Monday, May 24, 2010

An Antidote to Anti-Light Rail Venom

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post that dealt in part with the bad rap that light rail unjustly has in Toronto. One comment I got on Twitter, in response to the question of why it seems conservatives exalt subways over light rail, was that "LRT only looks cheaper - [it] destroys businesses over short and long term, [and] destroys neighborhoods with grade separation." This is hardly a unique perspective; back in March, the National Post reported on a coalition of merchants along St. Clair Avenue West suing the City of Toronto for $100-million for gross negligence, public abuse of authority, and so on.

The true problem is that even though this is that, rather unfairly, the overruns and delays surrounding the St. Clair West right-of-way have become closely associated with the entire idea of light rail in the minds of many Torontonians, particularly those who weren't that closely acquainted with it before. What I take issue with is the casual assumption that this is the way it always has to be - that it's impossible to build new streetcar or light rail lines without causing street chaos for years on end. Fortunately, we don't even have to leave Toronto to find a counter-example.

South of Front, north of Bremner, this doesn't look like a destroyed neighborhood to me.

Spadina Avenue has a long history of streetcar service, going back to the late nineteenth century, but in two distinct ages. In 1948, the original Spadina streetcar gave way to the Shuffle Demons' beloved Spadina bus, and in 1966 all track on Spadina except that between King and College was ripped up. That was the situation until the 1990s, when work began on a reactivation of the Spadina streetcar and its extension south to Harbourfront. Spadina merchants don't seem to have welcomed it with open arms at the time - Transit Toronto reports that busineses "were concerned over the loss of parking" and believed that the right-of-way - itself a rather simpler and more unobtrusive design that would be built on St. Clair West two decades later - would "act as a 'Berlin Wall' down the middle of the street."

If you've been to Spadina recently, it's clear that the worst fears of merchants along it did not come to pass. Spadina remains heavily travelled by pedestrians, motorists, and streetcars, and thirteen years after the completion of the right-of-way the streetscape seems to be chugging along. Similarly, by 2023 I would hope that opinions will have cooled regarding the right-of-way construction on St. Clair West.

What it comes down to is that construction overruns like this are not an intrinsic property of on-surface urban rail construction. It's a problem that has many generators, from a laundry list of inefficient contractors to poor coordination to a lack of central planning and the eight-month judicial freeze slapped on the project at the behest of Save Our St. Clair. We can't let one poor flavor poison the debate forever.

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