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Experts cast doubt on deadline, budget in Ontario Line business case
July 26, 2019
Ben Spurr

Experts say new plans for the Ontario Line show the project could deliver significant benefits to Toronto transit users, but warn the proposed rail line almost certainly can’t be built within the budget and schedule the Progressive Conservative government has proposed.

Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency for the GTHA, released the initial business case for the Ontario Line on Thursday. The planning document, a confidential summary of which the Star obtained and reported on earlier this week, provides the most detailed look yet at the province’s proposal to build a 15.5-kilometre rail line through downtown that would connect Exhibition Place to the Ontario Science Centre.

Transit experts who spoke to the Star agreed that if the 15-station project is built as planned, it would improve access to transit for residents in underserved areas such as Thorncliffe Park and Liberty Village, and significantly relieve crowding on the TTC’s overburdened Line 1 (Yonge-University-Spadina).

According to the business case, the new line would have 389,000 daily boardings, and reduce Line 1 crowding by 14 per cent.

Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto, said the most positive aspect of the Ontario Line is that it would extend from TTC subway stops in the downtown core all the way north to Eglinton Ave., which studies have long shown is critical to diverting large numbers of riders from Line 1.

“I think, from the city’s perspective, building up to Eglinton now, if that’s actually feasible, is a big win for the city of Toronto,” he said.

However, plans for the Ontario Line are still in their infancy, and the project would replace the city- and TTC-led push to build a relief line subway that, in its first phase, would only have traveled as far north as Danforth Ave. but is far more advanced in design.

Early works for construction of the relief subway were supposed to start as soon as next year.

That’s led to accusations from some city councillors and opposition MPPs that Premier Doug Ford’s government is repeating what’s widely seen as the perennial sin of Toronto transit planning: ripping up designs to start anew, and, in the process, causing delays and wasting money.

Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster is adamant the province isn’t scrapping previous plans. Although less than three kilometres of the Ontario Line would follow the path of the proposed 7.4-kilometre relief line, work the city and TTC have already done on the relief line will be used for the new project, Verster said.

“This is not a restart,” he said in an interview.

While experts say the Ontario Line has merits, here are some of the challenges to completing the line as planned.

The 2027 deadline

The business case shows Metrolinx plans to launch the procurement process for the Ontario Line next year, and, by 2022, award the contract to build it. The line would open by 2027, after six years of construction, at a cost of up to $11.4 billion. The report says that could be reduced to a maximum of $10.5 billion if it’s procured through a public private-partnership designed to shift financial risk to the private sector.

None of the experts who spoke to the Star were confident Metrolinx could achieve the 2027 date, and some said the budget was sure to rise.

Ed Levy, a veteran transit planner, argued that it takes many years to complete the government-mandated studies for major transit projects, and, once construction begins, there are always unforeseen obstacles.

“How the hell they can still maintain that they have enough of a window to construct the thing and open it by 2027, I don’t know. It really does sound suspect to me,” said Levy, who added the proposed budget is an “ideal number” that is “almost certain” to increase.

However, he said that, even if the project takes years longer and billions of dollars more to complete, its benefits are such that it could still be worth it.

Shoshanna Saxe, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s civil engineering department, also predicted the timeline was likely unrealistic. Her research has shown that, historically, Toronto transit projects aren’t held up by construction problems, but by leaders changing direction.

“And we now have a new proposal that has to be agreed upon between more stakeholders, which has to have new funding agreements,” she said.

Ever since April when Premier Ford announced the Ontario Line as the centrepiece of his $28.5-billion transit plan, Metrolinx has maintained 2027 as the project’s completion date.

On Thursday, Verster gave his clearest acknowledgement yet that it’s possible that date could end up out of reach.

“(The deadline of) 2027 is hugely ambitious,” said Verster, but “this is the time for us to be ambitious.” He asserted that by building much of the line above ground, it can be completed quickly.

But, said Verster, that when Metrolinx starts the procurement process next year, if the bidding companies say “it can’t be done in 2027,” his agency “will declare that immediately.”

