by James Bow
It began with a modest proposal.
When construction began in the summer of 2005, converting streetcar tracks on St. Clair Avenue into a raised curb private right-of-way, it was the culmination of a controversial planning process that began three years before when the TTC came up with an idea to upgrade the current streetcar service for less money than it would have cost to establish a new LRT. By upgrading the tracks as they were rebuilt, streetcars could eventually operate atop a six-inch tall curb, free from competing automobile traffic, just like Spadina and Harbourfront streetcars. The total cost would have been just $7 million more than had already been budgeted for the rehabilitation of the tracks on St. Clair.
A modest proposal, but one which split the community surrounding it. The project ultimately would take five years and $106 million in total to complete and, in the summer of 2005, the controversies surrounding it were far from over.
A History of Private Rights of Way on St. Clair.
Bolstering the TTC’s proposal was the fact that the idea wasn’t new. In fact, the TTC was restoring something to St. Clair that had been there when streetcar service began.
When the City of Toronto laid down streetcar tracks on St. Clair Avenue, starting in September 1911, the city set them inside a “center reservation” that isolated them from competing car traffic. Taking advantage of the unusual width of St. Clair (by city standards at the time), the tracks were laid on open ballast, inside four lanes reserved for automobile traffic. Safety islands allowed passengers to wait for streetcars in the middle of the road, rather than crossing two lanes of traffic to board their cars.
This arrangement allowed St. Clair streetcars to operate without being obstructed by turning automobiles, up until the late 1920s, when a new city council decided to brick in the tracks using cobblestones, and allowing cars onto the right-of-way. The centre reservation of St. Clair was removed in stages, with the section between Bathurst and Dufferin going first in 1928, followed by the section between Dufferin and Lansdowne in 1929, the section between Lansdowne and Caledonia in 1931 and the section between Bathurst and Yonge in 1935. The last phase was completed as a make-work project during the Great Depression
St. Clair streetcars were able to operate in competition with automobiles for decades after the centre reservation’s removal, but by the 1970s, traffic congestion had increased to the point that the Toronto Transit Commission publicly regretted the loss of private right-of-way. The City of Toronto attempted to restore some of this operation by painting yellow lines across the tracks, but this proved futile. In 1978, the Spadina subway opened, and the new underground loop at St. Clair West station put the St. Clair tracks back in a centre reservation (when not underground) between Bathurst Street and just west of Spadina Road.
More recently, in the late 1990s, the TTC encountered modest success by moving its stops and the corresponding safety islands from the near-side of intersections to the far side. By maintaining the old near-side safety islands as barriers between the traffic lanes and newly established left-turn lanes placed on the streetcar tracks, and with the City of Toronto banning left turns during rush hours, obstructions at major intersections like Avenue Road diminished, although the line was still prone to delays when cars tried to turn left through busy traffic onto side streets, or had accidents. The portion of the line west of Bathurst, through the busy streets of Little Italy, were said to be especially problematic, with delays of twenty minutes or more reported.
Then, in 2004, TTC planners noted that the tracks along St. Clair were due for renewal in 2005. With the cost of replacing these tracks already in the budget as part of the TTC’s State of Good Repair maintenance program, planners realized that these tracks could be upgraded as part of the renewal project, producing a right-of-way such as what was already operating along Queen’s Quay and Spadina Avenue, for far less than the cost of building the tracks from scratch. The TTC estimated that the upgrade could be accomplished for $7 million more than had already been budgeted. The new right-of-way would improve the reliability of the St. Clair streetcar and reduce scheduled running times by five minutes in each direction, allowing the TTC to operate the same level of service with two fewer streetcars.
With this information at hand, TTC Commissioners approved the idea and took the proposal to city council, which authorized the project in its September 2004 meeting. The proposal was consistent with the City’s newly approved Official Plan, which called for “surface rapid transit” on major arterial roads.
