From a planned 22 stations to five. How did John Tory’s $8-billion SmartTrack public transit plan go off the rails?
With construction delayed again, the city could face millions in penalties each month -- and work has barely started on a single station.
March 27, 2023
It’s 2014 and would-be mayor John Tory is planting lawn signs across Toronto emblazoned with his signature transit plan: SmartTrack. A 53-kilometre above-ground “London-style” rail line from Mississauga to Markham with 22 stations and frequent two-way service. It would cost $8 billion to build, be ready in just seven years -- and, as it turned out, was enough to help win an election.
In 2023, you wouldn’t even know SmartTrack is still happening.
Only five stations remain of Tory’s grand plan, sliced and diced over the years with one key section deemed impossible to build, another subsumed by the Scarborough subway saga, and others made redundant due to the province’s transit plans, already in motion.
Nearly a decade after it was first promised, not one new station has been built (the earliest one could be completed is August 2027, and all the stations have now been delayed from their 2026 opening dates).
Toronto’s city council is now facing some tough choices due to massive cost overruns that could lead to cutting a station, or even re-evaluating the whole thing in light of a much-changed transit landscape.
In the meantime, the city could be on the hook for millions in penalties per month should it blow past a contractor commitment date of April 5 to start work on Bloor-Lansdowne station and fail to urgently secure $234 million from the province to cover the new costs. (The city has already committed nearly $900 million to the project.)
With Tory out of office and a new mayor on the horizon, will anyone be willing to fight to keep SmartTrack alive?
“This was his personal pledge and personal branding,” said Matti Siemiatycki, a professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto. SmartTrack is tied to Tory, as the Scarborough subway was to Rob Ford. But as the original promise dwindled, so has the prominence of the slogan.
“You’ve seen the diminishment of SmartTrack as a brand and as an idea in this region,” Siemiatycki said. “I think the key question remains whether SmartTrack actually provides improved transit for Torontonians.”
How we got here
Tory’s simple plan was to use the Stouffville and Kitchener GO lines (which the province was adapting to electrified service) to run electric, multi-car trains faster than every 15 minutes -- a “separate and parallel” service to the GO lines. Of the 22 stations promised by Tory, only 13 were brand new stations. The others involved existing GO stations and changes to Union Station.
From the start, SmartTrack raised red flags.
It wasn’t just because of the bold timeline, the risky plan to finance it by borrowing against future development, and the unrealistic station locations. Rather, it seemed to be doing something the province was already working on. The SmartTrack line is essentially the same as the GO regional express plan to provide electrified, two-way, all-day service running as often as every 15 minutes, then Metrolinx CEO Bruce McCuaig wrote to city manager Peter Wallace in a letter dated Oct. 6, 2015.
“An independent and parallel service would be unaffordable and unworkable,” he wrote.
Tory maintained SmartTrack brought more to the table for Torontonians, including faster service and fare integration, so that you wouldn’t have to pay both GO and TTC fares, and it would reduce crowding on Line 1 of the subway.
But sections of the project failed to survive planning scrutiny. Stops conflicted with the Scarborough subway plan and the Union Station changes were impossible. The heavy-rail spur out to the Mississauga Airport Corporate Centre, which Tory insisted was workable, was scaled down into a west extension of the cursed, long-delayed Eglinton Crosstown LRT. The number of new “SmartTrack” stations had decreased from 13 to six by early 2016.
Three of the stations outside the downtown core were viewed as likely having little demand, in a Metrolinx study, but staff recommended proceeding with all six stops that would essentially function as GO stations.
One of those stations, Lawrence East in Scarborough, was approved in 2017 only to be placed under review shortly afterwards. A Star investigation revealed that the Ministry of Transportation pressured the Metrolinx board into endorsing it despite low projected ridership. Lawrence East was ultimately one of two stations canned in 2021 because they conflicted with the province’s final Scarborough subway plans and the new Ontario Line.
Even so, the 2018 cost estimate of $1.46 billion remained the same, with the federal government paying 40 per cent, leaving a city contribution at $878 million, because the SmartTrack plan took on the Bloor-Lansdowne GO station instead.
