Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Toronto thinks big on rapid transit

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The Toronto and Hamilton region has prescribed a major investment in public transport over the next 25 years to accommodate a rapidly growing population, and stem worsening congestion on its roads. Keith Barrow discovers how Metrolinx is establishing a firm financial base for the Big Move.

TORONTO could never be accused of lacking a vision for the development of its public transport system. From the Network 2011 plan of 1985 to Let's Move in 1990, the Rapid Transit Expansion Program of 1993, and Transit City in 2007, proposals for new infrastructure have come and gone with successive administrations, and while a few projects have come to fruition, shifting political tides and conflicting views on how funds should be spent have kept many schemes firmly on the drawing board.

Furthermore, public transport in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) is under the jurisdiction of no less than nine separate transit agencies and one regional provider. Historically this has often resulted in poor integration, even though one in four journeys in the GTHA crosses a regional boundary. In 2006 the Ontario government authorised the creation of Metrolinx, a transit authority for the GTHA, with the aim of overcoming many of the long-standing integration issues.

Despite indecision, conflicting policies and a lack of integration there has been piecemeal expansion of the urban rail network over the last 30 years, but few would argue that investment in the system has kept pace with population growth in Canada's second-largest city and the surrounding region. The GTHA is now home to 6 million people, and the population is expected to reach 8.6 million by 2031.

torontoHigh travel demand means traffic jams are already a serious economic issue. More than 2 million car trips are made each weekday morning in the GTHA and that figure is forecast to reach 3 million within 20 years. Road capacity is poorly used, with vehicle occupancy of less than 1.2 people per vehicle at peak times.

According to Metrolinx, the cost of congestion to the regional economy is now around $C 6bn ($US 5.8bn) per year, and this figure will more than double within 20 years if no action is taken to curb the current trend. By 2031, the transport network will need to accommodate 7 million more trips per day, a 60% increase over current levels, and if investments are not made, the average commute will be 27 minutes longer than it is today.

With worsening congestion on the roads, the region has experienced sustained year-on-year growth in public transport usage, despite a deep and prolonged economic downturn. Ridership growth on Go Transit's commuter rail network has averaged between 5 and 7% per year over the last 10 years, and despite increased frequencies and the lengthening of trains from 10 to 12 double-deck coaches, Metrolinx says any new capacity has been quickly used up.

Metrolinx is responding to the pressing issue of congestion with the Big Move, a $C 50bn 25-year transport investment programme which aims to bring 80% of the region's population within 2km of rapid transit. The Big Move was adopted by the Metrolinx board in 2008 and approved by the Ontario provincial government in 2009, pledging $C 2bn investment per year in public transport projects.

The programme aims to achieve the following objectives over the next 25 years:

• the distance that people drive every day will drop by a third

• a 50% increase in population will be accommodated with congestion below current levels

• a third of commutes will be made by public transport and one in five by walking or cycling, and

• a single ticket will be valid for all trips throughout the GTHA and all fares will be integrated.

Metrolinx recognises that in order to achieve these goals a dedicated transit fund needs to be in place, fed by diverse and reliable sources of revenue which can sustain investment over a long period, and it has studied the policies of cities around the world to establish what works. "Naturally people are concerned when they see increases in taxes being suggested, which is why we are proposing a mixed bag of funding sources," says Mr Jamie Robinson, director of communications for Toronto transit projects at Metrolinx. "Cities that do these things well have dedicated sources of funding for transport projects, but in Canada funding is subject to the whims of provincial governments and transit has to compete with healthcare or education for investment."

Under the 2006 Metrolinx Act, the organisation was required to complete an investment strategy by June 1, including proposals for revenue generating tools, which the province and the municipalities could use to implement the Big Move. The Ontario provincial government will now use this document to make the final decision on which methods will be used to meet the $C 2bn annual budget requirement. "There is strong support for our proposals at a provincial level, but the opposition parties are less supportive of the Big Move, particularly when it comes to some of the investment tools we are proposing," says Robinson. "That will continue to be a challenge, particularly with a minority government in place."

