After decades of talk and planning, the Downtown Relief Line is scarcely closer to being built. The next council term must focus on addressing the current plan’s flaws and do whatever it takes to accelerate Toronto’s most important transit project.
Of all the topics I have spent time learning about during this campaign, the history of Toronto’s transit planning has been by far the most bewildering. Despite the occassional moments of vision and clarity, the story of Toronto’s transit system is one often plagued by a surprising lack of ambition and absence political will.*
The oft-discussed Downtown Relief Line (DRL) is the poster child for this phenomenon. Conceived in its earliest form near the turn of the 20th century, more than a hundred years later this essential addition to Toronto’s transportation infrastructure is now only a few environmental and engineering reports closer to completion.
The work done to date is nothing to sneeze at (see below for the proposed route), but with no shovels in the ground and no funding secured, it is hard to have much confidence in the future of the project. This comes despite the existential need for the DRL in order to:
- Absorb current capacity from Line 1 which, in serving more than 28,000 passengers at peak times, is more than 10% overcapacity
- Relieve dangerous overcrowding of passengers at interchanges, particularly Yonge-Bloor station
- Support the future growth in demand on Toronto’s rapid transit both from increasing density along the corridor and northern expansion of the line
For many of the communities within downtown east, there is a particular significance to the proposed line, either for increasing the revitalization potential for King / Queen Street East or support for the growth in the Canary District (and eventually the East Harbour commercial precinct as well).
But despite these benefits, there are still numerous concerns with the plan — many of which I share from having reviewed the recently released Environmental Project Report (EPR) — which need to be addressed in the next stages of planning.
Take the Sherborne Station as an example (below). The retail space along the north side of Queen already faces many challenges, which will only be exacerbated by blockage during construction. Furthermore, the area has a high concentration of individuals experiencing homelessness and mental health or addiction issues that will be displaced under the proposal — the City needs a plan that ensure their safety and access to social services.
The Sumach Station has a different set of concerns — particularly as it concerns Sackville Playground. The park is currently undergoing a significant renovation that may be significantly impacted (or partially undone) by the construction. The proposed station location also obstructs the view of the center of the park — a concern for safety and visibility — whereas placement closer to the Adelaide Overpass at the eastern edge may be more appropriate. The area also has one of the few pedestrian cross-walks available along this stretch of King Street, which should be moved west (e.g., Trinity Street) rather than eliminated during construction.
While these issues can likely be alleviated through careful planning, others are going to require more significant action from the City.
A prime example is the impact for Toronto’s sewer infrastructure. Given all of the issues Toronto has faced with flooding in recent weeks, the project’s need to by-pass or relocate large portions should be a potential cause for concern. It may also, however, represent an opportunity to begin to upgrade our infrastructure — particularly if the next City Council follows-through on the city staff plan to introduce new ways of funding such improvements.
Despite some of these challenges, the need for the project to move forward is clear. But while few will dispute its importance, there is less agreement on how to get the process moving beyond the its current (painfully) slow pace. As it stands, shovels aren’t expected to be in the ground for years, with completion not expected until 2031— an optimistic timeline given the current project status, but still grossly inadequate given the city’s growth trajectory.
While I will defer to experts like mayoral candidate and formal chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat for the authoratitive take on how accelerate the process — which she began to outline in her transit announcement this week — several ideas come to mind, even from just a planning perspective:
- Create a dedicated planning team to focus solely on the project, rather than dividing time across multiple transit initiatives
- Begin detailed planning on the Relief Line North, which is equally important for alleviating capacity issues**
- Design stations to be part of mixed use developments, rather than standalone infrastructure, as a way of acquiring the needed funding***
Once construction begins, there are other options to accelerate development and avoid the more than a decade-long process that is expected. For example, as noted in the EPR, acquiring the equipment needed to dig west and north simultaneously from the starting point in the Don Valley — rather than pursuing them sequentially — would greatly reduce construction time. While the additional cost to do so would certainly be material, the cracks forming in our current transit system suggest it is an investment well-worth making.
*In the 1980s there was a significant push to consider a Downtown Relief Line as part of the “Network 2011” study. As described in the EPR, however, the sadly plan stalled for a variety of reasons:
“Following the Downtown Rapid Transit study, the Network 2011 study, conducted int he same year, concluded that the Downtown Rapid Transit line could be deferred to the second priority after the Sheppard Subway (line 4) since “the expected economic short-term growth in ridership in the downtown core could be handled by interim measures in the mid-1990s”. When the recession of the early 1990s followed, the peak point demand of 30,000 hourly riders dropped to a low of 20,000 per hour in 1996–97.
**The City’s initial business case for the relief line described how the Relief Line North’s in the following terms:
When the Relief Line is extended further north in the future, [assuming extension of the Relief Line north to Sheppard based on a notional alignment that connects Pape Station to Don Mills Station], the relief it can provide to Line 1 increases substantially.
The below tables from that business case also show the impact of extending the relief line further north — nearly doubling the net reduction in ridership on Line 1 relative to the base in either Option 2 or 3 (which were alternative routes of the line that were previously under consideration):
***The EPR states the intent for the majority of stations along the preferred alignment to be standalone structures. In some communities where additional density and mixed-use development is inappropriate, this concept makes sense (e.g., stretches running north along Pape). In others, this is a wasteful use of land and potential missed opportunity to garner additional funding (e.g., by having developers fund the station’s development within their property).