Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

One year later we're still asking John Tory: What is SmartTrack anyway?

John Tory in 2014.
John Tory in 2014.

A full year after he was elected mayor, a whole lot of questions about Mayor John Tory’s biggest and most expensive campaign promise remain frustratingly unanswered.

We just don’t know much about SmartTrack.

The unanswered questions aren’t minor, either. This isn’t just me wondering about nerdy details. These are fundamental questions — existential ones.
Questions like, hey, what exactly is SmartTrack?

And also: If SmartTrack didn’t exist, would anything about Toronto’s current transit planning really change?

The questions have been weighing on my mind. The need for better transit infrastructure is Toronto’s most important issue. With a new federal government, there’s an opportunity to make some progress.

But doing that means the city needs to get its transit priorities right. That’s going to be hard to do when the mayor is so closely tied to such a vague transit plan.

To understand just how vague, consider this hypothetical. Imagine a world where Tory had never run for mayor. In this scenario, no one ever decided to take the word “Smart” and smoosh it together with the word “Track.”

The central idea behind SmartTrack — using electrified GO Transit corridors for more frequent service -— was in the works at the provincial level before Tory’s name hit the ballot.

Since then, Metrolinx, the provincial agency responsible for GTA transit, has been fleshing out their Regional Express Rail (RER) plan. As details emerge, it’s become increasingly unclear what SmartTrack can realistically add to it.

The plans are so similar that Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig recently warned staff at city hall that it would be “unaffordable and unworkable” for SmartTrack to be its own independent service.

So what exactly is Tory talking about when he talks about SmartTrack?

Slightly more frequent RER service? Cheaper fares? An expensive underground rail line on Eglinton West, where light rail has already been planned and studied? City branding rights?

Are any of those potential additions to the provincial strategy worth Toronto’s estimated $2.7-billion share of the project — part of a total $8-billion cost — contemplated by Tory?

Answers need to come quick. All the ink and oxygen expelled so far on Tory’s plan has taken away from defined projects like the East Bayfront LRT, the relief line subway and the extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT to Pearson Airport.

At city hall last week, Tory warned people not to be “Douglas or Debbie Downers” about SmartTrack. It was an odd sentiment, suggesting that the success of his transit plan might partially rest on people keeping a positive attitude.

I don’t buy it.

If Tory wants us to feel good about the plan he’s offering, tell us first why it needs to exist.

Matt Elliott lives and writes in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @GraphicMatt

This post was originally published at on 2015-10-26T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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