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After St. Clair, full speed ahead for streetcar lanes

JOHN BARBER

Nobody loved the new Spadina streetcar line by the time work crews finally got around to building the thing in the mid-1990s. Even the TTC, beset by numerous nattering nabobs of negativity, was fed up.

“It took 10 years to put streetcars back on a goddamn road that always had streetcars on it!” TTC czar Al Leach, soon to become a cabinet minister in the Mike Harris government, fumed in 1993, four years before the line actually opened.

There is no such bitterness in official Toronto today. With the success of the Spadina line proven, it only took three years for the Toronto Transit Commission and the city to gain approval for a similar new line in a traffic-free corridor down the middle of St. Clair Avenue. Despite all the publicity raised by opponents, and the baffling convolutions of their court challenges, the job was completed with comparative ease.

And completed it is. Yesterday’s Superior Court decision green-lighting the new line leaves Save Our St. Clair (SOS), the anti-streetcar group, with nowhere to go. No appeal based on the narrow, highly technical arguments it relied on will ever stop construction of the new line, even if another court does allow the appeal. Whatever happens to the legal case, construction will begin almost immediately.

Then there is the question of costs, which the judgment invited the two sides to negotiate over the next few weeks. Local councillor and transit commissioner Joe Mihevc hinted yesterday that the city might go easy in its demands for recompense of its legal costs if SOS agrees to go away. “But if they want to fight,” he added, “they will do so at their peril.”

Yes, things are different than they were 10 years ago on Spadina, when anti-streetcar agitators continued to meddle and complicate construction of the new line right up until the last minute. Their big victory was a design for minimal curbs that proved so dangerous the TTC tore them all up and built proper curbs (to its original design) shortly after the new line opened.

Yesterday’s judgment not only removes the opportunity to repeat such follies, it exposed the latest attempts for what they are. Does anybody out there really think it is wrong to build a new streetcar line because Map 4 in this plan is slightly different from Map 5 in that plan? The legal case against the line ignored the question of its merits, attempting to torpedo it with technicalities instead. But they all went wide and now it’s full speed ahead.

One result is that it will be increasingly difficult for local groups to oppose either this line or others that may follow. Why would they? Although Mr. Mihevc’s prediction of a “renaissance” on St. Clair may be overdone, this is a $65-million improvement after all. If Mr. Mihevc has his way, the budget will soon be expanded to include even more streetscape improvements and the “undergrounding” of all power lines along St. Clair — a tremendous perk.

If the new St. Clair line yields even a fraction of the benefits it promises, other neighbourhoods won’t be so quick to resist similar improvements. It is not hard to imagine Scarborough and North York competing for new lines.

For the city and the TTC, one of the biggest benefits of yesterday’s decision was its validation of the relatively brisk approval process they initiated exactly three years ago. In the end, the biggest delay was not the court challenge but provincial demurral, which required an extra round of consultations late in the day.

Clearly, the transit agency has learned a thing or three about environmental assessments since the Al Leach days. The important lesson is that they work.

Thus the battle of St. Clair ends with a resounding victory, one that will not only produce permanently improved public transit on that street, but will provide tremendous impetus to build new dedicated streetcar lanes in equally worthy locations.




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