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E-BLAST: RapidTO: Not as Rapid as Riders Hoped

It's been a while since I shared a comprehensive transit update in this column. With an important report adopted at Executive Committee earlier this week and conversations swirling about a few of our soon-to-be rapid transit lines, this felt like the perfect week to do it.



While the majority of our transit planning efforts here in Toronto are focused on supporting Provincial projects for higher-order transit, like subways and LRTs (Light-Rail Transit on Eglinton and Finch West), bus and streetcar routes are the true backbone of our city. These surface routes are essential to getting riders to the subway, and are especially important here in the inner suburbs. Currently, 70% of all TTC journeys include a bus or streetcar trip. That's why so many transit riders are frustrated that RapidTO, the City's plan to improve bus and streetcar routes, is turning out to be not quite rapid enough. 


Improving the reliability of bus transit in particular supports the City's priority of keeping Toronto moving. In our part of the city, a reliable bus network is what gets us to work, school, shopping, sports and cultural events, and to each other, allowing us to leave the car at home when possible. It's also an essential part of several other important goals to improve the wellbeing of Torontonians. Improving transit services in the inner suburbs is a key recommendation of the City's Poverty Reduction Strategy. It is also critical to meeting our TransformTO Net Zero Strategy goal of ensuring that 75% of trips under 5 km are walked, biked, or taken by transit by 2030, allowing us to reach our climate targets. 


At Executive Committee earlier this week, we adopted RapidTO in principle. This plan aims to create a comprehensive network of bus priority corridors along arterial roads, using tools such as reserved lanes, intersection and signal improvements, and improved frequency. All of these measures take cars off the road so that you can get where you need to be faster.



A bus stop that is part of a RapidTO service route.


Fans of the plan are frustrated that implementation across the city has been slow. To be fair, much of the initial execution of this plan started in Scarborough to plan for the closing of the Scarborough RT for subway construction. The plan does aim to improve surface transit across the city, and the report at Executive Committee moves us closer to that goal. 


Some readers may recall an early RapidTO virtual consultation here in Don Valley North. In that consultation, staff proposed potential routes for RapidTO treatments and the community was very concerned about Bayview Avenue becoming a transit priority route. The latest RapidTO report shows that Bayview Avenue is not recommended for priority, but it will continue to be studied long-term for overall traffic flow. 


Finch Avenue East, on the other hand, is included as a RapidTO route. This is an essential route for transit riders in Don Valley North, many of whom start their day with a long wait for a 39 bus with enough space to get on. Then, there is a very long ride to get over to Yonge Street. While the priority focus for RapidTO on Finch is east of Victoria Park, staff will eventually undertake a study to extend these measures west to Yonge Street. 


When I asked questions of Transit Planning Staff about this proposal at Executive Committee, I made sure that they are fully appreciative of the pinch point on Finch between Bayview Avenue and Yonge, where Finch loses its turning lanes. Staff assured me that they will take this into account along with up-to-date car volumes. This is a challenge on a few RapidTO candidate routes, and in these cases they may recommend implementation of bus priority lanes for only certain stretches of road. Once there is a concrete design proposal, it will come back out to us for consultation.


The 39 Finch bus.


Now, let's take a look at one of our soon-to-be rapid transit lines, the Finch West LRT. Once operational, this line will run from Keele to Highway 27 before dipping down to connect with Humber College. Executive Committee members were asked to adopt a legal operating agreement so that the TTC will be ready to operate the Finch West LRT on its potential opening date this fall. 


We were all a bit surprised when we read the report on this agreement. It seems hard to believe that the Province might be able to complete the Finch West LRT before the Eglinton Crosstown, even though work on Eglinton started a good seven years earlier than Finch. There is good reason for that: The Finch West LRT benefits from the fact that the subway expansion at Finch and Keele was constructed with a connection to the LRT in mind. That was not the case at the decades-old Eglinton Station when it came time to install an underground Crosstown LRT connection. 


While there is still quite a ways to go out on Finch Avenue West, and timelines can (and often do) change on such a big project, things are proceeding nicely on the Finch West LRT, we are told. We are very grateful for the Provincial New Deal funding that will support Toronto in operating this LRT line, along with the Eglinton Crosstown. Once the lines are ready to roll, the TTC has the budget to operate them.


The Finch West LRT.


My last update concerning inner suburban transit is quite a doozy, as my mom used to say. You may have heard the Mayor talk about the Scarborough Busway in her Budget announcement today. It occurred to me that I've never delved into the Busway in this column. 


If you aren't familiar with the Scarborough Busway, it's easy to describe. Transit activists and some Scarborough residents want the former Scarborough RT (Line 3) track to be removed and replaced with a dedicated rapid bus route. Staff have been working on the design of the Busway for a little over a year. 


Now, you may scroll up to the beginning of this column to make sure you weren't seeing things. Wasn't the point of prioritizing RapidTO priority bus lanes in Scarborough to account for the closing of the RT? Yes, you're right. As I already explained, the TTC worked with our Transportation staff to install a network of dedicated RapidTO bus lanes to provide reliable transit service for Scarborough commuters while the RT is closed and the Scarborough subway is not yet complete. You may have seen these red bus lanes if you've made a trip over to Highland Farms on Ellesmere for groceries, as I know many of you do.


A RapidTO priority bus lane in Scarborough.


I am very skeptical of the cost assumptions for this Busway. Currently, the cost is estimated at $67.9 million with only 60% of the design complete. Costs will include everything from demolishing the elevated track, to retrofitting the stations, re-grading and repaving the entire route, fencing and protecting riders from the adjacent GO Train tracks, and securing the right number of buses and operators for service that is frequent and therefore worthwhile. We also have to hope that ridership on this busway doesn't tank when the Province's Scarborough Subway opens up. That subway will, after all, deliver riders to the exact same destination without requiring a transfer to a bus. 


This is where the design process becomes very helpful, so long as people are prepared to listen to its findings. By the time we see a design that is 100% complete and costed, all of the above concerns will be taken into account and the viability will be evaluated. I'm in favour of letting the design process be completed and I am prepared to live by its professional findings.


 

BUDGET UPDATE 


To close out, you probably know by now that Mayor Chow has launched her official Budget and has incorporated much of the advice of the Budget Committee. This budget addresses the most pressing needs facing residents across the city: protecting services, making critical investments in affordable housing, transit, and community safety, and getting our city back on track.


This budget comes with some welcome news. The Mayor and I have heard Torontonians and taken steps to address the affordability concerns so many of us are struggling with. This includes a reduced property tax increase of 8% and 1.5% for the City Building Fund.


There have also been some significant funding announcements from the Provincial and Federal governments in the past few days that have large implications for our budget and our city. I am thrilled to see Premier Ford and the Federal government come together and take much-needed action to tackle auto thefts in our city. This is a pressing issue in our communities and needs the coordinated response of all three orders of government. Coupled with the historic investments being made in Toronto's police and emergency services in the 2024 City Budget, we are seeing real steps being taken to make sure all Torontonians feel safer in our city.


We have also heard an announcement from the Federal government that they will be providing funding to the City regarding the Federal refugee claimants stuck in our shelter system. While this announcement is a step in the right direction, we need clarity on the numbers to ensure that the Liberals have made a clear decision to deliver for Torontonians. Details should be forthcoming shortly.


I look forward to continuing to work with Mayor Chow and my Council colleagues in the weeks ahead to ensure that we deliver for Torontonians. Of course, I will write a comprehensive update in this column once Council adopts the final Budget on February 14th.


 



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