A few questions that Toronto's SmartTrack project brings up

The City of Toronto, Metrolinx and the TTC have been working on their GO Regional Express Rail and SmartTrack projects since 2015, with them blending with each other to offer not much differentiation between the two. Even though the latter has been pared down significantly since it was proposed by John Tory as part of his campaign for mayorship in 2014, it’s still going strong and remains a centrepiece of his second term.

SmartTrack — a proposed “surface subway” rail service — will begin with trains “up to 8 trains per hour in the peak period, with off peak service levels up to 4 trains per hour,” according to a Metrolinx technical advisory document on the project. The service will stretch along a portion of the Kitchener, Lakeshore East and Stouffville GO Transit lines with new stations being built at St. Clair-Old Weston and King-Liberty on the Kitchener corridor, East Harbour and Gerrard-Carlaw on both the Lakeshore East and Stouffville corridors and Lawrence-Kennedy and Finch-Kennedy on the Stouffville corridor only.

The GO RER expansion, on the other hand, will increase the number of train trips on a wider amount of rail corridors, with electric trains running two-way, all-day service on the most-used sections of the network. This expansion includes hourly service on the Barrie line to Allandale Waterfront, to Mount Pleasant on the Kitchener line and to Mount Joy on the Stouffville line; 15-30 minute rush hour service on the Richmond Hill line and 15 minute peak service on the Milton line; 60 minute service to/from Hamilton on the Lakeshore West line and 15 minute service between Union and Oshawa on the Lakeshore West line. There’ll be shorter headways — up to 15 minutes, or a minimum of double what they are now — on shorter sections on the lines that are closer to Toronto.

However, now that John Tory has settled in for another four years as mayor, it’s time for some explanations — especially now that $1.46 billion has been approved to fund SmartTrack, of which the majority will go to Metrolinx to build the new stations within the city.

Why was land that could’ve been used for construction of stations sold off?

In October, The Globe and Mail reported:

A problem cropped up soon after John Tory unveiled his signature “surface subway” proposal during the Toronto mayoral campaign in the spring of 2014: The city had already sold off land it once owned along the route, and tunnelling would have added billions to the cost.

This statement begs the question of why land would be sold off — especially under Tory’s leadership, since he’s been the main driver behind the SmartTrack scheme from the beginning.

What falls under the SmartTrack brand?

The project consists of the heavy rail lines along the existing GO Transit stretches of track, a proposed extension of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT line to the airport, plus the refurbishment of eight GO stations and construction of six new ones.

Stations will be funded by Toronto but will be owned by the province, making us wonder whether it is a municipal or provincial service. During a Metrolinx Q&A session on December 12, 2017, we were told that there would be no differentiation between the trains running the SmartTrack service and the regular GO Train service, making it appear as though it’ll be provincially run.

In response to this question, Ellen Leesti, who is in charge of strategic communications for city planning issues, said:

The SmartTrack Stations Program is a package of six stations. The six stations are additional infrastructure which the City is recommending and funding above and beyond the Province's planned investments in GO Expansion. The City’s funding contribution is subject to terms and conditions.

What even is SmartTrack?

There’s a lot of confusion over what the transit project actually is — and it’s especially difficult to understand the difference between it and the RER expansion if you’re not paying close attention to the city’s transit news.

GO Transit is in the midst of electrifying the rail network in the GTA to increase weekly trips from 1,500 to 6,000 as part of a $13.5 billion project. In 2014, Tory wanted to take advantage of the upgrade by adding 22 new stations — and voila, SmartTrack was born. However, it was determined that running the service separately from the current regional train service would be cost prohibitive, requiring too much money to acquire land, build new tracks and expand the available platforms at Union Station. On October 6, 2015, the then-CEO of Metrolinx, Bruce McCuaig, wrote in a letter that "an independent and parallel service would be unaffordable and unworkable,” crushing Tory’s plans of having a separate service.

Leesti provided a bit of an explanation for this as well:

It is assumed Metrolinx will own and operate the SmartTrack Stations Program. SmartTrack stations will be served by GO Transit trains.

How will the city pay for it?

With the city on the hook for a good portion of the project, it’s interesting that Tory is interested in using Tax Increment Financing to generate the cash needed — a tactic that essentially borrows against future revenue to pay for current needs. To be clear, TIFs are property taxes projected into the future, bringing tax revenue from the future to the present, but causing numerous funding issues decades down the road.

Generally TIF is best used in places where there’s no current revenue being generated, ensuring that money will be made in the future. The locations of SmartTrack stations are in medium to high density areas and it will be used around the Liberty Village, downtown core and East Don Lands areas, affecting only new office developments.

This article was updated on January 23 to include a reply from the City of Toronto on some questions raised.

📸: SmartTrack