First phase

While some uncertainty remains over longer-term funding, Metrolinx has already secured $C 16bn to start building the first phase, including $C 11.5bn from the provincial government. Work is now underway on 52km of new light rail lines, an 8.6km subway extension, and 59km of bus rapid transit lines as well as improvements to the commuter rail network and an airport express link.

Pearson International Airport is major source of congestion, and every year more than 5 million car trips are made between the airport and the city centre. Metrolinx aims to provide a convenient alternative with Union - Pearson Express (UP Express), a $C 456m project to build a dedicated rail link between Union station in central Toronto and Pearson.

From Union station, UP Express services will run along the Kitchener Line for 22km, calling at Go Transit's Bloor and Weston stations before diverging onto a new 3km elevated branch, which will follow the route of Highway 409 to reach the airport station at Terminal 1.

A fleet of 18 dmu cars has been ordered from Sumitomo and these will be formed into two or three-car sets accommodating up to 180 passengers. Commercial services are due to start in time for the 2015 Pan American Games and trains will operate at 15-minute intervals throughout the day. Metrolinx forecasts that UP Express will eliminate 1.2 million car trips in its first year of operation.

The 30-year build and maintain concession for UP Express has been tendered as an Alternative Finance and Procurement (AFP), a public-private partnership procurement model which is also being used for the light rail projects. Under this system, Metrolinx owns and controls the assets, and is responsible for specifying and tendering the project, property acquisition, overseeing construction, testing and commissioning, and safety certification. The projects are tendered as design-build-finance-maintain contracts.

Infrastructure Ontario has already tendered more than 50 projects as AFPs, including Ottawa's new light rail line. According to Province of Ontario and federal government requirements, all large transit capital project proposals must be submitted for AFP evaluation.

However, not everyone is happy about AFP. In July the Construction Design Alliance of Ontario (CDAO) criticised Metrolinx procurement strategy, claiming that $C 500m could be cut from the cost of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT line by tendering the project in smaller packages. The CDAO suggests that the scheme has attracted only two bidders because the size and scope of the contract has deterred potential bidders.

Metrolinx argues that it is tendering capital projects cost-effectively. "People have differing views on AFP, but the reality is that there are many good examples of it working well and to date it's been a successful model," says Robinson. "We feel it's important to deal with a single consortium because it helps us to work cost effectively and keep everything on time and on budget. There are lots of opportunities for smaller companies to play a role within that structure."

The largest of the four light rail projects is the $C 4.9bn Eglinton Crosstown LRT. The 19km line will follow Eglinton Avenue from Jane Street/Black Creek Drive in the west to Kennedy station in the east, with a 10km underground section between Keele Street and Laird Drive and a segregated surface alignment between the eastern portal of the tunnel and Kennedy, where it will join the Scarborough RT on an elevated section. The line will have 25 stations, 12 of which will be underground.

An invitation to prequalify was issued in January for the contract to design, build, finance, and maintain the line, and a request for proposals will be issued to shortlisted bidders in the autumn. Preparatory works are already underway and major construction is due to begin in autumn 2014, with the line set to open in 2020.

Public consultation is currently underway on the updated official plan for the 11km Finch West LRT, which will link the planned Finch West subway station with Humber College. Construction is due to begin in 2015 and the $C 1bn project will be completed by 2020.

The Sheppard East light rail line will run for 13km along Sheppard Avenue from Don Mills station to East Morningside Avenue. The $C 1bn project is fully-funded and construction is due to begin in 2017, although the grade separation at Agincourt Go station, a key component of the project, has already been completed. Commercial services are expected to start in 2021, and peak ridership is forecast to reach 3000 passengers per hour by 2031.

While there is consensus on these projects, recent events have demonstrated that political tensions remain. Last month Metrolinx suspended work on the 10km Scarborough Rapid Transit (RT) extension from McCowan to Sheppard Avenue after Toronto City Council voted to extend the Bloor-Danforth subway line into Scarborough. "There is a significant funding gap for the subway option, and the city is working with the provincial government to identify possible options," says Robinson.