As TTC engineers and consultants worked on designing the project, a group of local businesses and residents, concerned about the disruption of construction, the loss of parking space and the reduction of road capacity, gathered to oppose the project. The group, which named itself Save Our St. Clair (SOS), showed up at public meetings during the planning phase, and grew frustrated with how the plans were presented, suggesting that the whole project was a fait accompli. The organization was opposed by a group called SCRIPT (an acronym for St. Clair Right-of-way Initiative for Public Transit), a coalition of local businesses and residents who spoke out in support of the project. These individuals felt that the project improved public transit through their neighbourhood, and made it less of a thoroughfare where cars were king. SCRIPT was also backed by the Rocket Riders, a grassroots organization campaigning for improved public transportation throughout the City of Toronto.
Possibly due to the adversarial approaches taken by both the supporters and the opponents of this project, opinions polarized on the project. In the opinion of even some of the supporters of the right-of-way proposal, this polarization wasn’t helped by the way the project was communicated to local residents and businesses by planners. According to transit activist Steve Munro, Save Our St. Clair’s concerns weren’t without merit:
“The original map with community comments as ‘post its’ on top clearly showed a lot of sidewalk cuts, and it was against this map that SOS first rebelled. The longer the TTC put off displaying a new map, the longer it was possible for opponents to claim that nothing has changed and they will be rushed into approving something that is past the point of no return. That disrespects the consultation process.
“The design spent a lot of time on the look of the street and in at least one case used a before and after photo mock up to make ‘after’ the obviously preferable alternative even though the most noticeable change (removal of the forest of hydro wires) would have happened whether the project was implemented or not. Issues such as lane widths and corner radii were non-negotiable until Joe Mihevc got involved, and only then were applied to his ward’s part of the project. There remains the question of what the centre poles achieve and I have yet to receive (at the time of this interview: back in 2006 —jb) a credible answer from anyone on this. Elimination of span wires is a red herring because they do not contribute significantly to the visual clutter. Just look at any other street (like Spadina) that has them. I am fed up with the manufactured excuses to justify design decisions taken before the project was ever presented to the public.”
“I contrast this with a somewhat more collegial approach on the Waterfront east project environmental assessments which are being run by the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corportation. The biggest problem there is the artificial segmentation of the study into separate EAs even though there are overlapping issues between them, and this was imposed on TWRC by the Ministry of the Environment.”
Public meetings about the reconstruction project grew more heated, as the two groups verbally clashed before local representatives and planners from the TTC. Despite this, the proposal passed Toronto City Council and was and was approved by the Ontario Municipal Board. The Minister of Municipal Affairs approved the project on June 3, 2005, clearing the way for construction which started soon thereafter.
Construction Starts, then Stops
In the summer of 2005, Save our St. Clair appealed the Ontario Municipal Board’s decision to an Ontario court. They argued that the City of Toronto had not sufficiently consulted the community, and that they had no authority to make this change on St. Clair. The revised St. Clair streetcar, they argued, was being promoted as “surface rapid transit”, and although surface rapid transit had been approved for St. Clair as part of the 2002 Official Plan, that plan while approved by city council was being held up by the Ontario Municipal Board, pending appeals, at the time the St. Clair project was approved. The earlier Official Plan, which was in effect at that time, they argued, made no mention of “surface rapid transit.” It was a legal technicality, but it was sufficient for a three-judge panel of the Ontario Divisional Court to rule that all construction had to stop on the project.
Transit fans and supporters of the project, upset at Save our St. Clair’s legal maneuvers, sharply criticized the group and some even went so far as to call for the boycott of businesses opposed to the project. Meanwhile, the City of Toronto appealed the Divisional Court’s decision, successfully arguing that one judge on the panel had a conflict of interest, living in the area and criticizing the mayor sharply for another project on the route. On February 21, 2006, Save our St. Clair’s application for a judicial review of the environmental assessment was dismissed by the Ontario Divisional Court. The window to appeal the superior court decision closed on March 9, and Save Our St. Clair announced then that it had ended its legal battle. The court action had cost taxpayers an additional $2.7 million.