The five stops left as part of SmartTrack as of this month are St. Clair--Old Weston, Bloor-Lansdowne, King-Liberty, East Harbour and Finch-Kennedy.
There remain many unknowns, including how fast the service will be, what the fares will be and if they’ll be integrated with the TTC and other transit systems.
“This is a microcosm of what happens when transit becomes highly politicized,” Siemiatycki said. “You end up with these plans that make more sense politically than they do from a transportation user or value-for-money perspective.”
Where is SmartTrack now?
Metrolinx, the agency in charge of delivering the project, has reported it will cost an additional $234 million due to supply chain uncertainty, the risk of further cost inflation and labour shortages in the rail and construction sector due to an increased number of projects.
Four of the station contracts were awarded last year; only Bloor-Lansdowne remains.
Staff are recommending that city council direct the city manager to persuade the province to commit to pay all costs above the original $1.46-billion budget, and to only award a pending design-build contract for Bloor-Lansdowne station if the province makes this commitment. Unfortunately, even with an extension secured by Metrolinx, the city would have to start paying financial penalties to the contractor beginning on April 5 for delaying the start date.
The exact amount of the penalty is confidential, but is 1.5 per cent of the contract value per month, per city staff.
As a ballpark figure, if each of the five stations cost the exact same amount to build -- a whopping $338 million if the total cost was divided equally -- that would mean the city is on the hook for monthly payments of $5 million until a decision is made.
If the province doesn’t acquiesce, staff would come back in May with a range of options.
“Because this is a partnership directly with the Ontario government and it is ultimately a service they would take on as an asset, we are really hopeful they will be at the table,” said Coun. Amber Morley (Ward 3, Etobicoke-Lakeshore). She sits on the city’s executive committee, which discussed the issue last week.
“I’m optimistic, frankly, that we will have positive outcomes,” she said, adding that the stations will benefit all of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.
Optimism and unity aside, the city is still hoping the province will provide $510 million to cover 2023 COVID-19 costs in this year’s budget, but no such bailout was in Thursday’s provincial plan. However, Jennifer McKelvie, the deputy mayor and councillor for Scarborough--Rouge Park, did tout the province’s commitment to eventually eliminating double fares between the TTC and GO Transit -- a key tenet of the SmartTrack plan.
“I think everybody is committed to getting transit built, and getting transit built as soon as possible. And that includes SmartTrack,” McKelvie said last week.
Where does SmartTrack go from here?
“I don’t think the SmartTrack brand will survive,” said Peter Miasek, a director of advocacy group Transport Action Ontario. “And it really shouldn’t survive because there is no need for it” given GO’s plans.
At the end of the day, there will be more Toronto GO stations, though it is unclear whether they might have been built by Metrolinx anyway, and funded by the province or privately funded like the Woodbine GO station.
“Why did the city end up paying versus the province?” Miasek sighed. “We’re just funding GO Transit.”
Both he and Siemiatycki wonder what other plans the city might have acted on with a billion dollars over the last decade -- the RapidTO priority bus lane, or the Waterfront LRT, or the Eglinton East LRT.
The city is heading into a mayoral election and that’s a time to talk about priorities from transit to the Gardiner Expressway, Siemiatycki said. But this is a good reminder not to be swayed by plans that seize the imagination but fall apart in the harsh light of day.
When will the stations be ready?
Bloor-Lansdowne: Bid was to be finalized March 4, 2023. Construction is scheduled to start February 2024. Station operational in May 2027 (pushed back from August 2026). Tree removal starts in the fall.
Finch-Kennedy: Construction starts October 2023. Station operational in August 2027 (pushed back from October 2026). Utility relocation works are happening now.
King-Liberty: Construction starts January 2024. Station operational in March 2028 (pushed back from September 2026). Tree removal starts next month.
East Harbour: Construction starts this month. Station operational in August 2028 (pushed back from December 2027).St. Clair--Old Weston: Construction starts January 2024. Station operational in March 2029 (pushed back from December 2026), Utility relocation work to start in the fall.