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Toronto's Transit City LRT Plan

Text By James Bow


A promotional billboard set up by the City soon after the launch of Transit City.

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Transit City was the name given to the City of Toronto and the Toronto Transit Commission’s joint initiative to create a network of higher-order public transit across the city. Announced with fanfare on March 16, 2007, the plan proposed that seven light rail lines be built, six along major thoroughfares running through Toronto’s inner suburbs, and one west from Union Station, west along the Waterfront to the Mississauga border. The total network would have added 120 kilometres of tracks across the city, all protected from competing automobile traffic.

The plan was incorporated into the Province of Ontario’s MoveOntario 2020 proposal, with portions approved and funded, with some construction started in 2009. However, on December 1, 2010, newly-elected mayor Rob Ford announced the cancellation of the plan in favour of his proposal to extend the Sheppard subway. Subsequent negotiations between the mayors’ office and Metrolinx have saved portions of this plan, including the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT, while others (such as the Finch West LRT) have been indefinitely deferred.

Building a New Rapid Transit Network

The Transit City proposal was a significant departure from Toronto’s earlier transit expansion plans. As almost a quarter century had passed since Metropolitan Toronto’s ambitious Network 2011 subway expansion plan with little to show for it, civic politicians were interested in looking at ways to improve Toronto’s transportation network in ways that cost less than new subway construction, and could be implemented more quickly.

The proposal received initial backing from the province of Ontario in July 2007 when the government of Dalton McGuinty announced MoveOntario 2020, which promised $12 billion to launch up to 52 separate transit expansion projects throughout the Greater Toronto Area. From that point on, the seven lines went through an expedited public consultation process. In 2010, four lines (Eglinton, Sheppard, Finch and the Scarborough RT) were submitted to new regional transportation agency Metrolinx, while planning consultation continued for three of the proposed LRT lines (Don Mills, Jane and Waterfront West).

On April 1, 2009, Toronto Mayor David Miller and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty announced $7.2 billion in provincial funding to begin construction on the Eglinton-Crosstown and Finch West LRTs, along with funds to convert the Scarborough RT to integrate it into the new LRT network. Funding for the Sheppard East LRT followed on May 15, 2009, with the federal government covering a third of the cost. Design work and public consultation continued on all three lines following the announcements, but construction on the Sheppard East line started late in 2009. Work on the Eglinton-Crosstown and the Finch West lines are expected to occur later in 2010. The Sheppard East LRT is expected to open to the public 2013, with the other two approved lines opening in stages between 2015 and 2020.


A map of the proposed Transit City lines, released soon after the March 2007 announcement.

The Initial Proposal

In total, seven LRT lines were proposed:

  • Don Mills: A 17.6 kilometre line running from Don Mills and Steeles, south on Don Mills, west on Overlea and south on Pape Avenue to Pape station on the Bloor-Danforth subway line. Initially expected to cost $675 million.
  • Eglinton-Crosstown: the centrepiece of the network, being the longest line, the most expensive, and the one with the highest traffic. Extending from Kennedy station west along Eglinton Avenue to Pearson International Airport, the line was to be over 33 km long, with a lengthy tunnel beneath Eglinton from at least Keele Street in the west to Laird Drive in the east. Initially budgeted at $2.2 billion, as of March 2010, the cost has increased to $4.6 billion. Further modifications to put the line underground between Brentcliffe and Kennedy and combining the line with a revamped Scarborough LRT have produced a Jane-to-McCowan route costing over $8 billion.
  • Etobicoke-Finch West: a 23.4 kilometre line from Finch station operating west along Finch to past Highway 27, operating on the surface for most of the route, saving for interchanges with the subway at Finch station at Yonge Street and the proposed Finch West station at Keele Street. As of March 2010, expected to cost $1.2 billion.
  • Jane: A 16.5 kilometre line replacing the busy 35 JANE bus route, operating from the proposed Steeles West station on the Spadina-York University subway extension, south on Jane Street to the Bloor-Danforth subway. Initially expected to cost around $600 million, the line would connect to an extension of the St. Clair streetcar.
  • Scarborough-Malvern: A 13 kilometre line operating from Kennedy station, connecting with the subway and the Eglinton-Crosstown route, running east on Eglinton Avenue and Kingston Road and north on Morningside Drive to Sheppard Avenue East.
  • Sheppard East: A 13.6 kilometre line operating east from Don Mills station on the Sheppard subway to Meadowvale Avenue.
  • Waterfront West: An 11 kilometre line operating from Union Station to Lake Shore Boulevard at the Mississauga border, using rebuilt tracks along Lake Shore Drive and the Queensway, and new tracks from Queen and Roncesvalles to the end of the 509 Harbourfront streetcar at the Canadian National Exhibition.

