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Streetcar fate is on the line on St. Clair

It’s time to take a good look at restoring transit right of way to the street, JOHN BARBER says

JOHN BARBER

There’s no question that Toronto loves its streetcars, but is it willing to move in and settle down, for better and for worse, forever and ever?

Thirty years after the TTC grudgingly agreed to maintain the streetcar system rather than scrapping it, that remains an open question. It will likely be decided once and for all by the fate of an innovative proposal to build a dedicated streetcar right of way down the middle of St. Clair Avenue.

St. Clair has always had streetcar service for most of its length, and it is the only remaining central-city route wide enough to accept a dedicated right of way, similar to that recently built on Spadina Avenue, with no cars allowed on the tracks. The reason St. Clair is so wide, in fact, is that it was designed to accommodate a separate streetcar right of way, which operated there until the 1930s.

So it was natural that the idea be revived before the line is rebuilt. That is scheduled to take place in 2004. Recreating the old right of way at the same time will result in “a new rapid-transit line at very little incremental cost,” according to city councillor Joe Mihevic, whose ward encompasses St. Clair between Spadina Road and Oakwood Avenue.

Track reconstruction takes place only every 40 years, Mr. Mihevc added, so the coming work affords a rare opportunity “to look at how the street functions and to make improvements.”

Considering the fact that the city’s new official plan strongly endorses building up public transit with more Spadina-style streetcar routes, it seems likely that city council will endorse a formal study of the St. Clair concept at one of its future meetings. If dedicated streetcar rights of way are such a good idea, and if we’re going to build one anywhere in the city, we’ll do it on St. Clair.

But that’s easy to say; it took more than a decade of struggle to bring streetcars back to Spadina, and nobody is anticipating quick approval for the St. Clair scheme.

“This is going to be a tough sell in the community,” acknowledged Mr. Mihevc, a staunch transit advocate and son of a TTC worker. “I just hope that people come into it with open minds.”

The reasons for not doing so were laid out clearly and unapologetically in a recent staff report on the feasibility of the concept. It can be made real only at the cost of “serious and significant impacts” on car and truck traffic, according to the report.

“The main conclusion of our work to date is that an exclusive transit right of way is achievable on St. Clair Avenue,” it said, “but this could come about only by reducing the capacity of the remaining space for general traffic to less than half of what is currently provided.”

The predicted negative effects include “lengthy delays and congestion in all directions at intersections” (for cars only, of course; streetcars will go faster), increased leakage of through traffic into residential areas and greater difficulties in loading and deliveries for local businesses.

Depending on how it is designed, the new corridor will remove cars and trucks from at least two of St. Clair’s six traffic lanes. If permanent parking bays are included on either side of the street, driving space will be reduced to one lane in either direction, according to the report.

That’s too much for Councillor Michael Walker, who represents the affluent neighbourhoods bordering St. Clair between Yonge Street and Spadina Road. “I don’t think [a dedicated right of way] is warranted,” he said, adding that, even at an estimated $20-million, the cost will be too high.

But there is more than one constituency with an interest in the matter. Almost half of all people who currently travel St. Clair use public transit instead of private cars, and a dedicated line could improve service dramatically.

But it’s still a distant vision. “Everyone argues for public transit,” Mr. Mihevic pointed out, “but when it comes down to brass tacks the rights of motor traffic are sacrosanct and the rights of transit users have to be argued.”

Now’s the time to do that: The opportunity to return St. Clair to its roots is too good to let pass without serious study.

jbarber@globeandmail.ca




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