [we’re going] through a couple of years of sorting that out, politically.”

From the start, “sorting it out politically” took a lot longer than planned.

Briefly, the idea for the line came out of the old city of North York 16 years ago, when Mr. Lastman was mayor of the former Toronto suburb. The dream was to have the Sheppard line run all the way to the Scarborough Town Centre and connect the two cities.

Over 12 years and 10 acrimonious debates at Metro Council, the plan was approved, disapproved, altered, killed, resuscitated and, ultimately, in September of 1996, earned the nod in cut-down form (running only to Don Mills Road).

Among the contentious issues:

  • Critics said it was simply a grandstand play by Mr. Lastman to show North York voters his strength and influence.
  • The provincial government, which had agreed to provide $915-million to the TTC’s State of Good Repair budget over five years that would help keep an ageing fleet of buses running, was rumoured to be threatening to pull out of that deal unless the Sheppard line was approved. The Tories had thrown their support behind the line after cutting the Eglinton line from the proposal in June of 1995. That in itself was a major backing off from Bob Rae’s plan in 1992, which called for massive subway expansion right across Metro.
  • Frances Nunziata, Mayor of the City of York, was pushing hard for a line running along Eglinton Avenue West, and had a lot of support from the then-City of Toronto members of Metro Council. And there are still many people who think Eglinton was the way to go.
  • The tunnelling along Sheppard was approved at a cost of $130-million. After the contracts were finalized, another vote almost put the whole thing into mothballs until a late turnaround approved the entire deal.
  • Some councillors claimed that Mr. Lastman threatened to attack day-care spending if they didn’t support the line, and an orgy of backroom manouvering left many on council exhausted.
  • Mr. Lastman was actually ready to accept running the line just out to Leslie Street and was surprised at the last minute when a deal to push the tunnelling through to Don Mills appeared and was agreed to.

Finally, on Sept. 25, 1996, the half-a-line was approved at a cost of $875-million. That was without the Bessarion Road station, cut from the proposal as a money-saving measure. It was later put back in for an extra $35-million.

Four years later, Mr. Ducharme, who only came on board as TTC GM nine months ago after a long run at GO Transit, says the decision has been proven correct.

“I remember all the controversy around the Spadina line — people said we shouldn’t have built it. All I know is that … I don’t know where the city would be without it,” he says. “There will be the day when someone looks at Sheppard and says, well, somebody knew [back then] that we should continue with subway expansion.”

Much of Sheppard’s future, and indeed all subway construction in the city, may be tied up in the 30-year plan proposed in July by Paul Bedford, the city’s chief planner.

The sweeping proposal covers every aspect of future planning including public spaces, housing, green corridors, downtown development and mass transit. Among the ideas on the block are an extension of the Yonge line from Finch Avenue to Langstaff Road in Richmond Hill, running the Spadina line up to the city of Vaughan, the Bloor line west from Kipling station to Mississauga and putting rapid transit in some form on Eglinton Avenue.

And, yes, extending the Sheppard east to Scarborough Town Centre and west to link up with Downsview.

“You start tying in the elements, closing loops, and you have a real integrated system,” says Mr. Ducharme. “Toronto is about 20 years behind [New York and London]. All the decisions and the beancounting that’s been going on the last 10 years, while it’s helped taxes and all that, it hasn’t done anything for infrastructure.”

“If we don’t make plans today, we’re not going to be here in the future,” he says.

If there’s one thing that seems to upset Mel Lastman’s opponents when they ask the TTC about progress on the Sheppard line, it’s this:

The Subway to a Shopping Mall is on time and on budget.

“I think you know the political sensitivity to the project and how it was approved, which makes it even more important that this is done right,” says Mr. Ducharme. “I have had politicians … challenging where we are, and when you give that answer [on time, on budget], some politicians find it disappointing, which is sad.”

Margaret Tyszka is proud of her $119-million hole in the ground. The Assistant Resident Superintendent for the Sheppard-Yonge transfer point scrambles up and down wooden construction ladders — some of which would make the most stout-of-heart stop and think — as though they’re the stairs in her house.

This is the most incomplete of the five station sites (each of which has an individual contractor separate from the one that actually bored the tunnels), because the work here was the most extensive — as anybody who has tried to drive or walk through Yonge and Sheppard in the last two years, or for that matter run a business in the Willowdale Mall on the southeast corner, is very pleased to tell you.

Right now, the intersection is just a big, gaping hole, traffic having been diverted south and westward to get around the site. If you want to walk from the northeast corner of the intersection to the southwest, you traipse east on Sheppard a hundred yards, cross the temporary roadway, wind your way back west to the corner, divert south on Yonge 50 yards to get around another big hole, come back to the intersection and cross to your goal.

It comes as a surprise to learn, wandering around the track bed below, that the station is almost 74% complete.

“We’re not going to use the capacity of the station at the beginning,” says Ms. Tyszka.

Of course not. There’s that future to build for.

Ian Ward-McNally, the Resident Superintendent for the Bayview and Bessarion station sites, has built subways all over the world, including London and Singapore.

He knows tunnels, and these are special.

Twin tubes, from which almost half-a-million tonnes of soil and occasional boulders were removed, the tunnels began in 1997 at Leslie Street, heading west. When they got to Yonge, the 235-tonne boring machines were taken back to Leslie and went up the steep hill to Don Mills.

All tunneling was completed in June, 1999 at a cost of $102-million, not counting the boring machines themselves ($18-million in 1992) and paying for the 39,400 concrete tunnel liners ($26-million).

That done, tracks and third rails were laid and now sit, waiting for the 24 new train cars to roll for the first time.