When unveiling the Transit City proposal, TTC planners envisioned LRT vehicles operating on private rights-of-way along the centre of major thoroughfares, such as what exists on Spadina Avenue, or was under construction on St. Clair Avenue. The new LRT lines were to be built using the TTC’s unique track gauge of 4 feet, 10 7/8 inches. However, initial plans called for a number of differences from Toronto’s streetcar network. The LRT vehicles would be double-ended, eliminating the need for loops at various points of the lines, and requiring crossovers in order to change tracks, just as in the subway.

Moreover, tunnels were also envisioned along the portions of various routes where the thoroughfares were too narrow or congested to accommodate a centre reservation. The centrepiece of this proposal was the light rail subway planned to operate beneath Eglinton Avenue, in a tunnel extending at least from Keele Street in the old Town of York to Laird Drive in the old Borough of East York. Another tunnel was suggested beneath Pape Avenue for the Don Mills LRT, coupled with a long bridge across the Don river valley.

Metrolinx Makes its Contributions

With the province absolving the City of Toronto of its share of construction costs, and with the bulk of the province’s transportation initiatives being coordinated through the new regional transit agency Metrolinx, there were a number of changes and suggestions of changes made to the network. Although Transit City’s LRTs were designed more to facilitate local and medium-distance travel, supporting land use intensification alongside the various routes, Metrolinx wanted more support for longer distance travel, and initially suggested that the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT line be built in the context of trips from Scarborough to Pearson International Airport, possibly as an extension of the Scarborough RT, using Bombardier’s Mark II ALRT cars. This would have greatly increased the cost of construction. Gradually, however, Toronto’s vision prevailed, and Metrolinx agreed to convert the Scarborough RT to Transit City LRT technology instead.

Metrolinx stood firm on its call that Transit City’s LRT lines be built to standard gauge rather than the TTC’s streetcar gauge, however. Although this made it impossible to link Transit City’s LRT network with the TTC’s original streetcar network, and scrubbed all possibility of rolling in the purchase of LRT equipment with an order for 208 city streetcars made in 2009, Metrolinx envisioned savings by rolling in a Toronto LRT order with orders for cars to service new lines planned for Mississauga, Hamilton and Waterloo Region. TTC planners agreed to this change late in 2009. The Waterfront West LRT was unaffected by this change. Since it would operate alongside city streetcars on Lake Shore Boulevard and through Union Station, it would have to be built using the old TTC gauge, and operate using TTC city streetcar equipment.

Metrolinx’s funding for the route also brought about a substantial change in the relationship between the TTC and the province of Ontario in the construction of new transit infrastructure. With the new LRT lines wholly funded by the province (with occasional contributions by the federal government), Metrolinx decided that, when built, the lines would be owned by Metrolinx, even though they would be operated by the TTC and be fully integrated into the TTC’s network. Previously, even when the province contributed 75% of the cost of capital construction on the TTC, the new infrastructure was owned by the TTC but the province, perhaps feeling that since they were paying for the infrastructure, they should retain control over the asset, ended this old arrangement. This has contributed to suggestions that the provincial government might take over control and operation of the TTC from the City of Toronto.

The Transit City Network Evolves

Further study of the various Transit City lines forced other changes to the network. The proposed tunnel for the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT tunnel was extended west to Black Creek Drive and east to Brentcliffe Road. LRT tracks east of Brentcliffe might operate along the south side of Eglinton Avenue rather than on its centre, and the interchange between the Eglinton LRT and the Don Mills LRT could occur underground. Another tunnel was added around the proposed approach to Kennedy station, to make for a more convenient connection to the Bloor-Danforth subway.

On Sheppard East, planners considered digging a tunnel as one of five different proposals to address the connection between the Sheppard East LRT to the Sheppard subway at Don Mills. After first considering a connection between a terminal platform located on the surface in the centre of Sheppard Avenue, or possibly extending the Sheppard subway east to Consumers, planners decided it would be better to put the Sheppard East LRT into a tunnel around Consumers, digging beneath Highway 404 and entering Don Mills station below grade. The link might even occur on the southern subway track of Don Mills station, allowing passengers to cross the platform to board a waiting subway train.

Further study also brought the entire Jane LRT into question. Initially proposed thanks to the 35 JANE bus route’s high ridership, studies suggested that the thoroughfare south of Lawrence Avenue was too narrow to consider a private right-of-way in the centre of the street. A tunnel beneath Jane Street from Lawrence to Bloor was also considered too expensive for the ridership involved. This revelation may force the cancellation of this route, possibly in favour of a new route down Islington or Kipling Avenues. Another option might be to cut the Jane LRT short at Eglinton and to operate it as a branch of the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT.

