Corp Comm Connects

Transit in York Region: Where is it taking us and when will we get there?
July 1, 2015

Calling transportation the number one challenge facing York Region, council established a task force in May to tackle the issue.

Meanwhile, with gridlock costing the economy of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area $11 billion a year, the provincial and federal governments are pouring historic levels of funding into transportation infrastructure.

For example, in its spring budget, the provincial government announced $16 billion for transit in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area while on June 18, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced a $2.6 billion-investment in Toronto Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack initiative, a 53-kilometre, 22-station surface train service line on existing GO train lines.

York Region Rapid Transit Corporation president Mary-Frances Turner and chief engineer Paul May sat down to talk about the unprecedented transformation of public transit in York Region and across the sprawling Golden Horseshoe.

Q: In May, the region launched a transportation task force, described as one of the most significant committee’s in the region’s history. Can you explain why it is so important and why it is so timely

Turner: Transportation has been stated as the number one issue of priority to York Region residents for many, many, many years. It’s really important, as we look at major milestones like our transportation master plan, that we really examine opportunities to really get it right. And getting it right means where do we spend our emphasis and our focus with respect to the dollars that need to be spent to improve our roads and our transit systems and create great places for people to walk and have mobility, including on their bicycles. So, that’s why a task force was created, because it’s really important to York Region residents and their quality of life.

May: I think the other aspect is, I think it’s very timely now for this task force because there is an unparalleled level of investment in transportation in the GTA, not only with the things under construction in York Region, our rapid bus transit and the Spadina subway extension, but also all the RER (rapid express rail) investment with Metrolinx.

Turner: That (RER) is the electrification of the GO (Train) lines, which is going to allow us to have 15-minute service. It’s that investment, which is the signal of a turning movement that’s happening here in York Region transportation as well as our ability to attack transportation challenges, (that) are really now being met with some funding, real, huge, significant funding opportunities.

May: We want to make sure the investment in York Region is focused as to what works best for York Region.

Q: Why now are we getting the investment? Why now after years of talking about this, and maybe some things being done, but why now is it actually (getting funding)?

Turner: There has been incremental levels of investment so what you’re seeing here today (with bus rapid transit or BRT), that’s $1.75 billion worth of investment in York Region and this program has been underway for almost 10 years. The program that is building the rapid transit lines, the Viva program, is over 10 years old in the making. In terms of the first level of investment that we got, we first got $150 million that put Viva on the streets everywhere but not in their own rapid transit lanes. Then in 2006-2007, we got another announcement that allowed us to invest in the rapid ways that are being built on Davis (Drive in Newmarket), now down Yonge and across Hwy. 7. There has been incremental levels of investments but the kind of investment that just got announced by the premier is in the order of $16 billion of investment in rapid transit and that’s because congestion, again, remains the top-rated issue and the strategies that need to be brought to bear to solve our congestion issue have to be more global in their approach. So, electrification of rail is something that’s been happening and does exist in Europe but hasn’t existed here ever. Rail electrification is going to allow us to go from the Unionville station…and go downtown up and down every 15 minutes. Which means we will completely think differently about the notion of getting on rapid transit, as opposed to needing to be in my car to get anywhere because I live in York Region.

May: Or having to adjust your schedule to fit a transit schedule. If the transit is rapid enough and frequent enough, it serves your needs. The other aspect is these projects are such large, complex civil engineering projects, they take years to develop. The Spadina subway extension funding announcement was in 2006. The project will be completed in 2017. So, that’s the time it takes to design and build a subway. Our BRT project was announced in 2009, the funding for it, the first phase went into operation in 2013 and then there will be subsequent phases until 2019 when it’s all built out. They take time to develop.

Q: They do but do you find that over the last 25 years, there were transit announcements and then they sat around and they came back in a different form and then they were shelved again? It seemed like an endless cycle. Yes, there were some things done but it seemed like on a lot of things, it would have a grand name to it and then it would be ‘Yeah, whatever, forget it’ and it would disappear for a while, parts of it would come back…

Turner: That’s not really our story here. One thing that York Region and its political direction has been is to be very clear what our needs are, to go after our needs for rapid transit investment and to actually deliver them and not change the program. So, while maybe you have seen changes maybe south of Steeles, LRT one day, BRT the next day, subways everywhere the next day, now a combination of them to be managed by the Big Move, here in York Region, we have been very fortunate. Since 2001, we’ve been working to put a rapid transit in place. We started in 2003. We put Viva on the ground. We got additional funding and now we’re putting the BRT system in place. We have been very focused. We’ve had our heads down, working very hard with the community to get through the construction together and to get it put in place without changing our minds about technology, be it a bus, be it LRT, be it a subway. We haven’t spent our time there. That is the fortunate part of our story, that there hasn’t been time wasted changing our mind along the way. We’ve been very focused. That’s our job here at the rapid transit corporation, to stay on course with our politicians to meet the community need.

