Friday, November 27, 2009

Better Transit is Better Business

Everything is political. As I go from transit conference to design conference, and I wonder why Metrolinx is building three - count them, three- new train tracks for an Air Rail Link to run Pan Am athletes to their Olympic Village for a total of twelve days, this is what I hear from transit experts repeatedly. The type of the trains, the choice of fuel, the number and placement of tracks, and which corridor is electrified first - Georgetown or Lakeshore - everything is based upon trade deals, secret memoranda of understanding, and political promises. And it is clear that my neighbourhood is not the winner in this horse race of Liberal promises, which date back to 1994, when Minister David Collennette took the Heathrow Express, and said "Toronto should have one of these, too". Note that the Heathrow Express is electric, rapid rail, and 99.9% on time, none of which will be true of the Air Rail Link.

The Union-Pearson Air Rail Link is costly, and duplicates new and existing transit routes. According to recent Metrolinx research on cost-benefit scenarios, only 17% of passengers will leave from Union Station, and only 4-7% of passengers will go from Pearson directly to Union Station. Three extra train tracks will be built for a choo choo train for executives, at $35 a ride, to ensure that they have extra leg room so they not have to rub pinstriped shoulders with riffraff. The riffraff includes me, as not only will this regional transit will skip the Bloor GO Station, there is no reason for me to loop back east to Union-Station to go west again, and pay two transit fares when I can call for an airport limo for roughly the same price. Redundant activity, and so is this unneeded cost of these three tracks in this corridor, duplicated by Transit City's Eglinton LRT, which has just begun to be built by the City of Toronto.

Our taxpayer's money is paying $1 billion to fund another white elephant, directly after the eHealth scandal, but this rail corridor is much more actively destructive to health, as it eats diesel and private property as rail land for dinner. At least the eHealth scandal generated mountains of paperwork and consultation fees, and no doubt paid for at least one cottage renovation, but has had no long lasting effects except to add to Ontario's $24.7 billion deficit. Why add three tracks to the cost of this Air Rail Link to the highest deficit in the history of Ontario, Minister Bradley? At the very least, if the Air Rail were electric, it would require fewer tracks and less land acquisition.

Two days ago, as I attended OCAD's Health and Design Conference, I asked these questions: Why do we have to prove through predictive statistics the affect on health of transit projects, rather than applying tried and true measures, such as electrification, as primary prevention policies to protect the health of citizens first? Why are the Ministers of Environment not advocating environmentally sustainable 'best practice' initiatives? Why is it that the provincial Minister of the Environment, John Gerretsen, has allowed a rolling submission process for data by Metrolinx for months after the September 1st deadline of the Environmental Project Review? Since when did Minister Gerretsen begin to work with a transit agency to allow them to revise their data for their EPR submission to enable them to use their choice of rolling stock and transit infrastructure, thus to privilege a public-private partnership? Why is it valid to model future air pollution data for Tier 4 'clean diesel' emissions, when the ultrafine particulate matter of Tier 4 has not been tested yet? And when do our communities get to have a public forum on their views on 'clean diesel' as it does not impact the amount of noise and vibration by rail traffic, and still necessitates the building of 5.5 meter high walls for 10 kilometers through their neighbourhoods, and in many cases, directly beside their homes and businesses?

I also attended the Canadian Urban Institute's Designing Transit Cities Conference where, ironically, Metrolinx was one of the sponsors. Case studies from Zurich, Portland and Paris were presented, and delighted the audience with the ingenuity of their design, sensitivity to community input, and transit implementation. Each of these cities did everything within their power to preserve and enhance the integrity of their built heritage, ensure that the area walking to the transit hub was beautified, and increase business opportunities around each station to ensure transit oriented development. In addition, the business plan and design for each station was designed specifically according to its neighbourhood demographics, topography, location, historical tradition and cultural heritage.

My favourite transit designs were the wayfinding signs and decals for the Light Rail Transit for the RATP in Paris, based upon icons taken from daily life- their cafes, their grates around trees on boulevards, and their gargoyles. Toronto is forty years behind Paris and Portland in its transit policy, yet in a networked society, we can easily get up to speed as we have access to other cities' knowledge and expertise. We can make progressive transit decisions, unlike those given lip service to by Metrolinx in their 'Big Move'. I say "we" because "we" should have input on how our communities are impacted by this transit network as it is our money and future quality of life, and it is clear that noise, vibration and their subsequent mitigation walls are not considered as part of this consultation process by the recent 'clean diesel' decision.

The big question is why has it been decided that all transit projects are healthy, and beneficial to communities by nature, so not worthy of a full Environmental Assessment to ensure that environmentally sustainable decisions are made? As the Toronto City Centre Airport has gone from 25,000 to 750,000 passengers between 2006 and 2009, and the west end of Toronto is the center for all this transit activity, why are the communities in this transit corridor and region considered expendable? In the case of the Air Rail Link and Georgetown corridor, once the corridor is built as diesel with the Pan Am Games as an excuse, with a seven, or eight, track rail capacity, it is unlikely to be electrified, and the frequency of traffic will increase due to the expansion- see the TCCA as a case study. As air and noise pollution in this region increases, businesses will be less likely to invest in these areas affected, as customers are reduced as residents sell their houses. People are already moving out of the Brockton Triangle, which is at the fork of the future rail traffic. In effect, the Georgetown South rail expansion is enabling business development and exurban expansion of the 905 region at the expense of 416 future business development, and investment, in businesses along the rail corridor. Better transit is better business for both the GTA and the 905 when passengers can get on and off to do business from a rail system that has multiple access points along the corridor by being electric.

Had the federal government given the $736 million loan guarantee, and around $450 million of under the counter subsidies, given to a private company, Porter, as federal funds to begin to rebuild and electrify the rail system in Ontario, the desire for short haul flights would be reduced, and we would join the rest of the developed world in enabling sustainable, electric transit, and alleviate the role of our megacities to carry the health burden for the majority of pollution for Canada. Pollution and poverty are hand in hand, and the closing of businesses, and their loss of clientele due to these toxic transit systems, both air and rail, is a very serious and legitimate concern. In effect, our tax money is being used to fund two separate, public-private transit partnerships, aided and abetted by governmental agencies- Porter Airlines and the Toronto City Center Airport, enabled by the Toronto Port Authority and the federal government, and SNC-Lavalin and the GSSE/UPRL enabled by Metrolinx and the provincial government. As GTA citizens, we should press for answers why. It is our tax money, our businesses, and our health which pay the price for others to profit.

This Air Rail Link will be a joyride for executives and athletes on our dime, with no benefit to the neighbourhood businesses it passes by on its way to Pearson Airport. Better transit does mean better business for present and future provincial prosperity. There is an important business case study by the Toronto's Business Improvement Areas which should be launched to research the future economic impact of this rail expansion on their businesses in the corridor. And it should be soon, as Metrolinx is saying that the Air Rail Link must be built as diesel to meet the Pan Am deadline.

Heathrow Express at
OCAD Health and Design Conference at
Presentation by Rémi Ferredj, Director for Real Estate of the RATP, résident Directeur général des filiales SEDP et Logis-Transports (groupe RATP), Paris, France at the Canadian Urban Institute's Designing Transit Cities Symposium at
Pollution Watch 'Rankings for Pollution in the Great Lakes Basin' and 'Pollution Poverty Report' recommending The City of Toronto pass the proposed Environmental Reporting, Disclosure and Innovation Programme, allowing for better tracking of pollutants in Toronto’s neighbourhoods, at
Community Air and the Toronto Port Authority at