While Toronto's battle over light rail expansion has consumed public attention the past two months, it's easy to forget that the suburban GTA and Hamilton are also desperately in need of transit upgrades. Roads are gridlocked, rush-hour buses are packed and the population is exploding, but a lack of capacity and little rapid transit mean relatively few people are inclined to leave their cars at home.
Ridership on suburban buses and trains is growing every year, but pales in comparison to Toronto. The TTC has nearly three times as many riders as all nine other transit systems in the GTA and Hamilton combined. Toronto's streetcar network alone, for example, carries more people than the entire GO system. However, the population of the Greater Toronto and Hamilton region is expected to grow by some two million people, most of whom will settle outside Toronto, by 2031.
Tejas Aivalli, a transit rider who lives near Mavis Road and Dundas Street in western Mississauga, uses a simple example to illustrate the current situation.
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"On the TTC subway, suits are as common as jeans. But on Mississauga buses, it's all jeans," he said. "As soon as you can buy a car, you get out."
Metrolinx, the provincial agency co-ordinating transit in the GTA and Hamilton, has an ambitious plan to vastly expand the network. Among other things, it proposes light rail lines in Hamilton and Peel Region, bus rapid transit systems in Mississauga, York and Halton and all-day service in both directions on all GO train lines.
Many of these projects, however, remain unfunded and it is not clear where the money will come from. This concern is even more pressing given the bleak financial picture at cash-strapped Queen's Park.
If Metrolinx is to achieve its aims, it will have to use other methods to raise the cash. It is still reviewing its options and will propose a funding strategy to the province and municipalities by June, 2013. After that, it is not known when any measures will be implemented.
"We're looking at all the tools that are used in the different systems around the world," said Bruce McCuaig, the agency's chief executive officer. "Depending on where you go, there are road-based fees, tolls and taxes to fund this kind of infrastructure."
Despite these hurdles, funding is in place and construction under way on a handful of projects in the 905, including three bus rapid transit lines, a premium-fare express train from Pearson Airport to Union Station and the expansion of the station to allow for the added ridership that all-day GO train service will entail.
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Metrolinx plans to run faster and more frequent GO trains between Hamilton and Oshawa, and from Union Station to Brampton, likely by electrifying the lines, but the money for the upgrade is not yet committed. It will also expand all-day, two-way train service to Hamilton by mid-2015. It is not known when the other lines will see all-day service.
The province began the process of integrating fares between the transit agencies by introducing the Presto smart card and offering discounts on some local transit services for GO riders. There are no firm plans for full fare integration.
Construction has started on the Mississauga Transitway, a bus-only road parallel to Highway 403 and Eglinton Avenue that will allow GO and MiWay buses to cross the city from Winston Churchill Drive to Renforth Drive, near Pearson International Airport, without having to stop for other traffic. The Transitway, which includes several stations, is set to open in 2013.
The region is also planning a light rail line that will link Port Credit in southern Mississauga with downtown Brampton, running mostly in dedicated lanes down the centre of Hurontario Street. The project is in the design phase and should be ready to seek funding by 2014, said Jeff Wright, director of Mississauga's transportation project office. Hurontario, which contains Mississauga's busiest bus route, is heavily congested.
"Without some sort of transport capacity improvement, it's going to limit us," Mr. Wright said. "One of the things that wouldn't work is adding more capacity for traffic."
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A third project – rapid transit on Dundas Street to the Kipling subway station – is on the backburner for now. Mr. Wright expects the city won't start examining options for that route until 2013.
Much like Toronto, transit expansion in Steeltown provoked a bizarre spat between the city's mayor and council. For years, the city has been planning an LRT line from McMaster University in the west end across downtown to Eastgate Mall. Then, during the provincial election, Mayor Bob Bratina told Premier Dalton McGuinty that Hamilton's priority was actually improved GO service.
Councillors struck back by voting to reaffirm the city's commitment to an LRT and order staff to finish design work by the end of 2012 in hopes of getting funding from the province.
"We certainly haven't lost the momentum," said Don Hull, director of Hamilton's transit agency.
Light rail advocates, however, say the mayor may be letting the province off the hook on a vital project.
"We have enough ridership on that east-west route to justify an LRT line," said Ryan McGreal. "As it is now, you have people standing there waiting while four or five buses drive by because they're full."
A subway extension to Vaughan is set to open in 2015 and construction is under way on upgrading the Viva express bus system to a full BRT. The province has committed enough funding to build dedicated bus lanes with rapid transit stations on Highway 7 between Helen Street in Vaughan and the Unionville GO station in Markham and on Yonge Street in parts of Richmond Hill and Newmarket.
The region, which is expecting to add a half-million residents in the coming years, is relying on the subway and BRT to help attract higher-density development along transit corridors. It estimates that, by 2021, transit ridership with roughly triple to 100 million boardings every year.
"We want to grow differently, we want to grow smartly," said Mary-Frances Turner, president of the York Region Transit Corp. "We've really had to rethink how our cities are built."
It also helps that, unlike Toronto, York's long-standing transit expansion plan has survived several election cycles. This enabled the region to do environmental assessments and design work ahead of time to be ready to start building as soon as the province offered the money.
There are still parts of the network left unfunded, including pieces of both BRT lines and an extension of the Yonge subway line to Richmond Hill.
The big-ticket item Metrolinx originally planned here – a rapid transit corridor along Highway 2 from downtown Oshawa to eastern Scarborough – has been scaled back to an express bus service, which will begin operation in mid-2013. Martin Ward, Durham Regional Transit's operations manager, said the demand in the area wasn't high enough for Metrolinx to spend the money on a full BRT.
However, the region will re-evaluate in 2025 and consider upgrading. In the interim, it is ensuring that changes made to the road allow for future rapid transit construction.
The demand may very well be there, given Durham's growth: Since the transit agency was created in 2006, ridership has nearly doubled.
Halton is planning to build two BRT lines: one on Trafalgar Street from the Lakeshore West GO train to Highway 403 and another on Dundas Street between Brant Street and Trafalgar. It is scheduled to open in phases between 2016 and 2021.
The region is working on environmental assessments on the lines and hasn't yet started the design work.