Q: Why do we need all this? Are we choking on our own congestion?

May: We identified in the first transportation master plan that the region did, which was approved in 2002, we strongly identified that we couldn’t widen enough roads in York Region to accommodate all the future travel just in cars. There just wasn’t enough roads to widen and not enough property. There would just have to be too many lanes on these arterial roads so transit was the only way we were going to achieve the future need for travel in a sustainable manner. The two rapid way lanes in the middle of the road have more capacity to move people than the three lanes in each direction, so a total of six lanes, for regular cars.

Turner: For people in York Region, it’s about giving them choices. Up to now, those choices haven’t really been all that real for many people because they haven’t been frequent enough, they haven’t been in the places that people were getting to. So, the whole idea with the Big Move, with the investment with rail electrification, the big investment in our BRT lanes and in the subways is to give people real choices. Because until and unless they have real choices, while their car may be sitting in congestion, it’s a preferred choice because they don’t want to be waiting for the next bus for the next half hour, 45 minutes. Everything coming 15 minutes or less, now you have a real choice. Our whole story is about giving people real choice, informed choices about how they move about. It’s about mobility.

Q: Just as a normal person, I hear Metrolinx, Viva, YRT, GO, there’s the TTC, there’s SmartTrack. How is this all working? It just seems like so much and I can’t wrap my head around it. Help me wrap my head around it.

Turner: We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up. YRT has existed for a considerable amount of time. It was formed by putting together all of the local transit systems and creating York Region Transit. And that was done by the region putting together all these small individuals into a large regional authority. That authority is responsible for operating the day-to-day system that you see running around out there. The rapid transit corporation, which is our service that we put out there and we run the rapid transit corporation, our goal is to find funding and to build the projects and then give them to YRT, York Region Transit, to put into service and they run the local service every day on our behalf. We have funding partners and one of the funding partners we have is Metrolinx. And Metrolinx was formed to create this umbrella regional transportation authority, to create the big picture that’s bigger than any one of our individual pictures, to put together the whole network and to determine the priorities of which pieces of that network should go ahead of the others. But (transit) is a very important, as you know, political hot potato for everyone to deal with. So, usually, you will find at election time, one of the platforms that a politician will run on is their ideas about a transit idea. So, in this case, (Toronto Mayor) John Tory came out with the idea of SmartTrack. And SmartTrack is just basically layered on top of the GO lines and adds a few more stations in the city of Toronto. But he’s been able to give it a phrase and a name and gain popularity as another way to move people around. But it happens to be the same plan with a few more stations. So, for those of us that are in the transportation business, it’s really not that complicated because we follow all these bouncing balls all the time. But we all really, truly do work together and I think probably now is the best time ever for all of us to work together because there’s alignment between the ideas of electrification and SmartTrack and rapid transit investment and the various municipalities (agree with what is happening). So, we are finally seeing everybody coming together as opposed to everybody having their own ideas and they don’t match.

May: From a transit user perspective, when you’ve got different systems operating in the Greater Toronto Area like this, there are two aspects that make it convenient for the user. One is service integration. So, can I connect from one service to another service to get where I want to go? And we do have service integration in York Region and in the Greater Toronto Area. So, YRT connects to all of the GO train stations and the GO bus terminals. It also connects to the TTC and, actually, YRT contracts the TTC to operate service into York Region so you get on a TTC bus in York Region and you don’t have to transfer when you get down to Steeles Avenue. So, we do have that service integration and all the transit agencies work well to achieve that. The other aspect is fare integration so you have one unified fare system throughout the Greater Toronto Area and we don’t have that yet. There is fare integration between YRT and GO Transit so you pay just a 75-cent premium if you have taken YRT to get to the GO train station, for example, and you got on the GO train. And there is fare integration with, like, Brampton Transit, which is on our western boundary. But there isn’t fare integration with the TTC. So, I talked about the TTC bus that comes up into York Region, yet you pay a York Region fare in York Region and then you pay a TTC fare when you cross the boundary. That’s the area that would make it truly integrated and then it doesn’t matter who’s operating it as long as you have that fare integration.

Turner: You could just use your Presto card and get on any system and it doesn’t matter whose system you’re on.

Q: And when are we getting that?

Turner: It’s getting there.

May: The Presto card is being implemented. Everyone in the GTA has implemented it except for the TTC and it’s in the process in the TTC. They’ve started to and it will still be a couple years before they’ve finished implementing it on the TTC. So, that makes it more convenient. You just tap your card each time. In terms of integrating the fare policy, that’s more difficult and Metrolinx is working on that and it needs to be done at the Greater Toronto Area level. It’s not something York Region can do on its own.

Q: Is it done by distance? If I’m going from Georgina to Mississauga or something like that?