Construction Starts Again
Construction resumed in 2006, but the damage had already been done. Tenders which had been called had to be delayed. Some even had to be called again. This meant other tenders had not been called, and were delayed further. The original construction schedule was thrown out the window as delays cascaded through the project. The first phase of the project was formally relaunched on Sunday, June 18 with three contracts launching work on the sections between Avenue Road and Yonge, Tweedsmuir Avenue to Avenue Road and Vaughan to Tweedsmuir. Also included was a contract to build a new accessible elevator at St. Clair station. Buses replaced streetcars on the length of the St. Clair route, operating out of the lower St. Clair bus platform, as the streetcar platform was inaccessible due to construction. Tracks and overhead wires were replaced from Vaughan to Yonge and, on Sunday, January 7, 2007, streetcar service resumed on St. Clair, initially between St. Clair West station and Gunns loop. The new private right-of-way between Vaughan and St. Clair station was tested out by the TTC a week later, and full service to St. Clair station resumed on the new tracks on Sunday, January 21.
In April 2007, the second phase of construction started. St. Clair station was taken offline for a weekend (from Friday, April 20 to Monday, April 23) to rebuild the streetcar platform. Then, on Sunday, June 3, work began on rebuilding and upgrading the underground bus and streetcar loop at St. Clair West station. Streetcar service continued between Gunns loop and St. Clair station, but although the streetcars used the ramps into and out of St. Clair West station, they did not proceed through the underground loop. Passengers were forced to transfer to St. Clair shuttle buses at Tweedsmiur Avenur or Bathurst Street, or faced a long walk to the public entrances to St. Clair West station. On Sunday, August 5, work began to rebuild the ramps into and out of St. Clair West station, and streetcars were off St. Clair Avenue once again.
The project was delayed again when excavations beneath the tracks at St. Clair West station loop uncovered live electrical cables that weren’t on any official blueprints. This slowed down construction as workers very carefully figured out exactly where the electrical cables were. The streetcar ramps were restored on Monday, November 5, allowing streetcars to operate from Oakwood loop to St. Clair station, but again the underground loop was unavailable to streetcars, and connections between the streetcars and the Spadina subway were complicated.
At this time service could not operate west of Oakwood loop because, a month before, work had begun on the portion of the line between McRoberts and Westmount Avenues (basically between Caledonia Road and Dufferin Street). This continued through the winter. St. Clair West’s underground loop partially reopened to buses on Thursday, December 13, though streetcars did not pull through the loop. Eastbound cars did not pick up or drop off passengers inside St. Clair West station, but westbound cars did (due to the cars being closer to the underground loop’s facilities, making for a safer transfer).
Work continued through the winter of 2008, although the weather hampered construction. The City of Toronto had expected to close the intersection of Lansdowne and St. Clair on the weekends of February 15-19 and 22-26, but severe weather forced the cancellation of these plans. But progress was being made. On Sunday, March 30, 2008, St. Clair West’s underground loop fully reopened to bus and streetcar traffic. Construction continued between Dufferin and Caledonia and, on Tuesday May 20, the TTC started repairing the tracks around Vaughan Road. To maintain streetcar service between Oakwood and St. Clair, since the line was temporarily cut off from the rest of the system, the TTC took to storing streetcars overnight at St. Clair and St. Clair West stations. Work at Vaughan was finished in July 2008, reestablishing St. Clair’s connection with Bathurst Street. Trackwork on Bathurst south of the TTC’s Hillcrest Complex forced the TTC to store St. Clair’s cars at Hillcrest until work finished on Thursday, August 13, 2009
The third phase of the project, building the right-of-way between Westmount Avenue and Vaughan Road, began in September 2008. Streetcars continued to operate between St. Clair station and Oakwood loop. Work on the westernmost portion of the line began with watermain relocations on April 15, 2009. By September, work on the tracks was well underway, with the tracks on Old Weston Road from St. Clair to Townsley Loop one block north removed on September 11.
By December 2009, the right-of-way on St. Clair was largely complete east of Lansdowne Avenue. With work continuing on the portion of the line between Earlscourt and Gunns loops, the TTC decided to open the St. Clair line to Lansdowne with some fanfare. On Saturday, December 19, 2009, the TTC offered free rides on its two PCC streetcars between St. Clair station and Lansdowne. Regular streetcar service between Lansdowne and Yonge resumed the next day.
