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Editorial: Time To Replace the Scarborough RT

TTC Commissioners have more than enough on their plate as they deal with streetcar fleet revitalization, the commissions state of good repair and possible subway extensions to York University and the Scarborough Town Centre via Sheppard, but that doesn’t prevent the Scarborough RT from emerging as yet another pressing issue.

While Commissioners considered whether to rebuild the TTC’s streetcar fleet or replace it with advanced LRT technology, a similar question has to be asked of the Scarborough RT. The line’s vehicles are due for replacement in 2015. The out-of-date orphan technology cannot be replaced without either paying Bombardier hundreds of millions to restart a production line it ended a decade ago, or spending $120 million to make the line capable of handling Bombardier’s sanctioned replacements.

The presence of 96 CLRVs and 52 ALRVs to be scrapped in the next fifteen years offers the TTC a cheap solution: rebuild these vehicles so they can operate on the Scarborough RT, coupled together in trains. It’s cheap and simple and enough stock exists for the TTC to expand service on the line.

But with the TTC facing such an expenditure, it may do the commission good to think bigger. Even if the TTC expanded service on the Scarborough RT using rebuilt CLRVs, the Scarborough RT would remain a mistake. It sounded like a good idea at the time: to build a trunk streetcar route between the subway and Scarborough’s city centre that could branch out and serve the burgeoning suburbs at a fraction of the cost of a new subway. Provincial interference scotched this proposal and produced an expensive mini-subway, a flimsy appendage to a trunk subway line. The SRT will never be expanded. It will not become the trunk route of a new streetcar network spreading across Scarborough. Therefore, it is and will remain a useless appendate to a subway line that should have been built as a subway extension in the first place.

I’m willing to bet that 95% of the riders on the Scarborough RT start or end their journeys elsewhere on the rapid transit network. These riders board overcrowded trains at the Scarborough Town Centre, pass three intermediate stops — two of which are among the least used in the system — and finally reach Kennedy, where they stop, descend three flights of stairs, and board waiting subway trains to take them the rest of the way on their journey.

The transfer between RT and subway alone adds at least five minutes to commuter travelling time that doesn’t need to exist. The next-to-useless stops at Ellesmere and Midland as well as the sharp turn the line takes between them, probably adds another five minutes. Ten minutes of extra travel time each way each day adds up in a commuter’s life; it would greatly enhance the public transit experience of the average Scarborough resident if this wasted time was eliminated.

As the Scarborough RT comes up for renewal, the TTC should consider scrapping it, replacing it with an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway line from Kennedy to Scarborough Centre.

Logistically, replacing the SRT with a subway extension is difficult. The subway tracks at Kennedy are aligned east-west, and to emerge on the RT right-of-way, they would have to take a wide turn beneath Lord Roberts’ Drive. Then there is the sharp turn between Ellesmere and Midland, and the question of getting to the Scarborough Town Centre using an elevated track designed for smaller, lighter equipment. Also, following the SRT’s route with a subway means closing the SRT for at least four years, further hampering public transit in Scarborough.

It would be better if the subway was simply tunneled northeast, approaching the Scarborough Town Centre from the south and terminating beneath the mall and municipal complex. There would be one intermediate stop beneath the Lawrence/Brimley intersection (for passengers currently using the Lawrence East stop). Passengers on Ellesmere Road would use the Scarborough Centre stop, as would passengers at McCowan. Passengers currently using Ellesmere and Midland would be inconvenienced, but this would be more than made up for by the millions of passengers who would have a much shorter commute.

Remember the TTC estimates that it loses six million passengers per year because there aren’t enough SRT vehicles to carry them. How many more passengers would emerge from their cars if there was not only capacity enough for them, but their subway commutes were now ten minutes shorter? Not only this, but this approach allows the SRT to operate while construction proceeds, and the new subway line is aimed north, instead of east. When the Sheppard subway comes to the Scarborough Town Centre, it will be looking east. This way, not only is the prospect of further extensions into east Scarborough possible, but so is an extension into Markham.

Extending the Bloor-Danforth subway to the Scarborough Town Centre would be expensive, at least $650 million, and it seems counter-intuitive to spend this money to replace a piece of infrastructure that has already cost over $200 million in tax dollars. But the cost of maintaining the SRT beyond 2015 is going to be at least $100 million no matter what we do. It would be worth it for this city to spend the extra money and really improve public transit in Toronto’s eastern suburb. If done, it would finally get the public transit picture right in Scarborough after thirty years of trying.

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