Sheppard residents feel railroaded

Toronto Sun

TTC opts for streetcar line over subway

The Sheppard East light rail transit line is either going to be a costly, short-sighted mistake that wreaks of poor city planning, or the greatest thing since sliced bread.

It all depends who you talk to.

Three years ago, the city and the TTC scrapped tentative, back-burner plans to extend Sheppard’s five-stop “stubway” in lieu of a light rail transit line, a fancy covert name for a streetcar moving in its own right-of-way.

According to TTC officials, the streetcar line is going ahead because the population density — and therefore potential riders — along Sheppard Ave. don’t warrant a subway.

Where 15,000 to 20,000 riders an hour require a subway, the Sheppard East LRT is only expected to move 3,000 an hour (at peak times) by 2021.

SERVES NEEDS

Gary Webster, the TTC’s top bureaucrat, says the $950 million 14-km streetcar line — set to break ground this month and run from Don Mills subway station to Meadowvale Rd., near the Toronto Zoo — will serve the area’s transit needs for decades.

“We’ve looked at a lot of numbers, and you never want to build whatever you’re going to build and not be thinking long-term from a numbers point of view,” Webster said. “Way out there, you know, 30 years from now, the LRT plan that we’re proposing meets the needs.”

But critics of the streetcar line, including some of the very people it’s meant to move, were expecting a subway extension, which was derailed three years ago when Mayor David Miller unveiled his Transit City plan. The multi-billion-dollar transit blueprint calls for dedicated streetcar lines to criss-cross the city.

Citics argue the density would follow, as it did in North York when the Yonge subway line was extended to Sheppard and Finch Aves. in 1974.

“For 30 years, we’ve been waiting for a subway all that time,” said Patricia Sinclair, a Sheppard East resident and transit rider. “If the whole idea in this province is to intensify, then development intensifies along subway lines, it certainly doesn’t along streetcar lines.”

Sinclair and others have mobilized their opposition to the streetcar line recently, fearing that traffic congestion and air pollution will worsen on Sheppard — and local businesses and residents will suffer.

“People aren’t going to get out of their cars and jump on streetcars, and they (the TTC) know it, but they will get out of their vehicles and get onto a subway,” Sinclair said, adding she and others feel railroaded by the city and the TTC.

What’s worse, she insisted, is the area still won’t be served by rapid transit.

The streetcars, although operating in their own dedicated lanes, will have to stop at red lights (although signals will give priority to them), and if an intersection is blocked because of gridlock or an accident, the streetcar will sit still.

“People in Toronto, maybe even across Canada, we’re so complacent, we’re so apathetic,” she said. “We’re paying billions of dollars for a system that isn’t even giving us rapid public transit.”

Councillor Karen Stintz, an advocate of subway infrastructure and an avid public transit user, argued the city’s streetcar plan is “short-sighted,” saying Sheppard Ave. E., Eglinton and Scarborough-Malvern lines should be subways.

For Stintz, subway lines should be used to encourage development in areas where increased density is desirable, instead of waiting for development to first sprout from the ground — a practice she called “ridiculous.”

“Had we taken that approach on Yonge St., we wouldn’t be the city we are today,” she said. “From a long-term city-building perspective, (Sheppard) really should be a subway, as should the Eglinton and Scarborough lines.

“I think that we are taking a short-sighted approach to how we’re going to use this investment to benefit the city.”

But rather than cutting short a good idea, some have hinted the Sheppard “stubway” was a mistake in the first place and an LRT line along Sheppard corrects it.

“I won’t go into the history of it,” Webster said. “We’ve got what we got. Given where we are now, and where we’re going in the future with our LRT network, some good questions could be asked. Like if we knew in 1997 what we know today, would we have built the subway to Don Mills? Maybe not.”

Webster said extending the subway on Sheppard and hoping ridership grows would be a “waste of money,” illuminating another problem municipal politicians have when it comes to spending public funds.

Imagine the maelstrom if the TTC and the city extended the Sheppard subway line when their own figures and bureaucrats suggested it wasn’t necessary, spending upwards of four times the cost for a subway over an LRT?

“Would people rather have 200 kilometres of subway in the city? Sure, but I think most people realize that, practically, the way to go is LRT,” said Councillor Adam Giambrone, chairman of the TTC. “A number of years ago, there was discu ssion of a subway (extension on Sheppard). Evidently, there was not enough political support or financial support to make it a subway, probably because when people actually looked at it, they realized it wasn’t justified.”

According to the TTC’s own figures, 1 km of streetcar costs $40 million on average, whereas 1 km of subway (both figures including cars) costs around $200 million.

But Sinclair and other local residents don’t buy it.

With the groundbreaking looming, they are desperately trying to stop the LRT and to get a subway.

“If we have to, we will do the Tiananmen Square thing,” Sinclair said. “Now, we’re trying to meet with (federal Finance Minister Jim) Flaherty, and if necessary, we’ll put the request to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“These are pretty much the only two people that can stop this. That’s the way we feel.”

But Webster and Giambrone agreed a new streetcar line on Sheppard Ave. East doesn’t preclude a subway extension in the future if the density ever warrants it.

“Money solves everything, and you can replace the LRT,” Webster said. “If the demands are different than we foresee, and if at some point in, say, 2040 the numbers are in the order of 20,000 to 30,000 customers per hour, which is a subway capacity, then that’s the answer.

“We’d have to do that.”

Giambrone, who has become noticeably annoyed by questions about local opposition to the Sheppard East LRT, says the TTC has been able to stretch more than $7 billion in transit funding from the province to improve transit across the city.

FAST FACTS

Laying down the line

Facts on the Sheppard Ave. East LRT:

– Fall 2009 construction begins.

– $950 million to build (two-thirds provincial, one-third federal.)

– 9,500 jobs created.

– 14 km long (Don Mills subway station to Meadowvale Rd. near Toronto Zoo.)

– 30 stops proposed (spaced 440 metres apart on average.)

– 20 million riders a year by 2021 (3,000 an hour in one direction at peak times.)

– Completed by 2013.

BRYN.WEESE@SUNMEDIA.CA

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