Work on the last section of the line dragged on into 2010, as construction mistakes at Gunns Loop delayed the project further. Finally, however, the work was done. Barring a handful of straggling projects with shelters and street detailing, streetcars resumed service on the full length of St. Clair on Wednesday, June 30, 2010. Well over a year later than intended.
The St. Clair project was already controversial when Toronto underwent an election in 2006. Mayoral candidates Stephen LeDrew and Jane Pitfield promised to cancel the remainder of the St. Clair project, if elected. Incumbent David Miller stood by his support for the proposal, and was re-elected handily in an election with one of the lowest voter turnouts in history (although turnout percentage was high, the total number of votes for the mayoral candidates was among the lowest on record, the result of a number of defunct voters being struck from the records). On the other hand, in the four wards surrounding the St. Clair route, candidates who favoured the project narrowly received more votes than those who campaigned against it. Finally, Joe Mihevc, who “put his neck on the line” over the St. Clair project, defeated a spirited challenge by anti-right-of-way candidates John Sewell and John Adams, and took more than half of the vote.
But the construction hadn’t hit full swing by the time the 2006 election took place, and when Torontonians returned to the polls in November 2010, the disruptions and delays were fresh on their minds. Mayor David Miller chose not to run in this election, and northern Etobicoke councillor Rob Ford beat a wide field to become mayor. His first act upon taking office was to cancel Toronto’s Transit City plan to build LRT lines on Eglinton Avenue, Finch West and Sheppard East, citing specifically the controversial St. Clair project. On the other hand, Coucillor Mihevc, who again stood behind the merits of the proposal, was handily re-elected with 56.2% of the vote.
Ford’s citation of the St. Clair project as a reason to build expensive subways instead of LRTs came back frequently as Ford and his allies argued against city councillors who questioned the fiscal responsibility of Ford’s subway plan. As the rhetoric heated up, Ford and his allies have even gone as far as calling it “The St. Clair Disaster”. This move has had plenty of critics, not least among the businesses of St. Clair West, who have recovered from the construction and are attracting new clientele; they don’t appreciate the attempts by the Ford Administration, however inadvertently, to liken their revitalizing avenue to a disaster area.
Other hyperbole from critics include the suggestion from the Toronto Sun editorial board that the St. Clair line came in “more than 100% over budget”. As a matter of simple math, this statement is simply inaccurate. St. Clair project was initially budgeted at $65 million when it was approved in 2005, and the final cost was tallied at $106 million. That’s 63% over budget, not over 100%. Worse, it ignores the fact that while quoting the original budget estimate at a hefty $65 million, this was the total cost of replacing and upgrading the tracks, failing to mention that, in 2003 when the project was first mooted, that the tracks along St. Clair had reached the end of their design life and needed to be replaced. So unless the critics wanted to eliminate streetcars outright from St. Clair and replace them permanently with buses, all the while without replacing or even paving over the old streetcar tracks, then the cost of rehabilitating the tracks is not something that one would have eliminated by not proceeding with the St. Clair project in 2005. It also ignores the fact that the bulk of the $41 million that was added to the final cost came in the form of community-requested improvements such as burying hydro wires and installing street furniture and improving sidewalks, none of which had anything directly to do with the St. Clair track rehabilitation project.
A study taken late in 2011, comparing traffic and ridership levels along the route, suggested that the final outcome of the St. Clair project should be hailed as a success, rather than the disaster its critics had claimed. The average daily ridership on the line had increased from 28,500 in 2005 (before construction started) to 32,400 in 2011. The average morning rush hour round trip was eight minutes shorter in 2011 than 2005. On Saturday mornings, the average round trip had been shortened by fourteen minutes. Thanks in part to the increase in ridership, the TTC had actually increased frequencies along the line by anywhere from 7% to 45%. On average, the St. Clair streetcar is scheduled to operate at frequencies of 2 minutes, 55 seconds. For most of the route, vehicular congestion had also decreased, by as much as 40% in certain areas at certain times of the day, and accidents were down.
