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Metrolinx considering a route for the Yonge subway extension to Richmond Hill that would take it above ground
June 26, 2020
Ben Spurr

Metrolinx is proposing an alternate alignment for the long-planned subway extension to Richmond Hill that would take the line east of Yonge Street and have it run above ground for a portion of its route, the Star has learned.

The alternate alignment for the Yonge North Subway Extension is one of three options included in a business case for the project that will be discussed during a closed-door session of the Metrolinx board Thursday, according to a senior provincial government source with knowledge of the plan.

The Yonge extension has been in the works for years and is politically charged. York Region’s elected leaders consider it their top transit priority, and it was one of four projects Premier Doug Ford included in the $28.5-billion overhaul of provincial rail plans he announced in April 2019.

According to previously released designs, the roughly seven-kilometre extension would run underground north from Toronto’s Finch station to Richmond Hill Centre, with as many as six new stations.

The senior government source, to whom the Star agreed to grant anonymity in order to discuss plans not yet made public, said two of the options in Metrolinx’s new report would keep the line underground. But under a third proposal, the extension would veer east of Yonge in the vicinity of Kirk Drive in Thornhill, and then run north above ground alongside the CN rail corridor that cuts through York Region.

The partially above-ground option is being proposed in part to reduce the cost for the project. The price tag for the extension has been estimated at about $5.6 billion in provincial and City of Toronto reports, but according to municipal and provincial sources, prior to Queen’s Park uploading transit planning from the city last October, unreleased TTC estimates put the cost closer to $9 billion.

The senior provincial source said in addition to lowering costs, the proposed new alignment might also have the benefits of serving emerging communities east of Yonge and providing improved connections to existing transit services in the region.

If the line is built underground, Metrolinx is proposing to reduce costs by scaling back the size of stations and making design changes like building the bus terminal at the planned Steeles station at surface level instead of below ground.

Metrolinx is expected to make the business case for the extension public later this summer.

The possibility of building a portion of the Yonge extension above ground is likely to draw fire from York Region politicians, who have for years promised their constituents an underground subway north of Toronto.

In an interview Tuesday, Markham Councillor Keith Irish said Metrolinx hadn’t directly shared its plans with him, but he was concerned about rumours of potential changes. The extension would run through his ward.

“I’d like to see it all underground, which is a traditional subway, which is what we’ve come to expect. I mean, we have a premier who’s long made his position pretty clear: subways, subways, subways. We all know what he means when he says that,” Irish said, referring to the slogan Premier Ford helped make famous when his brother Rob was mayor of Toronto.

Irish also said it wouldn’t make sense to build the subway somewhere other than under Yonge. “The alignment is key. The alignment has to hug Yonge Street,” he said.

The senior provincial source said no final decisions have been made, and “there are pros and cons within each” of the options in Metrolinx’s report. The source said the Ontario government is committed to working with York Region to “determine what alignment option” would “best serve the community.”

The province and York Region have so far mostly moved in lockstep on the extension, and last month reaffirmed their commitment by signing an agreement to share the costs of the project. The extension is still not fully funded, however. The province is asking the federal government to contribute 40 per cent of the cost but has yet to receive a firm commitment. Metrolinx has said the target completion date for the extension is 2029 or 2030.

The proposed changes to the Yonge extension mirror Metrolinx’s approach to the Ontario Line, the $11-billion provincial project that replaced the TTC and City of Toronto’s designs for a relief line subway.

The relief line would have been completely underground, but last July Metrolinx released new plans for the Ontario Line that brought the project above ground to run through existing GO Transit rail corridors. The agency said building the tracks above ground next to GO lines would be more cost-effective and allow the line to be extended further north and west than the relief line would have gone in its initial phase.

The Star reported in August that Metrolinx had struck a panel to review designs for the Scarborough and Yonge North subway extensions, including looking at alternate alignments and above-ground routes.