Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Putting "Nice to Have" Before Necessities

The only time a city will not need anything is after it's been laid to waste and ruin; and even then, it could probably use a good team of archaeologists. Since I hope that Toronto has a long, long time yet before it goes the way of Pompeii, the most important thing that the city government needs to focus on in the immediate future are the necessities - ensuring that Toronto still has the basic equipment necessary to function effectively.

I'd really like to build my campaign for Mayor on a foundation of good works for the future - increased investments in parklands and city beautification, cultural programs, environmental initiatives, and that sort - and although the terrible economy doesn't make those things impossible, it certainly makes them a lot more difficult to accomplish. In good times like the 1990s, they would have been simple. What we need to have is simpler - smoother roads, intact sewer pipes, cleaner TTC stations. What Toronto needs in 2010 and beyond is a municipal government that is willing to prioritize, or at least build its projects in a manner that puts necessities first.

I think that Transit City is an example of this - of the Toronto government putting things that are nice to have over things we need to have. Now, anyone who has read this weblog for even a little bit should know that I am one of those guys who likes streetcars. On the face of it, Transit City - eight proposed light rail corridors throughout the city of Toronto - is a good idea for the future. What I don't agree with is the manner in which it's being implemented.

Construction on Transit City officially began on December 21, 2009, with the commencement of work at Agincourt GO Station to accommodate what will eventually become the Sheppard East LRT line. My issue is - what is with this city's inordinate love of Sheppard Avenue East? Not only does it have a five-station subway that would probably lose only a fraction of its ridership if it was a two-station shuttle between Sheppard-Yonge and Don Mills, now it's going to continue on as a surface-running LRT that, incidentally, effectively prohibits any eastward extension of the subway? Is Sheppard East the fulcrum on which Toronto pivots?

I'm not saying that the Sheppard East LRT shouldn't be built, just that it shouldn't be the first to be built. I've been paying attention to transit matters long enough to know that nothing is ever assured until the trains are actually rolling on it. Take the Eglinton West subway - proposed by the Network 2011 plan in 1985, construction actually started on this line in 1994, only to be cancelled a year later by the newly-elected Progressive Conservatives under Mike Harris. Toronto is no stranger to solid things evaporating underfoot.

In my opinion, projects like this should be built in such a way that an unexpected midway cancellation would leave the completed parts as functional and worthwhile additions to the transit network of their own accord. Should some change in the political winds lead to the midway cancellation of Transit City, and leave the Sheppard East LRT as the only one of the eight lines to come to fruition, will Torontonians really think that money and effort had been well-spent? I don't think so.

The way I see it, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT should have been built first - it's the core of the proposed Transit City network, and a second east-west rail corridor would do wonders for transit in this city. I just worry that the winds will shift, and we'll be left with something that's just an outlier to the system, rather than something that builds the iterative strength of Toronto's transit network.

What we really need, though, is the Downtown Relief Line - taking pressure off the overstressed transfer point at Bloor-Yonge station and extending higher-order transit access to more areas of the city. What it may need is another name.

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