What makes the tunnels different from any others on the TTC system, however, is their design — the fruits of lessons learned from the tragedy of the Spadina line crash on Aug. 11, 1995, that killed three passengers and left dozens of others groping through dark, smoke-filled tunnels.

To help maintenance crews, but also to keep passengers from having to walk back along the middle of the tracks in the event of an emergency, a concrete pathway now runs down one side of both tunnels, all the way from one end to the other. That has never been done before in Toronto. Neither has the vent system.

“We have emergency vent fans that are designed to push smoke away from passengers while they walk to emergency access points,” says Mr. Ward-McNally.

Basically, the fans will allow a controller to point patrons down the tunnel one way where they will be met with fresh air sweeping down the tube to push the smoke the other way.

And dedicated access routes for firefighters will make their job easier in case of a disaster.

At the Leslie Street station, where a future walkway to GO Transit’s Oriole Station on the Richmond Hill line will give 905 commuters another choice for getting downtown (a key point in the province’s interest in the line), the tiles draw attention. About 17,000 of one type, signed in a promotion by children and adults a few years back, now line the walls (all personally signed “Sheppard & Leslie” — one of them has it misspelled “Shepard,” though staff aren’t quite sure where that one is).

Out on the platform, however, you won’t find any tiles on the outer walls. The Sheppard line has bare concrete purely because of money. When council was calling for more budget cuts, the TTC took the tiles off. Savings: $5- to $10-million. They can always put the tiles on sometime in the future.

It’s part of a mantra oft-repeated by TTC officials: This is the bare-bones subway line. No frills.

Just under seven kilometres east of Yonge, the line chugs uphill into Don Mills station. It’s here that the biggest effects of the Sheppard extension will be first felt.

An underground bus terminal has spaces for 15 bays. That’s for more than just the current sardine-packed Sheppard buses and those running on Don Mills.

Upstairs, a four-storey parking garage, now open, has been built that will accommodate both patrons of the Fairview Mall and commuters to the subway.

The mall itself is expanding.

And, surrounding all this, the residents of two dozen ageing apartment buildings are wondering about the effects of a subway station on their rents and futures.

Generally, monthly rent here runs from about $800 and up for a one-bedroom, $1,000 and up for two-bedrooms and over $1,200 for a three.

“There is a general perception of [rent increases] — an imminent fear,” says one resident, hurrying to board the busy eastbound Sheppard bus. “They already have increased in anticipation of the subway.”

“I think this is going to be a very premium area,” he goes on. “It’s strategically placed close to downtown and the suburbs, and things will really take off with the opening of the subway.”

“This has always been an immigrant-based area and the new subway [and rising rents] will affect people greatly.”

That opinion isn’t shared by everyone, however.

One young mother said she hadn’t seen any large rise in rents recently, nor was she expecting one.

Another woman, a senior who has lived in the area for 20 years, also wasn’t worried.

“I think in the long run it’s going to help everybody,” she said.

According to the TTC, its own phone polls (done on various subjects three times a year), show that only 8% of people asked oppose the Sheppard subway line and extension and only 27% oppose raising taxes to pay for more transit.

“We’re building half a subway on Sheppard,” Mr. Ducharme reiterates. “So [the question is] where are we going to go and when. It’s not as if you’re not going to build the rest of it.”

“I don’t believe the city will allow us to stop there,” he says. “If you want it to be effective, you want it to go where it should have gone in the first place.”

Construction on the Subway to a Shopping Mall is due to be finished by the fall of 2001, followed by around nine months of testing, safety approvals, tweaking and polishing.

When the first riders hop on the train at Yonge and roll off towards Don Mills station, they might be forgiven for being reluctant to exit the cars at that spot.

It will seem like the trip is only half over.



Contractor: Ellis-Don Construction Ltd.

Contract cost: $119-million

Percent complete: 73.5%

Estimated completion date: November, 2001

Notes: Still a big hole in the ground causing massive traffic diversion, but most of the concrete has been poured and the station box is on the way to completion. Built on top of, rather than below, the existing station box for the north-south line. Will have only a one metre clearance between the top of the station box and the roadway.


Contractor: Walter Construction (Canada) Ltd.

Contract cost: $60-million

Percent complete: 56%

Estimated completion date: May, 2001

Notes: Also a big hole in the ground. Deepest station on the line. Platforms and tracks in place. Close walking distance to the Bayview Village Shopping Centre and the North York YMCA.


Contractor: Bondfield Construction Company Ltd.

Contract cost: $35-million

Percentage complete: 63%

Estimated completion date: November, 2000

Notes: A smaller open-cut hole. Track and platforms in, concourse and pedestrian entrances merely roughed out. Could be in a key location, next to the 25-acre tract of land owned by Canadian Tire that’s slated for massive redevelopment.


Contractor: Ellis-Don Construction, Ltd.

Contract cost: $57-million

Percentage complete: 95%

Estimated completion date: October, 2000

Notes: By far the most finished of the stations (it was the first started). Serves North York General Hospital, Oriole Station on the Richmond Hill GO line, Seneca College and the Ikea store. Features fully enclosed Don River bridge. Small bus terminal.


Contractor: Walter Construction (Canada), Ltd.

Contract cost: $96-million

Percentage complete: 88%

Estimated completion date: November, 2000

Notes: Contains a 15-bay bus terminal. Connects to Fairview mall through an outside entrance with a short walkway. Offers commuter parking in a 400-space deck shared with the mall. Surrounded by apartment buildings.


Contractor: Joint venture between McNally/PCL/Foundation

Contract cost: $102-million (plus cost of the boring machines and tunnel liners)

Percentage complete: 100%

Notes: Incorporates best safety features available, including full-length side access shelf, emergency air exchange system and dedicated firefighter access.