That said, much did go wrong with the St. Clair project, only some of which can be explained by the unexpected injunction that halted construction at the start. The project was over budget and several months overdue, and business suffered along the route. Multiple city departments, including Toronto Hydro, the city roads department and the TTC itself were called upon to work together on this project, and didn’t. As a result, portions of St. Clair Avenue were ripped up multiple times as different work crews proceeded at their own pace on their own portions of the project. Then there were the embarrassing construction mistakes which occurred that furthered delays, including misplaced and misspelled shelter signs.
In addition, the one block stretch between Keele and Old Weston Road is the easiest by critics to cite as evidence of the “St. Clair Disaster”. This stretch, proceeding under a rail underpass that was never widened, reduces St. Clair Avenue to single lane traffic. The lack of adequate turning lanes, confusing lane structure, and the lengthy closure of nearby Junction Road (due to the ongoing West Toronto Diamond grade separation project undertaken by Metrolinx; Junction Road could provide an alternative route between Keele and Old Weston Road without having to use St. Clair) have combined to snarl traffic on this portion of the route. Southbound buses on the 41 KEELE route remain on diversion because a south-to-west turn from Old Weston Road onto St. Clair is impossible due to tight clearances on the far-side westbound streetcar stop.
Going back further, the TTC’s approach to public consultation left much to be desired and, if improved, could have dramatically reduced public antipathy toward the project from the start, limiting the later controversy.
As the St. Clair project wound down, Transit advocate Steve Munro summarized his criticism of the TTC’s approach to the project as follows:
“The St. Clair project suffers from a lack of real advocacy for LRT at the TTC. In the early days of the project, they were coming to the railfans for photos and examples of implementations elsewhere, which shows how out of touch the organization was. Moreover, the Commissioners talk a good line, but after a brief flurry of LRT fever (after a European trip by Joe and Howard [Joe Mihevc and Howard Moscoe, member and chair of the TTC Commission at the time —jb]), the advocacy disappeared under budgetary considerations. The Transit City plan will suffer if the TTC does not take a stronger pro-transit stance and start a serious campaign to show people what is possible. The fans should not have to do this. We should not have to wait for years of EAs to have this material available.
“There are changes to the EA process in the wind that will simplify things, but that’s still two years away, and we need to get some studies underway now. The Mayor (Miller) has talked about a pre-EA involvement stage, and the TTC really needs to buy into this rather than showing up with completed, non-negotiable proposals. There is probably going to be a need to change the Transit City map (and possibly the one in the official plan which is related to it). Once people start seriously looking at what an LRT network would be, they may find that the Official map is out of date and needs revision. We should not be trapped into lines on an old map the way we are with subway proposals.”
Adding insult to injury, while the return of streetcars on St. Clair was generally welcomed, there were some who noted that the streetcars had their problems. While shuttle buses plied the route, many low-floor models were used, and some riders got used to the ease with which they could bring strollers and shopping carts aboard. This problem won’t be addressed until low-floor streetcars arrive in Toronto and are placed in operation on St. Clair, later this decade.
The Lessons of St. Clair
A full study of the St. Clair project was requested back in 2009, but the report never came. It was cut as a budget measure. In March 2012, as city council debated with the mayor Rob Ford over the merits of LRTs vs subways, a new request was made for such a study; this has not been completed at the time of this writing.
The TTC did receive, in January 2012, a “lessons learned” report, which examined in general some of the problems the St. Clair project encountered, and how such lessons could be applied to Transit City. A review of this report is instructive. However, for the residents and businesses of St. Clair, the pain of the St. Clair reconstruction project is plain, as are the benefits of the right-of-way now that work is finally completed. The lack of coordination between the various utilities involved in the St. Clair project was cited as a major cause of the construction chaos and in the face of this the City of Toronto has pledged to restore some semblance of coordination between various departments’ construction projects. A co-ordinating committee of public utilities used to exist within the City of Toronto until 1997, but it was cut following amalgamation as a budget measure, and some now admit this was a case of being penny-wise and pound-foolish.
