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Do transit planners really want to hear community objections?

Some residents are skeptical as the city and Metrolinx seek their input on four major transit projects this month.
June 22, 2015
By Tess Kalinowski

It should be a moment of unreserved civic optimism, with the public being asked to consider four multi-billion-dollar transit projects that could transform the Toronto region’s mobility.

Instead, a pervasive skepticism hangs over this month’s combined public consultations on SmartTrack, GO regional express rail, the relief line and the Scarborough subway.

There’s a sense among some members of the public that government agencies are just going through the motions of consulting, having already decided what they will build and where.

The mistrust is so pervasive, “it’s actually a bit disheartening,” admits Councillor Josh Colle, who chairs the TTC board.

City officials and Metrolinx consult the public all the time about transit plans. What’s remarkable about this month’s round of consultations is not just that the two agencies are working jointly but that there are four projects on the table at the meetings running through Thursday.

It’s a unique opportunity for residents to see how the projects relate to one another and the overall transportation network, said Tim Laspa, the city’s director of transportation planning.

“It is actually a rare and beneficial moment for us,” he said, adding that consultations are a critical part of the planning process. “It’s the basic premise of what we do as public servants in serving our community,” insisted Laspa.

“I say it at every public meeting, that this project can’t succeed without getting (public) input. The solution is really a solution that is a partnership,” he said.

Others see it differently. Suri Weinberg-Linsky has been attending public consultations about the rail expansion and other projects in her Weston neighbourhood for a decade. She thinks they’re mostly a sham.

“It gives us opportunity to see what’s happening but honestly, I think they end up doing whatever they want,” she said.

Combining four transit projects into the same meetings “will be an exercise in confusion, frustration and a waste of time,” said Weinberg-Linsky.

Most citizens struggle to comprehend what a single plan means to their community. Combining four projects into one consultation will make that more challenging.

“You cannot bundle projects like these and expect to get cogent or real answers back that have any worth,” she said.

Laspa says he doesn’t hear that kind of cynicism and the information before the public is made deliberately accessible.

“We’re very careful when we go out for any of the rapid transit planning consultations that we keep the information at a level people can understand,” he said.

For the more technically informed “we do have other resource materials and a full team of experts,” he said.

Toronto’s traditional political meddling in the transit planning process probably has a lot to do with the skepticism that simmers in some communities.

The Scarborough subway, for example, had been winnowed down to three potential alignments from a field of nine before this round of public input began. Mayor John Tory’s interest in keeping the subway route from cannibalizing his SmartTrack plan based on adding “surface subway” trains to the GO rails, is considered key in the final selection.

Without shortlisting the choices, however, Laspa says the project couldn’t progress.

“We’re not saying it’s a done deal. We’re saying these are our draft of three shortlisted. Tell us what you think. There is opportunity for change,” he said.

Even Weinberg-Linsky thinks public consultations are opportunities for “a moderate amount” of community influence.

“The proponents often know what will push the buttons and have multiple scenarios and options available but will only present one - often the cheapest and easiest for them,” she said.

But if the community pushes back, sometimes public agencies will pull up an alternative. Weinberg-Linsky thinks that’s how Weston residents managed to get a tunnel to prevent the closure of several neighbourhood streets.

Colle says he’s “mixed” on the value of combining four transit lines into one set of community meetings. Putting them into the context of the other projects is important. But, depending on where you live, you’re probably going to be more interested in one line over another.

The output from public input

Ask them about community engagement success stories, and public agencies will often point to neighbourhood improvements - murals, gardens or streetscaping. Here are some of the changes local communities have effected on recent or pending projects:

Weston tunnel: Residents were concerned about plans to close several streets in Weston to make room for the rail expansion that was needed to provide all-day GO service to Georgetown and the Union Pearson Express airport train. So the province agreed to build a tunnel from Lawrence Ave. in the south to Weston Rd. so only one road had to be closed to local traffic.

Suri Weinberg-Linsky, a store owner in the community, says GO came back to the community so quickly she believes that the tunnel solution was already on the drawing board before the community voiced its concerns.

Leslie Barns: Community opposition to running streetcars down Leslie from Queen St., to the new car house on Lake Shore Blvd., resulted in upgraded landscaping for the neighbourhood, according to David Nagler, TTC community relations manager.

Transit blogger Steve Munro says it wasn’t much of a win, given the vigour of the community opposition and the years of disruption for businesses and residents.

“They got streetscape improvements, but that’s about it,” he said.

McNicoll bus garage: The TTC altered its plans - still awaiting provincial approval - to build a bus garage near McNicoll Ave. and Kennedy Rd. after the community objected to the noise, dust, traffic and fumes from buses.

Fuel tanks have been moved to the east end of the site, away from homes. Acoustic panels will surround the fans on the roof to reduce noise. The city has also agreed to extend Redlea Ave. farther south of Steeles to reduce the traffic impacts on Kennedy.

Metrolinx added an employee discount for airport workers to the Union Pearson Express train fare schedule following complaints that the service would be unaffordable to a key group of potential riders.

Metrolinx says its installation of noise walls along the Kitchener tracks through Toronto is a win for public consultations - the result of eight community advisory committees that worked with a landscape architect. Some residents aren’t as thrilled with the results, complaining they attract graffiti.

Having their say about having their say

Torontonians are divided on public consultations. Are they drawn out and vague or useful and informative?

Marilyn Renzetti, Sheppard Ave. E. and Highway 404

“Enough already with the studies. Let’s get on and build it.”

Divya Nyak, Finch Ave. E. and Bayview Ave.

“We keep on having these exhaustive discussions, but no one listens to the people.”

“They come and present it in one way and then people will be forced to choose what’s the best option, instead of getting the absolute whole picture. Give us the full picture.”

Lily Leung, Finch Ave. E. and Bayview Ave.

“Every time we do get a new mayor, we get another consultation. And all of these consultations cost money. Nothing’s being done. They should just do it.”

“I was really disappointed to hear that it’s going to be another 10 to 15 years to build this stuff. Why do we need that much consultation? What we need is heavy lobbying to the provincial government and the federal government.”

Jason Neudorf, Yonge St. and Eglinton Ave.

“This is a good opportunity to sense what’s coming down the pipe. I think it’s really important to have a physical presence where people can actually interact with people working on the projects.”

Peter Yu, Bloor St. W. and St. George St.

“There’s a lot of high-level information. But at the same time, the detailed information that people are really keen to find out about is still vague.”

“It would be useful to have a political representative on site, because ultimately it’s their call, it’s their decision. It would be good to let the public ask their questions to a councillor.”

Dorothy Vong, Sheppard Ave. E. and Bayview Ave.

“They’re quite informative. I think they try their best to answer the questions.”

Mike McConnell, Sheppard Ave. E. and Don Mills Rd.

“This (June 17’s transit consultation in North York) was a great presentation. I learned a lot. There’s a lot of people around to help you out if you have any questions.”