GO tracks along Lakeshore near the GO Exhibition platform. Seen from Strachan Avenue bridge, looking west.

GO corridor

Unlike the relief line, which would run entirely underground from Osgoode station on Line 1 to Pape station on Line 2 (Bloor-Danforth) via Queen St., Eastern Ave., Carlaw Ave., and Pape Ave., a portion of the Ontario Line would divert from that route and run above ground over the Don River and along the Lakeshore East GO rail corridor on “a widened embankment or elevated structure,” according to the business case.

The corridor is already busy, and is set to get more crowded as Metrolinx pursues plans to increase GO service frequency and electrify the line, a huge project in its own right.

U of T’s Siemiaticky said it will be challenging to “shoehorn” the Ontario Line into the GO corridor, particularly because it runs through residential areas and the new line would have to run atop at least three overpasses.

“All of those are very narrow, and there’s properties on either side of them,” he said.

“That’s an area where costs could escalate very quickly, and you could see a lot of community opposition.”

Verster pledged that Metrolinx will “work very closely with the communities on Lakeshore East” and “accommodate concerns, as best we can” as the agency maximizes use of the corridor.

He said, at this point, Metrolinx doesn’t anticipate the need for wide-scale expropriation of homes along the route.

The line will also have to be built amidst complex work being carried out by the city around the Lower Don River in the coming years, including a major flood mitigation project and the realignment of the Gardiner Expressway.

East GO corridor near Dundas and Wardell, where the province plans to build the new route for the Ontario Line.


The Ontario Line would be built above ground for more than a third of its 15.5-kilometre route, which would make the project less expensive and quicker to build, but require using smaller, lighter vehicles capable of climbing the steep gradients of bridges and elevated trackways.

According to the business case, Ontario Line vehicles would be up to 100 metres long, and carry up to 850 passengers. By comparison, the TTC’s newer model subways are 138 metres long, and can carry a maximum of about 1,460 people.

In order to ensure the Ontario Line could handle its projected ridership of up to 34,000 passengers per hour, the smaller trains would operate at a frequency of one every 90 seconds. That’s compared to the current TTC subway frequency of about one every 2 minutes and 20 seconds.

Levy warned 90-second frequencies could be “very, very hard” to achieve on the busy Ontario Line, because one of the main contributors to train delays is how long it takes passengers to get on and off vehicles.

But Verster said the trains, which would be driverless and fully automated, wouldn’t stay long in stations.

“In order to get that to work there will be platform-based announcements and encouragement for riders to get on and get off trains speedily,” he said.

Although the vehicles wouldn’t stick around long, Verster predicted riders wouldn’t mind because another would be along in just 90 seconds.

The initial business case for the Ontario Line proposes possibily using a cable car to connect a new stop at Exhibition Station to Ontario Place.

Link to Ontario Place

Ford’s government has depicted the line as linking the two attractions of the Ontario Science Centre and Ontario Place. But the business case confirms it would end more than 600 metres north of Ontario Place at Exhibition GO station.

The document reveals Metrolinx is considering “a multitude of options to provide a high-quality connection” from the end of the line to Ontario Place, including a cable car or automated people mover of the type seen at airports.

The business case predicts that if designed correctly the link could potentially become “an attraction in its own right.”

GO tracks along Lakeshore near the GO Exhibition platform. Seen from Strachan Avenue bridge, looking east

Exposed track

In its northern section, the Ontario Line would run north from Pape station underground and emerge from its tunnel west of the Leaside Bridge to cross the Don River on a new bridge, then proceed on an elevated guideway along Overlea Bvld. and Don Mills Rd. before terminating at the Science Centre.

The elevated track could expose the line to “winter-weather related issues that will require mitigation,” the business case notes.

“We know from the (Scarborough) RT that, if maintenance of snow and ice are hard, it can have a real impact on the operation of the line,” said Saxe.

But she said cities around the world operate trains on elevated guideways and it’s a “reasonable way” to deliver transit.