Toronto’s Transit Rollercoaster


Ever since I lived in Toronto back in 2003, I’ve always kept an eye on transit developments in the GTA. In the early days, there was David Miller’s Transit City, which promised to criss-cross the city with light rail. Then Rob Ford rumbled into office and promised the gravy train along with the light rail trains. Instead, Rob Ford planned on fewer lines, but with all of them being heavy rail subway lines. Then most recently came John Tory and his SmartTrack which was a vaunted “surface subway” that would start moving Toronto in a new way.

Three mayors with three very different visions over the past 13 years. It’s enough to make any transit follower’s eyes spin.

S - Fig 24 Transit City

In David Miller’s TransitCity plan, LRT lines would have covered several major corridors in Toronto. The longest line, and the only line which had shovels put in the ground, is the Eglinton Crosstown. It is still under construction and is not expected to be completed until 2021. The current construction will create a line running from Mt. Dennis in the west to Kennedy in the east.

The other 6 LRT lines have never made it off the drawing board thanks to a change in Mayors back in 2010. Rob Ford busted into office and wiped the transit board clean. He also planned to severely modify the original Eglinton Crosstown route. The route was originally planned to be partially underground and partially above ground. Ford was hell bent on tunnelling the whole line. He didn’t like how trains would take away road space above ground. Thanks to a council vote, though, Ford’s expensive extensive tunnelling plans were shelved and the original plan stayed in place.

Probably only because of financial commitments, the Eglinton Crosstown LRT stayed in the plan. However, the rest of Ford’s plan was to add to the existing subway system by extending pre-existing lines and adding a couple more spur lines. Ultimately, the plan was to encompass Toronto in subways.

It was a grand vision, indeed, but ironically expensive for a mayor who campaigned on stopping the “gravy train” at Toronto City Hall. Even with only the intial part of Rob Ford’s subway plan compared to the Transit City LRT expansion, the cost differences are huge. He proposed private funding could make up the $5.1 billion difference in cost. Even if cost isn’t a factor, the ridership and geographic coverage was further with the LRT plan.


Enter 2014 Toronto Mayoral race, and 3 different visions of transit are front and centre in the campaign.

Rob Ford was still backing his subway plan while Olivia Chow and John Tory offered different visions.

Rob Ford 2014 Subway Plan
Rob Ford’s 2014 plans (graphic from The Globe and Mail)

Rob Ford was still going to add a spur line in the northwest to Humber College off of the extended Spadina line, an extension of the Sheppard Line out into Scarborough, and a downtown relief line between Queen and Pape stations. He also wanted to bury the eastern portion of the LRT to prevent the Eglinton Crosstown line from taking up any road space.

Olivia Chow 2014 Transit Plan
Olivia Chow’s 2014 transit plan (graphic from The Globe and Mail)

Olivia Chow campaigned a variant of David Miller’s shelved Transit City plans. All the lines look very similar to Rob Ford’s plan except that all the lines would be LRT except for perhaps the Pape to Union downtown relief line. The money saved from converting from subway to LRT would have been thrown behind adding more buses to the TTC.

John Tory SmartTrack 2014 Plan
John Tory’s 2014 SmartTrack (graphic from The Globe and Mail)

The ultimate winner in 2014 turned out to be John Tory and his SmartTrack plan. He proposed an intensified use of existing GO Train lines to create a “surface subway” system. The idea was to create a 15-minute frequency rail line extending from the Airport area in Mississauga to Unionville in the northeast via Union Station downtown. Tory’s proposal promised quicker relief with less construction. However, the plan was new and had never been studied by any of the agencies that would be building and operating the SmartTrack Line.


In January 2016, SmartTrack had been modified. John Tory had decided to listen to transit planning staff from the various agencies involved to modify parts of the plan.

The portion of the SmartTrack from Mt. Dennis to the airport would have been very costly.

“Because of anticipated costs and lower ridership numbers, I accept that heavy rail is not the best option for the western leg of SmartTrack,” Tory told reporters on Tuesday.

LRT would draw more than 105,000 daily transit boardings at a cost of about $1.3 billion. Heavy rail options were estimated to cost up to $7.7 billion but attract, at best, only about 87,000 boardings, according to a joint report from city planners and the University of Toronto Transportation Research Institute.

The other modification is in the eastern portion of the plan in Scarborough. The original plan was to extend the Bloor-Danforth line with a pricey 3 subway stops to Scarborough Town Centre. The new modified version still extends the subway all the way the Town Centre, but skips with the pricy stops in between. Instead, the Eglinton-Crosstown LRT will be extended and add even more service deeper into Scarborough. So for the same price as the original plan, Scarborough will get a new subway station and a lot more LRT stops versus only 3 subway stops.


So in 2016, transit in Toronto may finally be rounding the final turns in its long transit roller coaster saga. John Tory has shown a political acumen for being pragmatic at brokering a reasonable middle ground in this transit debate.


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