Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Build waterfront transit now – or pay later

It's starting to look like waterfront development in Toronto might be heading off the rails.

Though Waterfront Toronto set out to build “transit-first” communities on the city's lakefront, rapid transit plans have taken a backseat lately as the agency works through a seemingly doomed process to explore accelerated options for developing the port lands. Though there were once grandiose designs on light rail to Cherry Beach and across Commissioners Street, transit infrastructure only merited a few vague references in a presentation delivered last week.

It's a similar story on Queen's Quay East. Despite luring big-ticket developers into the neighbourhood with promises of a right-of-way streetcar line running from Union Station, that project is close to stalled. Waterfront Toronto says they don't have the $300 million needed to build the line and all three government partners – including our City Council – are conspicuously quiet.

Meanwhile, 3,000 students and employees at the new waterfront campus of George Brown College and thousands more would-be tenants in future residential and commercial spaces could be stuck with little more than an extension of the Bay Street bus route. How's that for a world-class waterfront?

It's not all bleak. We are getting a token right-of-way streetcar line in the West Don Lands, just north of the port lands. After a prolonged will-they-or-won't-they storyline, the TTC finally started welding rails for an extension of the King streetcar down Cherry Street to Lake Shore earlier this month. Seriously – don't tell Rob Ford.

All told, that plan calls for less than a kilometre of track – with plans for regular service still unclear. While the news is welcome, heralding such a puny extension only highlights the sorry state of transit planning on the waterfront. This is the best we can do?

Delaying the rest of the once-planned rapid transit infrastructure will only cause us headaches later. And they'll be expensive headaches. Right now, most of the land Waterfront Toronto is dealing with is barren and empty. Construction workers can tear up streets with impunity, without having to worry much about existing infrastructure or utility work – or many affected residents or businesses. Laying track on the eastern waterfront and into the port lands will never again be this cheap.

And waterfront transit is cheap – relatively. Compared to the billions of dollars Queen's Park is spending to build needed light rail lines in North York, Etobicoke and Scarborough, the infrastructure needed to kickstart transit on the waterfront looks like a bargain. But waiting until after redevelopment happens to really consider the transit question means we'll end up paying far more for the exact same result.

Worse, dilly-dallying on waterfront transit actually threatens the viability of the redevelopment process. Rumour has it that the take-up for planned commercial space in to-be-developed land on Queen's Quay East has been slower than expected. That's no surprise – without solid transit connections, it's hard to see the appeal of a new waterfront address for businesses.

A nice view of the lake doesn't make up for waterfront neighbourhoods once again cut off from the rest of the city.

This post was originally published at on 2012-05-30T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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