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Cash crunch leaves TTC slow to grow

COMMUTER CORNER - Joseph Hall
STAR COLUMNIST

Small steps will take you farther than standing still.

So even if your stride is being shackled, any incremental advancements you achieve are preferable to none at all.

That is the emerging philosophy at the Toronto Transit Commission, where provincial downloading and municipal penury are making notions of expansions on the scale of the new Sheppard subway line virtually unthinkable.

“I think incremental is the way to go,” says Rick Ducharme, the system’s chief general manager.

“Today, if we’re going to move forward it will have to be a little piece at a time.”

Ducharme says that most politicians have appetites only for grand transit plans, keeping to the idea that smaller options don’t give them enough political capital to make them worthwhile.

But he also says he can count five TTC and GO Transit “megaprojects” that were announced since he entered the business in 1972 and which languished and died before any ground was broken.

And in today’s fiscally uncertain climate - where even the funding needed for system upkeep is by no means certain - planning for billion dollar expansions is basically a waste of time.

“So let’s get real, we should look at proper incremental approaches where we’d spend maybe $200 million or $300 million on a project,” Ducharme says.

“We’d build one piece of a subway line, for example, and do it that way rather than go big and watch it collapse.”

While $200 million might sound like a sizable amount of money, it’s chump change in the big league transit business, where a truncated and stripped-down line such as the five-station Sheppard can cost almost $1 billion.

Ducharme would rather see more doable, financially acceptable projects approved on an ongoing basis.

On the subway side, single-station expansions on the Spadina line - from Downsview to York University and then on to Highway 407 or the Vaughan city centre - would be top priorities.

Likewise, a station-by-station lengthening of Sheppard, which was originally to have boasted 10 stops and have stretched all the way to Scarborough City Centre, may be the only way that the line will ever be completed.

While trumpeted projects like Sheppard and the lamented Eglinton line have captured the most public attention, it’s not as if this incremental approach is new to the city’s subway system.

Both the Bloor/Danforth and Yonge/University/Spadina lines benefited from short, incremental expansions, even during the halcyon days of Toronto subway building in the 1970s and ’80s.

The Yonge line was extended two stations from York Mills to Finch in 1974, for example, while the Bloor/Danforth line saw short extensions to Kipling and Kennedy in 1980.

More recently, the Spadina line was pushed one stop beyond Wilson to Downsview station in 1996.

It’s up above, however, on the bus and streetcar side, that the TTC’s incremental approach would take a more novel turn.

On the surface, Ducharme says, the main push would not be to acquire greatly expanded bus or streetcar fleets, but to make the routes that the TTC vehicles run on incrementally more efficient.

“The big problem is the street, it’s not the subway really,” he says.

“And we can’t just demand more buses and streetcars, we have to demand transit priority on the streets.”

Ducharme says the city currently boasts about 200 intersections where signals have been programmed to extend green lights to approaching buses and streetcars.

He says the city should methodically add to this inventory over the coming months and years and build up the number of high-occupancy-vehicle lanes that ease the flow for transit vehicles.

“Rather than always asking for bags of money to buy more streetcars and buses we could get more priority in the streets,” Ducharme says.

“For a lot less money, we can move our buses faster and streetcars faster and carry more people just from the fact that they’re moving faster.”

And in fiscally tight times like these, this slow, plodding path toward moving faster is likely the only one the TTC can afford.


Readers can contact Joseph Hall by phone at (416) 869-4390 or e-mail at gjhall@thestar.ca




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