The possibility that a lengthy and expensive tunnel might be required at the southern end of the Don Mills LRT beneath Pape Avenue, along with what many felt was its premature end of the line at Pape station (unloading its passengers onto an overcrowded subway network) played into renewed interest in the proposed Downtown Relief subway line. The proposed subway line, which would operate from Toronto’s downtown to the Danforth at either Pape or Donlands stations, could extend north along the Don Mills LRT’s proposed right-of-way, terminating at Don Mills and Eglinton at a major transit hub, connecting with the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT and a truncated Don Mills route coming in from the north.

Thanks to provincial interest in proceeding quickly with new transit construction under MoveOntario 2020 and Metrolinx, many of these changes occurred even as the lines went through the approvals process. As of March 2010, construction may begin on the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT later in the year, even as planners consider calls by residents of Mount Dennis to extend the LRT’s tunnel further west, to Jane Street.

Concerns and Responses

In 2009, the Sheppard East LRT faced opposition by a local residents group called Save our Sheppard, but while residents of Mount Dennis worried about the effect a surface LRT would have on Eglinton Avenue through their neighbourhood, they gave qualified supported the line as a whole, including the construction of a storage and maintenance facility on the old Kodak lands at Black Creek, for the jobs and transit improvements it would bring. In February 2010, however, planners rejected calls for the line to continue underground west of Black Creek drive. Also, another developer has its own plan for the Kodak lands, and has opposed the expropriation of the property for use as an LRT storage facility.

There continued to be debate on whether or how Transit City facilitates long-distance commuting, or if it should concentrate as initially designed, on short and medium-distance travel. In particular, Metrolinx’s concern over the lack of a northern crosstown route suggested that the Finch West and Sheppard East LRTs be connected, by extending the Finch LRT to Don Mills and running it south to Don Mills station. As of March 2010, the matter remains unresolved.

Early in 2010, there were also concerns whether Metrolinx would receive sufficient funding from the province to cover the costs of all of its priority transit projects. This came to the fore when the agency and the TTC disagreed over the construction schedule of the Finch West LRT. The TTC wanted to start work on some bridges en route later in 2010, while Metrolinx asked that the work be deferred to the 2011 budget year. As it turned out, this likely spelt the death of the project.

Cancellation and Retrenchment

The 2010 municipal election campaign to replace outgoing Toronto mayor David Miller saw a number of candidates criticize the Transit City LRT proposal and offer new networks of their own. Among them was councillor Rob Ford, who argued that Toronto would be better served by an extension of the Sheppard subway to the Scarborough Town Centre, and the replacement of the Scarborough RT by an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway. After winning 47% of the popular vote, well ahead of the second place candidate, Ford announced on his first day of office the cancellation of the Transit City plan.

Although he ended up getting most of what he wanted, cancelling the Transit City plan wasn’t as easy as a simple order from his office. The Sheppard East LRT was already under construction, with two-thirds of the cost being paid for by the provincial and federal governments. The Eglinton-Crosstown LRT was to be entirely paid for by the provincial government, which had committed over $8 billion towards the Transit City plan. The provincial government stated that no further funding would be provided, that the City of Toronto would be responsible for paying for contract cancellation costs, and that any funding for the city’s transit plans would have to come out of the remainder of the funds committed.

In the end, negotiations between the mayor’s office and Metrolinx resulted in the routing of all of Metrolinx’s funding into the Eglinton-Scarborough-Crosstown LRT, now running entirely underground from Jane Street to Kennedy station, and replacing the Scarborough RT out to McCowan. The Sheppard subway would be funded by private arrangements negotiated by the City alone, and all other Transit City projects were now indefinitely on hold. Reports indicated that the mayor’s office turned down a provincial offer for $2 billion towards his Sheppard subway project, on the condition that the Eglinton LRT be allowed to operate on the surface of Eglinton Avenue east of Brentcliffe Road.

Awaiting the Future

Despite the road bump of Rob Ford’s election to office, work continues on building the Eglinton LRT (now officially designated Eglinton-Scarborough-Crosstown). Tunnel boring machines have been purchased and should be in the ground by 2012.

The initial work started for the Sheppard East LRT continues, despite the cancellation of the LRT, as the project serves the dual purpose of removing a level crossing on the Stouffville GO train line. The need for higher-order transit on Finch Avenue west of Keele Street is still being considered at the time of this writing (June 26). With an LRT no longer feasible, a TTC report examined the feasibility of improved bus service, including dedicated bus lanes in the centre of the street.

So even as construction begins, the Transit City network continues to evolve. The city and the province have embarked on this plan with such enthusiasm, that they’ve started work on something that they aren’t entirely sure what it will look like when they’re finished. But with funds committed and shovels digging into the ground, after a quarter century of stagnant development, Transit City will be the focus of almost all new rapid transit construction in the City of Toronto for the next two decades.

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(Thanks to Steve Munro for his corrections to this web page)

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