While the $C 1.8bn RT project is fully-funded, only $C 1.4bn would be available from the province for a subway extension, leaving the city with a shortfall of around $C 900m. Metrolinx stresses it is ready to continue with the RT project if the city abandons the subway proposal.

Under Metrolinx' existing plans, the RT will be converted to conventional LRT and will share a common LRV fleet with the other three lines currently under construction. The line would share the planned $C 333m maintenance depot at Sheppard East with the Eglinton Crosstown Line.

At present the only fully-funded subway project in the first phase of the Big Move is the 8.6km northern extension of the Yonge-Spadina line from Downsview to Vaughan Metropolitan Centre. This six-station extension will be the first Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) line to cross the city's municipal boundary and will interchange with the bus network in the neighbouring York Region. The $C 2.6bn project will be completed in 2016.

On Go Transit's Kitchener Line, the $C 1.2bn Georgetown South project will allow commuter rail services to be increased from 19 to 29 trains per day from 2015, while also providing capacity for UP Express services. The project involves the construction of two additional tracks in the northern half of the Go Georgetown South Corridor, and one additional track to the south.

Finally, in central Toronto, a $C 250m reconstruction of Union station will be completed in time for the 2015 Pan American Games.

The next wave

The Big Move states that transit services linking destinations outside central Toronto are almost entirely lacking, and this a key focus of the so-called 'next wave', which encompasses medium and long-term projects in the period up to 2031.

Studies are currently underway on the 14km Hamilton Rapid Transit project, which will link Main Street and King Street, one of the city's busiest bus corridors. The project will cost around $C 1bn and the line is forecast to attract 8 million passengers per year.

An environmental assessment is also being carried out on the $C 1.6bn Hurontario-Main LRT, which will run for 23km from Mississauga to Brampton west of Toronto. Annual ridership is expected to reach 29 million by 2031.

In Toronto, the 13km Downtown Relief Line will relieve the existing subway network and support the 6km extension of the Yonge-Spadina line to Richmond Hill. The line is expected to cost around $C 7.4bn, although the project is still at an early stage and the final specification and route alignment have yet to be determined.

On the commuter rail network, a $C 4.9bn investment in Go Transit is proposed as part of the next wave, which will include the introduction of all-day services on the Milton, Kitchener, Barrie, Richmond Hill, and Stouffville lines, as well as extension of the Lakeshore line to Hamilton James Street North and extending Lakeshore West services to Bowmanville. Peak services will also be stepped up on all Go lines.

Electrification of the Go network is also being studied, and the programme would begin with the Kitchener line and UP Express at a cost of around $C 900. An environmental assessment is currently underway and due to be completed next year.

Further electrification would include the $C 1.7bn Lakeshore Express project, which is currently at the planning stage and entails upgrading the Lakeshore West and Lakeshore East lines between Hamilton, Toronto and Oshawa, a total distance of 121km. These are the busiest lines on the Go network and are expected to carry 40 million passengers per year by 2031. Electrification is considered vital for 'turn-up-and-go' frequencies on the two routes.

One of the challenges facing the Big Move is the comparative lack of central government support - of the $C 8.7bn currently being invested in the four light rail projects in Toronto, just $C 333m came from federal sources, leaving the province and the city to foot most of the bill. The federal government agreed in 2007 to provide $C 697m for the Spadina subway extension, but in recent times has shown little enthusiasm for investing in transit projects in Ontario. In May Canada's finance minister Mr Jim Flaherty even warned the province against sanctioning an increase in sales tax in the GTHA to pay for the Big Move.

Nonetheless, Metrolinx is confident it has backing closer to home and it is working to keep the public informed on its funding proposals. "I think we've come a long way in building support at a local level for the Big Move with Metrolinx as the builder and integrator of the system," says Robinson. "Congestion is a major issue for a region growing as fast as ours, and it's not going to improve unless we work together to change it."

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