May: You could do it by zone or you could do it by distance. GO already has a fare by distance and YRT has three zones. You pay a $1 premium if you’re doing a two zone-ride instead of a one zone-ride.

Turner: The TTC does not. Some of the great challenge in fare integration has been people have traditionally hung on to the one-fare system so you can travel right now from Scarborough, the boundaries of Scarborough, to the other end of Toronto on one fare.

Q: Doesn’t that make sense if you want people to get on transit?

Turner: It makes sense if you want the cheapest fare possible to get from one side of the city to the other but in terms of the cost, really, of that ride versus the person getting on in Scarborough and just going down to the Beach to do something and they’re paying the same fare (it doesn’t make sense). It’s a really challenging area, the whole area of fare integration and the changes that need to come along. But the most important thing, initially, for the rider has to be it shouldn’t matter which system they’re on, they can tap their Presto card wherever they’re going while fare integration is being sorted out and not have to worry am I on the TTC or am I on GO or am I on Viva. These things shouldn’t matter. In the rest of the world where fare integration has happened, it doesn’t matter. You just tap your Presto card and away you go.

Q: So, do you know when?

Turner: It’s coming. And that is part of the work of Metrolinx, to figure out all of this. Soon, with the TTC coming on board with their Presto card, the availability of all of the systems will be working. Fare integration will not have been sorted out in two years, I don’t expect, because it’s an expensive thing to figure out, which is what is the fare policy? If I live in Pickering and I want to go to Burlington and I want to ride through five different transit systems, that’s a thorny subject that will take a little but longer to figure out.

Q: Would it make sense to have just one Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area transit authority?

Turner: It could, it could ultimately. So, everything is the same and branded the same but there are pros and cons to that as well in terms of knowing what a local municipality really needs in terms of its local service and giving that up to a regional authority. Often, the regional authorities own all the rail-based projects and the local transit is provided at a local level with a user group that’s not spread out from Bowmanville to Hamilton. They try to figure out what needs to run around in that little community. There are different models for transit authorities and how integrated they become over time.

Q: So, how do I figure this out if I’m just Joe Blow transit rider and I need to go from Georgina to Brampton or I need to from Vaughan to Clarington? How do I figure out what transit system I’m taking?

Turner: You can call our call centre and they can help you plan your trip. Or, if you’re savvy on your phone, now you can put in our trip program and you can plug in ‘I’m going here and here’ and it will give you the whole trip.

May: You can do it on Google Transit. Metrolinx is rolling out a new GTA-wide trip planning service called Triplinx. And you can just go on these websites. Put in your origin in Keswick and your destination in Brampton and it will tell you what your options are to get there.

Q: Can you explain the whole urban transformation that comes along with this?

Turner: The importance of transit investment is about mobility. It’s also about accommodating growth and allowing growth to happen in the right built form and transforming how these communities have grown. Here in York Region, this is really, really important. All of these high-rise, high-density buildings (along Hwy. 7 west of Warden Avenue) weren’t here 10 years ago. The reason they are here is because we made an informed choice. (Along Hwy. 7 looking east), it’s single-family, low-rise houses, which can’t be the only way we grow. We have to grow up(wards) and in order to grow up, we have to get people moved in a different fashion. Transportation is a really important part of the transformation story.

May: Land use planning and transportation planning really have to go hand-in-hand. They can’t be done separately, they have to be done at the same time. The region quite a while ago developed the whole centres and corridors plan. There are four regional centres in Markham, in Richmond Hill, over in Vaughan and one up in Newmarket. The regional corridors are across Hwy. 7 and north-south on Yonge Street. The Viva rapid transit connects these centres together along Hwy. 7 and Yonge Street.

Turner: It supplies the necessary capacity to accommodate that development. The roads were congested before the high-density showed up on the scene. The question is, what is your strategy? You can’t just keep widening the roads. Wide roads are very difficult for people to live in and cross and they’re not great places to be near so the whole idea is to make an informed decision. You put transit into those corridors, you make it rapid, you build out so many lanes and the rest is about how people move around and in that space. It needs to be a pleasant place to be. We really are in this transformation from where we we’ve been. In one direction (along Hwy. 7), we have no sidewalk and ditches and this is a highway and in the other direction there is an avenue. This is a place where people can live and work and play and walk, have a patio, have a restaurant and a café, a whole different vision of how we live and work. That investment is being made, in large part, in response to the fact that we have created capacity in the system to accommodate the density through rapid transit investment.

Q: Paint a picture of what transit will look like in five years.

