Years before it is even built, SmartTrack is shrinking. When John Tory was running for mayor in 2014, his team sold the plan as a 22-stop "surface subway" that would "bring transit and congestion relief to the whole city." It is shaping up as something considerably less. According to reporting by this newspaper, a scaled-down version is taking form behind the scenes. It would have many fewer stations, though trains might come more often than first promised. The western spur that was to run along Eglinton Avenue West to the Pearson airport area would be replaced by a light-rail line.
You might call it SmartTrack Lite. Another thing you might call it is GO Train Plus. Provincial transit authorities are already planning more frequent service along the GO lines that radiate out from Union Station to the suburbs and exurbs of Toronto. The multibillion-dollar regional express rail plan is a key part of the government's transit strategy. If the SmartTrack that emerges merely adds a few stations to that system, it will fall far short of the hype of the Tory election campaign.
SmartTrack was the biggest, glossiest promise in Mr. Tory's platform. He insisted the 22-stop marvel would be up and running in seven years. He brushed off doubters as nervous Nellies who always find a way to say no to bold ideas like his. "It's going to work and I'm going to make it work. I have the determination to get this done," he said. When challenged on the vague details, he insisted: "I'm just confident that the plan is sound."
The plan was not sound. It was clear from the start that running a heavy-rail line along Eglinton Avenue West toward the airport was impractical. Some of the public land along the corridor has already been sold off. Sending track west from the existing GO line would bring huge engineering challenges. A report from city staff in October confirmed that building the western spur would probably require tunnelling, an enormous expense.
It was clear from the start that stringing a whole lot of new stations along the GO lines would be a problem, too. Transit authorities warned that it could interfere with plans to run express GO trains on those routes. Some proposed stations would be costly or impractical to build because of their location.
Mr. Tory has been saying for months now that he is willing to listen to expert advice on the details of SmartTrack. After all, he argues, his campaign didn't have "squads of engineers" to work through the complexities when he was running for mayor. If the experts say parts of it can't be done, he told The Globe and Mail editorial board last month, "of course I'm going to pay attention."
Good. A scaled-back version of his plan could still provide some relief to commuters. Using the GO lines to provide local transit service, with better connections to other transit lines, was always a good idea in theory.
But let's be clear: The SmartTrack that now seems to be coming together is a very different beast from the SmartTrack that Mr. Tory pitched with such aggressive salesmanship during his campaign for mayor. Marketed with colour-coded maps and glowing testimonials, it was supposed to "break the back of the city's congestion problems." The claims made for SmartTrack seemed puffed up even at the time. Given what we're learning now about how it might turn out in reality, they seem wildly misleading.
Let's hope the mayor doesn't try to fudge the climb-down that is happening here and claim he is delivering the SmartTrack he promised. Frustrated Toronto commuters have seen too many local leaders play politics with transit, dangling unrealistic plans before their weary eyes.
Mr. Tory told the editorial board that he still believes a robust version of SmartTrack is going to come out of all the current studies and negotiations. He said there is no way he is going to "add a couple of stations on and brand it with some signs and say, 'Look, SmartTrack.'" Voters should hold him to it.