The King Street Pilot as relief line?

Giving credit where it’s due, I’d like to commend Mayor Tory for prioritizing streetcars in the area covered by the King Street Pilot.

There, I’ve done it.  Now come the caveats.

It’s too little and too late.  And it was neither his idea, nor even his preference, I suspect.  The most I can say with confidence is that it’s a positive step that he didn’t obstruct.  Remember, this is the man who didn’t understand why carding was wrong, who couldn’t imagine life without an elevated expressway, and who still doesn’t grasp the inanity of paying vastly more money for vastly less transit in Scarborough.  Let’s count our blessings.

At the same time, let’s imagine how much more potential good remains to be exploited by Tory, despite his reverse Midas touch when it comes to transit.  If we put a better idea out there, and the election goes badly next year, he might grasp and cling as desperately to it as he did the unfeasible plan he floated himself last time.

What was it called?  Smart Track?  Talk Smack?  Trams Crack?  Whatever it was, it wasted a decade of expert planning work and jumbled the TTC’s priorities (Elsewhere, I've lamented this extensively.)

tory's smart track

Remember the relief line?  The north-south spine of the subway system is being crushed as rising  volumes from the west, north, and east converge at the intersection of the Yonge-University and Bloor-Danforth lines.  From the Bloor-Yonge station southwards, into the core, trains are overcrowded and riders forced to line the platforms until they can find a car to squeeze into.

A relief line is needed before any more extensions at the periphery funnel more bodies into the tunnels on the Yonge line.  The relief line proposed will eventually form a large ‘U’, allowing people travelling across Bloor Danforth, from both east and west, to bypass the Yonge-University line via an alternate route through the downtown core.

Now we can’t afford it.  Tory spent the money on the preservation of one elevated freeway ramp and one additional subway stop ($4-5 billion combined), so now all talk of the true transit priority is delayed.  Recently, the TTC issued an RFP for tunnel design for the Relief Line South, which runs through Osgoode and Queen stations to Pape.  However, construction would not begin until 2025, with completion in 2031.  Such is the genius of our Mayor (may God bless him for not being a Ford, in name at least).

But, here comes a bit of inadvertent brilliance for which I could genuinely congratulate him: The 504 King runs east to west (and vice versa) beginning at Dundas West Station on the Bloor Danforth subway line, travelling south through Roncesvalles and desperately underserved new residential areas like Liberty Village, along King Street and then northbound, ending at Broadview station.

In other words, the tiny stretch between Bathurst and Jarvis that’s been liberated by the King Street Pilot under our timorous Mayor’s watch, is part of a big ‘U’ that more or less approximates, on the surface, what TTC planners want to put underground - a relief line!  But, the King streetcars that have been freed up by the diversion of cars aren’t full of people who are boarding between Jarvis and Bathurst (and, just yesterday, in The Star, Christopher Hume pointed out that this stretch is much too short, typical of the City's half measures when it comes to transit), where the King Street Pilot project is occurring .  They’re coming from much farther east or west.

Now imagine this (if ‘imagine’ isn’t a forbidden word in the Mayor’s office): extending the King Street Pilot along the entire 504 line.  With the diversion of automobiles impeding the King streetcar line, from Broadview to Dundas West, riders coming into downtown from Broadview Station could get on a fast streetcar down to the middle of the financial district every morning and get home at night the same way, without ever having to fight their way onto a bursting subway car.  Likewise, people in the west end could come south on a streetcar from Dundas West Station going east through the downtown without the daily subterranean scrum at Yonge and Bloor.

Clear the track of inefficient, single-occupancy vehicles, as you so bravely did between Jarvis and Bathurst, and, by jinkies, you’ve got your relief line!

More importantly, this would be a bargain compared to the cost of building underground, so the money you squandered on a single freeway ramp and a single Scarborough subway stop might be forgivable if you are able to improve downtown transit.  Don’t forget that you’d be saving the time of potential voters, who would be more inclined to vote favourably, if they weren’t forced to wait for over a decade to make their commute more pleasant.

I should stop now, while I’m ahead.  If the idea has too much evidence behind it, the Mayor is bound to oppose it like he did on the subway and expressway decisions.  But, in an ideal world, the surface relief line would be so successful, the City could consider quadruple tracking it.

If the streetcars used both lanes at peak times, and the curb lane in nonpeak times, other vehicles could use the centre lane without interference from streetcar passengers disembarking into traffic, as they do now.  And double lane streetcar capacity at rush hour would come close to relief line volumes.  Although they’d be slower than efficient subways, they’d be faster than the University line at rush hour.

Details, details, details....  The main thing, Mayor Tory, is that you can appear to respect transit planners’ expertise and transit riders’ needs by creating an interim surface relief line.  You can also show respect for taxpayers by spending millions on this solution rather than the billions you have committed to far less worthy projects.  This, in turn, means you won’t have to insult their intelligence again by pretending to hold the line on taxes while imposing a ‘levy’ like you did to pay for the Scarborough subway.

Now I guess we’re talking politics, which is where every transit discussion goes at City Hall.  So, while we’re on the subject anyway, how about appeasing angered King Street traffic makers by taking measures to accelerate travel on the parallel, one-way routes adjacent to the new streetcar thoroughfare?  Change the hours of parking and deliveries, take back a bike lane in return for cycling enhancements made possible on King Street, eliminate pedestrian controlled intersections, tighten rules on construction encroachments, limit left turns, synchronize lights better....  It’s all paint, signage, timing adjustments, and enforcement, rather than capital investment, which is what has tied Council in knots for the past 30 years.

So much is possible.  That’s why I started this post by damning the Mayor with faint praise.  If King Street needs to be shared, it’s only right that vehicles with dozens of people in them be given priority over vehicles with one or two people in them.  If the King Street Pilot makes sense between Jarvis and Bathurst, it makes even more sense between Broadview Station and Dundas West Station.  The creation of a surface relief line is a relatively cheap, relatively effective, and therefore politically expedient way to accomplish this high priority transit objective, perhaps in balance with offsetting improvements to the primary east-west car travel along Adelaide and Richmond Streets.  As transit fantasies go, it’s the perfect antidote to the one Tory fumbled into office with, a great way to stave off Ford, win a second term, and mitigate the embarrassing Scarborough and Gardiner projects.

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