The “lessons learned” report also found that the TTC’s approach of splitting the project into a series of smaller contracts may have worked against them. Rather than having one capable overriding authority for the project, smaller contractors were unable to readily react to changes in the schedule, and so as delays cascaded through the project’s timeline, portions of the line would sit for extended periods with no apparent work taking place.
To try and ameliorate the strain that the St. Clair project placed on local businesses while construction was taking place, councillor Joe Mihevc convinced the TTC to adopt a special timed-transfer arrangement on St. Clair, allowing passengers to stop over, shop, and re-board streetcars (and shuttle buses, when they were operating) without paying an additional fare. This special fare arrangement remains in place, although is rarely publicized by the TTC, possibly for fear that the public could pressure the commission to extend this arrangement across the network.
The controversy around the St. Clair reconstruction project allowed it to become a political football to further various political agendas. The TTC could have done much to mute this controversy through a more conciliatory approach in its public consultation. The rush to get the line built, while understandable in some levels, riled many local residents, who now not only had legitimate concerns with aspects of the project, but felt that the TTC was presenting matters as a fait accompli.
Those who have used the reconstruction project as a political football, however, have made the problem worse through heated rhetoric. Among advocates of the project, comparisons between this line and a possible future LRT network backfired. The reconstructed St. Clair line was not an LRT project, but an augmented streetcar line. The stops along the route were far more frequent than would be seen even on the proposed Transit City LRT routes (and two more were added — at Wychwood and Northcliffe — at the insistence of local councillors), and service was correspondingly slower. That said, the use of the term “St. Clair Disaster” similarly backfired on the critics of the line, as the line’s defenders were able to gather video evidence which countered this hyperbolic statement.
For most in the neighbourhood, the St. Clair right-of-way is a fact of life, and they would rather not dwell on the past. When Councillor Cesar Palacio called a public meeting on the traffic-snarled stretch of St. Clair between Keele and Old Weston Road, his emphasis was on improving what was there, rather than dredging up old arguments. Former supporters and opponents of the line participated in the meetings for the same reason, explicitly hoping to leave past arguments behind.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Now that St. Clair is back up and running, Toronto’s public transit focus has shifted elsewhere in the city. City Council and the Mayor’s office engaged in a fierce debate whether the city should use LRTs or subways for provincially funded transit expansion in the suburbs. Work is also continuing on the extension of the Spadina subway north and west from Downsview to York University and the City of Vaughan. In addition to these funded projects, there are questions on how best to serve the newly developing neighbourhoods of the Port Lands — streetcars operating on private rights-of-way are planned for this area, but funding has not been secured.
Studies have been conducted on whether or not to extend the St. Clair streetcar west from its current terminus at Gunns Loop (just west of Keele) to Runnymede Avenue, Jane Street or Scarlett Road. With the former slaughterhouse lands redeveloping into a diverse and high-density neighbourhood, traffic demands are increasing, and the area could benefit from a simplified transit service that connects the western end of St. Clair Avenue with Yonge Street. The right-of-way has been protected, but funds have not been made available. With the controversies surrounding the St. Clair reconstruction project fresh on many minds, it remains to be seen if any political will exists to build this extension in the near term. This extension could well be the final casualty of the St. Clair controversy.
As the City of Toronto, the Toronto Transit Commission and Metrolinx begins work on numerous projects across Toronto, they would do well to examine closely the lessons of the Battle of St. Clair. Regardless of whether a new project is a subway or an LRT, the citizens of Toronto face considerable disruption that could be exacerbated if the various players fail to coordinate their schedules, and instead work at cross-purposes. Regardless of one’s political agenda, the citizens of Toronto deserve the best service out of the agencies that serve them. And the first step to providing that service is to assess the lessons with an open mind.
- Save Our St. Clair - anti right-of-way website.
- St. Clair Right-of-way initiative for Public Transit (SCRIPT) - pro right-of-way website.
- TTC’s “Lessons Learned” Report
- Hood, J. William. The Toronto Civic Railways: An Illustrated History. Toronto, Ont.: Upper Canada Railway Society, 1986. Print.
- Lorinc, John. “Much Maligned St. Clair Line Not so Bad after All.” The Globe and Mail [Toronto] 8 Feb. 2012. Print.