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Hume: Time to wake up, smell the diesel

By Christopher Hume
Urban Affairs, Architecture

It wasn’t a good night to be Gary McNeil. There he was, all alone, trying to defend the agency he helps run, Metrolinx, against several hundred angry west-enders.

They were upset because the additional trains that will run through their neighbourhoods are diesel. The neighbours want the routes electrified.

They’re right, of course, but that’s something that should have been done - or at least started - 25 or 30 years ago. There’s little McNeil can do about it now. Given our current state of impoverishment, intellectual as well as fiscal, we should consider ourselves lucky Metrolinx even exists.

The truth is that the regional transit authority has only a fraction of the $50 billion it says it needs to build the infrastructure that will allow the GTA to lurch into the future. And even that was chopped in Thursday’s budget. Metrolinx’s argument has always been that its financial circumstances are too fragile to do anything but what’s expedient, i.e. cheap. And that means diesel.

Still, as McNeil explained many times, Metrolinx has commissioned a $4 million study of electrification that will be ready in December. Other than confirming the obvious, it also lets McNeil and his cohorts off the hook - for the time being.

Depending on whom you believe, electrification would cost anywhere from $150 million to $1 billion. That, and advances in diesel technology, mean that we most likely face more of the same. That in turn means more pollution, atmospheric and aural, and probably fewer stations. (Diesel engines aren’t very fast at starting and stopping.)

What did come clear at this week’s meeting, however, was that until the public got involved, Metrolinx hadn’t given electrification of the Georgetown line a moment’s thought. True, GO has talked about electrifying the Lakeshore corridor for years, but diesel has worked for decades; it’s what our creaky transit system is used to. But even McNeil acknowledges the inevitability of electrification.

“It’s what I consider to be a natural transition,” he told the Star in 2007. “It’s very basic infrastructure. It’s readily available throughout the world. The trickiest thing of all is getting the railways onside.”

The railways prefer to carry freight rather than passengers, but in the past three years GO has bought many of the corridors it uses.

Then there’s the long-held Canadian attitude that because public transit is for those who can’t afford to drive, it can be ignored. That’s all changed now, and suddenly it’s becoming clear that we’re not so smart after all; bad choices made in earlier decades have come back to bite our collective backside.

“No one should be asked to trade public health for public transit,” declared Toronto’s chief medical officer Dr. David McKeown to applause.

But that’s exactly what’s being asked of us. What McKeown didn’t point out, however, was that the alternative - thousands of extra cars on the roads - would be worse.

Although all levels of government are committed to transit funding, it’s a familiar Canadian story of too little, too late. If, as many argue, transit is key to a prosperous GTA, the future does not bode well. To make matters worse, the anti-transit, we-must-drive-at-any-cost backlash has begun, and not just in Toronto but also the suburbs and beyond.

That Metrolinx should be unable to defend itself against the NIMBY hordes is further confirmation that we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.

The final insult will come in the years ahead when we decide to do the right thing and electrify. But if you think that would be expensive now, just wait till then.