The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) is like a popular restaurant – everyone wants to get in! We are now North America’s 7th largest metropolis, with a population of 7.2 million, expected to grow to 9 million by 2031. Over 80% of this growth has been directed by the Province to be in the 905 region, with York Region having the single largest population increase requirement.
With this rapid growth across the GTHA, there comes a responsibility for an effective transit system. The benefits of good transit include reducing the cost of congestion, improving economic competitiveness, improving quality of life for commuters and reducing harmful emissions which cause climate change and respiratory illness. Indeed, the GTHA is experiencing unprecedented rapid transit expansion, with construction underway or full funding in place for GO Regional Express Rail, Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE), and numerous Light Rail Transit (LRT) and Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) projects.
On March 14, the federal government confirmed its Budget 2017 commitment for additional funding for GTHA transit. As expected, this was matched by the Ontario Liberal Government. The newly elected Conservative government has promised $5 Billion for subway projects above and beyond that earlier commitment, but details were not yet given. The total promised funding, while the Liberals were in power was more than $ 11 billion for GTHA transit, with over $8 billion of this directed to Toronto. The money has yet to be allocated, but there is a huge list of priority unfunded projects on Metrolinx and municipal lists, including the Relief Line Subway, the Yonge Subway Extension, and other rapid transit projects in Toronto and 905.
Of these, perhaps the most controversial, at least in the media, is the Yonge Subway Extension (YSE), a 7.4 km, 5 station extension northward from Finch Station to the Richmond Hill Centre (RHC) at Highway 7 and Yonge, in York Region.
There is absolutely no doubt as to the need for this extension. A significant fraction of the mandated growth in York Region is slated for the Yonge corridor, including the Yonge/Steeles area and the Richmond Hill/Langstaff Urban Growth Centre. For example, as currently planned, this centre will have 48,000 people and 31,000 jobs. Modeling by Metrolinx shows that 2031 boardings at RHC and Langstaff stations will be 14,000 people in the peak AM hour, well above ridership thresholds for subways to be cost-effective, and well above the 7000 boardings expected per peak AM hour at Scarborough Centre station on the proposed SSE. To quote Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti: “The Yonge Subway Extension is the most justified rapid transit investment in recent history”.
York Region and Metrolinx are in the midst of completing construction of the VIVA BRT project along Highway 7 and Yonge St (north of RHC). The benefits of this large investment will only be fully realized once there is frequent subway service to Finch Station down Yonge Street, thus filling a major gap in the regional transit grid.
The controversy about the YSE is driven by capacity concerns. It is common knowledge that the Yonge Subway is at capacity today, particularly at Bloor-Yonge Station and south of Bloor Street. The overcrowding crisis at Bloor-Yonge on February 2 was a dramatic example. Although improvements such as Automatic Train Control will add capacity, it is expected that this will be consumed by extra demand from growth in the corridor south of Finch and from new passengers from new lines like Eglinton, Finch and Sheppard LRTs. Improvements to the GO system will off-load some demand, but the key GO Richmond Hill line is limited by heavy CN freight traffic north of its York Subdivision and by the unfavourable topography of the line in Toronto. It is therefore understandable that Toronto commuters worry about the extra riders resulting from the YSE.
The biggest part of the solution, both for Toronto and York commuters, is construction of the Relief Line subway. Modeling in 2015 showed a Relief Line from Pape Station to Queen Station to Osgoode Station would dramatically reduce congestion at Bloor-Yonge and south of Bloor, opening up capacity for the YSE.
An important milestone was reached in May, 2017 when the City of Toronto and York Region agreed to jointly pursue funding for both projects. Both governments and Metrolinx agreed that the RL and the YSE need to advance in an integrated way and both lines should open at the same time.
The capital cost for both projects is significant, with the RL estimated at $7.8 billion and the YSE at $4.2 billion. Technical work is underway on both projects. The environmental approvals for the YSE are in place, and the project team expects procurement-quality engineering to be completed by end 2019, allowing for startup in 2031. The environmental assessment and engineering for the Relief Line is somewhat behind this timeline and needs to be accelerated to maintain the integrated schedule.
There is also discussion that the RL may have to be extended north to connect with the Sheppard Subway at Don Mills Station, to relieve congestion on the Yonge subway north of Bloor. This would add billions to the cost. Preliminary modeling on this question is underway.
It is a significant step forward that Toronto, York and the province, are partnering on developing both the RL and YSE. The recent funding announcement should mean that significant funding is available to Toronto to increase the priority and advance the timeline for the RL. At the same time, all levels of government need to jointly commit to full funding on these two vital projects. We cannot afford another 4 years of deferrals!