TTC chair Karen Stintz took a risky but important step when she questioned plans for the Eglinton-Scarborough Crosstown transit line. Risky because it puts her at odds with the man to whom she owes her post, Mayor Rob Ford. Important because it opens a debate on the biggest transit project in the city.
The $8.2-billion light-rail line is to carry passengers from Black Creek Drive in the west to the Scarborough City Centre in the east, linking up with existing subway lines and easing congestion. The original plan for the line would have seen it travel through a tunnel in the centre of the city on either side of Yonge Street, but above ground on less dense areas such as the eastern stretch of Eglinton Avenue. When he took office in 2010, Mr. Ford ripped up that plan, along with the rest of Transit City, and said that the whole line must go underground.
That, Ms. Stintz says, makes no sense. Light-rail vehicles are designed to travel on the surface, and the broad streets of east Eglinton have plenty of room for them. If it is going to be light rail, she wants to go back to Plan A and make it a mixed line: part underground, part above.
It would be much cheaper that way – $1-billion to $1.5-billion cheaper, she says – and the money saved could be used to pay for an extension to the Sheppard subway, Mr. Ford's favoured project. Changing back to the original plan could save time, too, because the environmental assessments for Plan A have already been completed and, with less tunnelling required, construction would be quicker.
There are two barriers to Ms. Stintz's excellent idea: the province and the mayor. Take the province first.
Less than a year ago, Mr. Ford and Premier Dalton McGuinty struck a deal to have the province build an all-buried Eglinton line and the city build a Sheppard subway. Given all the back-and-forth we've seen over transit in recent decades – an Eglinton line was started then stopped in the 1990s – provincial officials would be reluctant to change course yet again.
But the political winds have changed since Mr. McGuinty, facing a tough fight for re-election and trying to avoid a fight with a popular and newly elected Mr. Ford, signed that memorandum of understanding. The wording of the memorandum makes clear that it is a non-binding letter of intent, not a binding contract. If city council voted to return to Plan A for Eglinton and request the leftover money be used for Sheppard, Queen's Park would at least have to consider it.
Support is growing on city council for just such a vote. It comes not only from left-leaning councillors who hope, against the odds, to revive Transit City, but from moderate and even conservative councillors who wonder how much sense it makes to spend hundreds of millions of dollars tunnelling under the wide open spaces of Eglinton east with a light-rail line, not to mention the expense of spanning the vast Don Valley.
Conservative-minded Councillor John Parker has raised doubts about burying the whole Eglinton line and using LRT technology designed mainly for surface travel. Centrist Josh Matlow says he is "on the same page" as Ms. Stintz about the Eglinton line and urges the mayor to consider her idea.
Will he? Changing his mind on Eglinton will not be easy. His dislike of streetcars is well known, and the way he sees it, the light-rail lines that would go on Eglinton east are just a fancy kind of streetcar.
Gordon Chong, a Ford associate who is looking into ways of financing a Sheppard subway line, sounds lukewarm on Ms. Stintz's proposal. "While her suggestion is one way to free up funds," he told me in an e-mail, "it's not my preferred choice."
But if the mayor would bend a bit on his stubborn opposition to rails on streets, he has much to gain. His Sheppard project is in trouble. Mr. Chong, who will present his report soon, has made it clear that even if the city can woo private-sector investors to the project, it will require government money, too. If more is left over from Eglinton by running it above ground where possible, the mayor could get a bigger down payment on Sheppard.