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Toronto’s next big transit expansion is on the table — and busways are at the top of the list

As billions of dollars worth of new transit is being built in Toronto, city councillors are set to consider the next wave of projects, and busways are at the top of the list.

A new report coming to city council later this month evaluates projects and corridors in need of service once the current slate of building is expected to be completed around 2031. And with a growing repair backlog on the city’s transit system, staff are recommending a more affordable approach that prioritizes maintenance and may not immediately lead to new subway construction. 

Mayor Olivia Chow said the city is not giving up on building subways, but with serious fiscal challenges, it must also look at options that can be delivered more quickly and at a lower price to taxpayers.

“We always want to find the best solution that is the most affordable solution,” she said. “A busway is absolutely one of them.”

The staff report compares and contrasts 24 prospective projects that have been contemplated in some form for years, including dedicated bus rapid transit lines, light-rail lines and subway line extensions. They’re all graded using criteria that evaluate a mix of needs including Toronto’s projected population growth, such as creating healthy neighbourhoods and easing crowding and congestion on the current transit system.

All but one of the projects in the top 10 is a dedicated busway, meaning a dedicated bus-only lane on a given street, or a dedicated right-of-way outside of regular lanes of traffic.

One subway extension is also part of the top 10, an extension of the Ontario Line, north from Eglinton Avenue E. to Steeles Avenue.

The new report will be both a guide for future decision-making on transit project prioritization, and also give city staff further authority to begin to plan the next phase of development of some of the lines.

Due to the high costs and long planning and construction times of higher-order transit projects in Toronto, it remains critically important to also examine less expensive near-term transit improvements throughout the city,” city staff say in the report.

Busway building in the hands of the city: Myers

TTC Chair Jamaal Myers said he’s not surprised to see busways rank so high on the list. It’s a natural continuation of the go-ahead council gave to a series of dedicated bus lanes under the RapidTO plan approved last month, he said.

With much of the transit planning for subways and light-rail now in the hands of the province, busways remain something Toronto can actively design and build to help the system, he added.

“I think in terms of looking at value-for-money in terms of moving people efficiently, it makes a lot of sense to sort of focus on those very straightforward wins,” he said.

Man in a blue suit smiles.
Coun. Jamaal Myers says he’s not surprised to see busways rank high on the list of future transit projects the city could build. The dedicated lates are cost-effective and can deliver improvements for transit riders, he said. (Mark Bochsler)

The report also emphasizes the need to maintain and repair the current system. Toronto has an unfunded capital program of nearly $34 billion, of which almost $17 billion is for TTC and other transit projects, the report notes.

Transit advocate Steve Munro said he’s glad to see some of the focus on maintenance and upkeep.

“The penny has finally dropped,” he said, but noted that spending needs to come on the operating side of the TTC, not just the capital side.

“If the Scarborough RT derailment and the near catastrophe in the subway with the broken switch … says anything, it says that day-to-day inspection and maintenance is not being done at a sufficiently high level.” 

‘We just can’t afford to be building subways’

University of Toronto planning professor Matti Siemiatycki said the report is trying to tease out how and where the city will use the varying technologies. It makes clear that building subways shouldn’t be the city’s go-to transit technology, he said.

“We just can’t afford to be building subways everywhere.  It’s too expensive to build, it’s too expensive to operate and maintain,” he said. “And so you have to be using the right technology depending on how many riders and what the distances are and what the population densities are around the station.”

And while a lot could change in the city’s plan in the years to come, Siemiatycki said the report is a good place to start. 

“This is a comprehensive plan that tries to apply evidence to make decisions about how we’re going to be selecting big projects going forward,” he said.

Chow said she plans to listen to the experts and look at the evidence in the report when making future transit decisions. Too often in Toronto’s history, politics has trumped good transit planning, she said.

“It’s important that any decision dealing with transit be made through data and science, not political desires,” she said.

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