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Welcome back, Transit City – let's not screw this up again

After a months-long transit debate – kicked off way back when Mayor Rob Ford declared the war on the car over and on-street rail dead – Toronto finds itself right back back where it started.

It's hard not to feel like this was a big waste of time.

After all, nothing's different. The light rail plan approved by the Metrolinx board yesterday is identical to the light rail plan they approved in 2009. It's Transit City, back from the dead.

The only changes: time and money. Rob Ford's unilateral and unauthorized cancellation of the Transit City project delayed new rapid transit for the people of Scarborough and North York by four years. Previously, residents along the Sheppard corridor were set to ride the new LRT in 2014. Now, thanks to our mayor, it'll be 2018.

The delay is particularly bad news for Scarborough commuters, as under the previous timeline the Sheppard line would have been in operation prior to the shutdown of the Scarborough RT. Under the new scheme, Scarborough residents will be left with nothing but buses for several years while the LRT is under construction.

As for the money, Metrolinx notes that the return to Transit City eliminates many of the cancellation and delay costs the city was going to take on. But there's still a bill coming, which could be as high as $10 million. Sure, that's small change in comparison to the $65 million staff were anticipating earlier this year, but still a significant cost, dwarfing the relative pennies this administration has saved with their feel-good belt-tightening policies.

Ten million dollars and four years wasted. Inspiring leadership.

This can't happen again. Transit is way too important to the future health of our city to be kicked around like a political football. Going forward, Metrolinx, the TTC, council and the province need to work together to avoid any more costly delays to these light rail projects.

A few suggestions to keep things on track:

1) Figure out Metrolinx's role – once and for all

Is Metrolinx a provincial agency tasked with setting long-term direction on transit or are they nothing more than a collection of bureaucrats who will jump to change plans whenever a new politician points in their direction?

If it's the latter, then they might as well just pack up their offices and go home.

As much as they protest and point to badly-worded poll questions, it's unclear that Rob Ford will uncover some giant-size groundswell of political support for subways in 2014. Those that claim Ford won the 2010 municipal election because of his support for subways are buying into a political myth. Ford won due to weak opposition, an appetite for budget-slashing and a tremendous anti-union backlash. Transit was never at the forefront of his platform.

Could 2014 be different? Maybe, but I doubt it. Ford's transit strategy boils down to repeating the word 'subways' over and over again. He refuses to actually come up with workable funding plans. He'll have already tried and failed to deliver subways once before. Why would voters give him another shot?

3) Ensure the trains run on time

Here's the nightmare scenario for these new light rail lines:

It's the grand opening in 2018: shiny new Light Rail Vehicles load up with passengers at Don Mills station and take the tunnel to street level. And then immediately get stuck at a red light. On the other side of the tracks, two LRV trains cruise by, bunched together for no apparent reason. The one following decides to short-turn a few kilometres east of Don Mills Station, dumping its riders on the curb. They then wait for forty minutes for a westbound vehicle while watching packs of mostly-empty bunched-together LRVs roll past the stop going eastbound.

LRT proponents – including me – spent a lot of time during the transit debate shouting down those who claimed the proposed light rail lines were just fancy streetcars. But the dirty little secret is that there certainly are some similarities between the two modes, particularly when it comes to providing good service.

The TTC's daily track record with streetcar service should make us nervous about their ability to effectively operate these new LRT lines.

In preparation for our new light rail future, it's time to get tough and focus on improving service and management practices across the TTC. The ridiculous metric TTC supervisors use for on-time service has to go. A streetcar that is supposed to arrive every three minutes is not “on time” if it's three minutes late. Similarly, it's not okay when two drivers leave the service yard at the same time and keep their vehicles nose-to-tail for the entire route. Space things out.

And for godsakes: give the TTC employee standing on the street – who is supposed to be ensuring evenly-spaced service – the same technology you and I have with our smartphones. I can easily look at a GPS map locating all TTC vehicles, but the poor guy at the corner is stuck holding a clipboard and pen. You have the technology – now use it.

And while we're speaking about technology: how about transit signal priority that actually works?

It's in Metrolinx and the TTC's best interest to really showcase the full potential of LRT in Toronto when these lines start to open. The potential for light rail across the province is huge. As it stands, public acceptance is one of the biggest barriers to further widespread construction.

LRT isn't likely to get many second chances in this province if quality service isn't on track from day one.

This post was originally published at on 2012-04-26T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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