Turner: In five years, we’ll have 37 kilometres of rapid transit corridors, bus rapid transit corridors, fully separated for buses to be running up and down. The Spadina subway will be open. We hope to be well into engineering for the Yonge subway because it’s another major piece of our puzzle. And we hope to have a corridor running up Jane Street and across Major Mack and down Don Mills providing rapid transit but in mixed traffic and as a precursor to future separated rapid transit investment. It will be buses like the first stage of Viva where we ran in mixed traffic and the stations will be curbside. The goal is to start it in mixed traffic and get it into its own corridor. Five years from now, you should be seeing much more frequent service on the GO lines and then five years from then, you’re going to see electrification. You’re going to have this whole rapid transit system of buses and subways start to be connected to the GO lines and the GO lines are going to be running up and down the corridors.

May: Metrolinx has a 10-year program to implement regional express rail, RER.  These are all diesel trains right now. They’re electrifying some of the corridors but not all of them. They’re not electrifying the Richmond Hill corridor and the Kitchener corridor past Brampton. But they are electrifying the Stouffville line and the Barrie line. I don’t expect they will have that done in five years. It will take at least 10 years to do that but they are going to incrementally add more trains to each of the GO rail lines. Plus, they’re extending the Richmond Hill rail line. Right now, it stops just north of Major Mackenzie. They’re building a station up at Stouffville Road and another station up at Bloomington and this should be done within five years.

Q: Doesn’t that bring its own headaches for parking and where the trains go over the roads (meaning traffic has to stop)? Is that not going to bring its own congestion and difficulties?

Turner: There are challenges with all-day service and 15-minute service, for sure. Where they can, there will be grade separations. That means bridges, so the rail runs at one level and the cars run at a different level. But where it’s not achievable, yes, it will potentially to some congestion. But it is bringing a whole level of other relief that comes with that. Now, you can get out of your car and every 15 minutes, there’s a GO train running downtown. If you’re downtown, you can jump on the train and you’re up here in 15 minutes. The whole goal is to find other ways in addition to ‘I take my car and go to that GO parking lot. Finding another way for me to get from my house to the GO service without having to take my car.’ There has to be more ways than always just providing more parking garages. There has to be other strategies and solutions. You take local transit or you go with your neighbour or you take your bike because we have bicycle paths everywhere or you walk.

May: You carpool and get preferential parking.

Q: Paint a picture of what transit is going to look like in a quarter century.

Turner:  I think the level of investment now being made will create an entirely different manner in the way people will be able to move around our community. Right now, we truly are still a car-dependent community. I would say (in) 20 to 25 years, we could truly say we will have the real opportunity to be a mobile community. A mobile community has people moving by all modes of transportation. There are people in their cars, there are people riding transit, there are people who are on bicycle paths. (People are) moving back and forth between all the levels of service and it will be an entirely different opportunity for mobility in the region.

May: And a fully connected rapid transit network. There are still a number of gaps in the system and we’re slowly filling in these gaps. You (will be able to) use rapid transit for all or most of your trip, not just part of it or certain people who it works for. It will be available to a broader sector of society. It will be available as a viable option to driving to work.

Q: If you had to pick the biggest three gaps that you would like to see filled, what are they?

May: The Yonge subway (extension from Finch to Hwy. 7) would be number one.

Turner: The Yonge subway is number one, for sure. (Second is) the electrification of the rail, which is being fulfilled now by the premier’s announcement and the budget approvals. That’s huge.

May: And (third is) the completion of the BRT network. What we have funding for now is roughly half of a proper BRT network. We need more funding to fill in the remaining gaps. We don’t have funding to do the east end of Hwy. 7 and the west end of Hwy. 7 and the middle part of Yonge Street. Those are the gaps we want to fill in on the BRT.

Q: How much has been spent on rapid transit and how much more funding is needed?

Turner: Right now, here in York Region, there is $3 billion worth of rapid transit investment underway. The piece that’s opened is part of $1.75 billion but the majority of the $1.75 billion is under construction or about to go under construction. We’ve only opened one segment. I’ll break down the pieces. Bus rapid transit is worth $1.75 billion and there’s one piece of it opened, the rest is under construction. There’s $1 billion being invested in the Spadina subway in York Region. And there’s two or three projects we’ve built. That adds up to $3 billion worth of investment in York Region  that’s under construction or about to be under construction. The Yonge subway is worth $4 billion. That’s unfunded. The balance of our BRT is worth $1.75 billion or $8 billion rounded out. Those are the two major pieces of unfunded transit in York Region. The systems all need to connect together and be part of an overall network of transportation systems all working together, not just at a local level or regional level but also across the entire GTHA.

Q: Some of the projects have become a headache for people. Look at Davis Drive. Why is it worth it?

Turner: This is an investment for the next 50 or 100 years. It’s not an investment for today, today and only for today. It’s a long-term investment. That long-term investment is about many generations that will make sure of this rapid transit investment. Call it four years of heartache for the next 50 to 100 years of mobility in the region. So, it’s really worth it and we believe in that passionately, which is why we work really hard with the community to ease the impact during those four years because in the end, we really think it’s worth it.