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TTC chair wants to explore fast ferries


Kelly Patrick, National Post
Published: Wednesday, July 04, 2007

TORONTO - The Toronto Transit Commission is examining the possible purchase of high-speed ferries that could whisk commuters from the outskirts of Scarborough and Etobicoke to the downtown ferry terminal in about 15 minutes.

“The idea of commuting to work on a boat is exciting,” TTC chairman Adam Giambrone told the National Post in an interview. “The question is: Can we do it cost effectively? That’s the question we have to answer.”

Mr. Giambrone sent a memo yesterday to Gary Webster, the chief general manager of the TTC, and to the transit authority’s commissioners asking them to support a study of waterborne commuting along the lake’s edge.

He plans to move a motion formally requesting a feasibility report at the TTC’s July 11 meeting.

The transit authority will likely have to hire an outside consultant at a cost of approximately $15,000 to complete the first phase of study, Mr. Giambrone said.

“In considering the options for improved and expanded transit service in Toronto, we must not overlook the many opportunities presented by our geography,” Mr. Giambrone’s memo reads. “For east-west travel, one of the possibilities that I believe deserves consideration is high-speed frequent-passenger ferry service across the lake, from one end of the city to the other.”

In the interview, Mr. Giambrone stressed the TTC is only beginning to explore the concept, but he provided a rough outline of how year-round waterborne commuting could work in Toronto.

There is abundant parking available near Bluffer’s Park Marina in Scarborough, at the foot of Brimley Road South and near Humber Bay Park in Etobicoke, in the area of Lake Shore Boulevard and Park Lawn Road, Mr. Giambrone said.

If docking facilities were built at these two points, passengers could leave their cars at park-and-ride lots to board one of two ferries travelling as fast as 40 knots for a ride to the downtown ferry terminal that could take as little as 15 minutes.

From the terminal, riders could walk to their final destinations or catch the Harbourfront streetcar line to Union Station and points beyond.

Boats would probably have to run every 15 minutes in the morning and evening rush hours to make the scheme viable, Mr. Giambrone said.

“If it works, it could be an incredible boon to people in Etobicoke and Scarborough,” he said.

Although the idea is sexy, the TTC should proceed with caution, warned one expert who has looked into the idea before.

Glenn Miller, a former employee with the old Metro Toronto government, explored the concept nearly 20 years ago while helping to develop a waterfront plan.

Now the director of education and research at the Canadian Urban Institute, Mr. Miller said he expects the TTC will struggle to make commuter boats economically viable.

“It’s very difficult to make a case for a streetcar-based transportation system along the waterfront, so my gut tells me it would be even harder to make a case for a water-based one.”

Still, he added: “I love the idea and it would be wonderful if people could figure out how to make it work.”

Mr. Giambrone said the times and the technology have changed to make the idea possible today.

He said there is a renewed international buzz around waterborne commuting because new technology has increased the speed of ferries, while reducing their cost.

The International Association of Public Transit, the world’s largest transit organization, has founded a working group to further study fast-ferry commuting.

Passengers already commute on rivers and along coastlines in Paris, London, New York, Boston, San Francisco and Vancouver, among other cities, although in many of these places a private company runs the service.

Halifax is poised to join the list.

The Halifax Regional Municipality council has approved a $20-million plan to upgrade terminal facilities and buy two high-speed ferries with a capacity of 250 passengers each to make daily trips from the suburban town of Bedford to downtown Halifax.

The waterborne trip takes 13 minutes one way, a significant reduction from the 40 minutes the journey takes by bus or the 30 minutes it takes by car.

Len Goucher, a member of the provincial legislature and a former Halifax Regional councillor, has championed the project for years and hopes it will be up and sailing in a few years or sooner.

In October, 2005, Halifax borrowed the Whaling City Express, a fast ferry that services Martha’s Vineyard, for a trial.

“We ran it for two days up and down the harbour from Bedford and it was full every trip. I mean they were lined up,” Mr. Goucher said.