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Will Toronto still need those transit megaprojects after COVID-19?


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Will Toronto still need those transit megaprojects after COVID-19?

A little over a year from now, the TTC hopes to start work on a massive transit project beneath the heart of downtown Toronto.

The expansion of Bloor-Yonge station will cost an estimated $1.5 billion, take seven years to complete and require building a new subway platform, elevators, and escalators at an underground transit hub surrounded by dense commercial real estate, all while regular train service continues to operate.

Before the pandemic, the urgent need to expand Bloor-Yonge was evident to anyone who stood on its Line 1 subway platform on a weekday morning, when crowds of downtown commuters could grow dangerously large.

But during the pandemic, those crowds have thinned dramatically. With downtown office towers largely vacant and employers contemplating a shift to work-from-home, when commuters will return to the transit network and in what volume is anyone’s guess. With so much uncertainty, is it time to rethink expensive transit projects that were planned based on pre-pandemic travel patterns?

The TTC says it has no intention of changing course. Agency spokesperson Stuart Green said it’s critical to follow through with current infrastructure plans to ensure the system is “future-ready” and keeps up with expected population growth. “It is imperative we continue this work,” he said.

Like other jurisdictions around the world, transit ridership in the Greater Toronto Area has nosedived during the pandemic. As of mid-November, TTC use was at about 35 per cent of pre-COVID levels.

The situation is more dire on GO Transit, which relies heavily on commuters from outside the city. Between April and September, passenger volumes on GO were just 7.6 per cent of what they were for the same period in 2019.

The decline may not be immediately reversed once the crisis passes. Graham Currie, director of the Public Transport Research Group at Melbourne, Australia’s Monash University, said evidence to date suggests cities around the world could be facing a 20 per cent drop in public transit use after the pandemic as a result of lingering health concerns and shifting work patterns.

The decline would be even more pronounced in urban centres, where a higher portion of jobs can be done remotely. Currie’s work suggests there could be more than a 30 per cent reduction in people commuting into downtowns via public transit post-COVID.

Green conceded the TTC can’t yet say when demand will return to levels that were anticipated by projects like the Bloor-Yonge expansion. Prior to the pandemic, the station regularly served more than 28,000 southbound riders per hour on weekday mornings, which is above capacity. The transit agency had predicted ridership would grow to 36,000 people per hour by 2031, but the pandemic could disrupt those projections.

“The simple answer is that we don’t know yet,” Green said.

By the time transit demand begins to return to something approaching pre-pandemic levels, travel patterns in Toronto may have significantly changed. According to the Toronto Region Board of Trade, there are more than 500,000 jobs based downtown and about 68 per cent have some capacity to be done remotely.

Once the crisis is over, more workers could continue spending at least part of their workweek at home. More flexible work schedules could mean not only fewer people taking transit in and out of downtown, but some doing so outside of traditional rush hours, meaning the transit system will be less crowded at its busiest times.

But even if work patterns shift dramatically, that’s no reason to delay building new transit, according to Eric Miller, director of the University of Toronto Transportation Institute. He argued that Toronto’s network was inadequate before COVID-19 and although ridership may take time to return, in the long-run “the demand is going to be there.”

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In that sense the pandemic “is a bit of a blessing in disguise,” Miller said, because lower ridership in the near term means it could take longer for the system to exceed its capacity and reach a breaking point.

The pandemic “not an excuse not to invest. This is buying us a bit of time to catch up with where we need to be,” he said.

Currie agrees. Transit systems losing one-fifth of their customers post-COVID may sound devastating, but in cities like Melbourne and Toronto that have been experiencing rapid population growth, the lost ridership could be regained in less than a decade. That’s about how long it takes to build transit megaprojects.

“The growth will quickly eat all of that up,” Currie said, adding that cities “definitely” need to continue building new lines.

Phil Verster, CEO of Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, acknowledged “we will use transit differently” in the post-pandemic world. He predicted future travel patterns will be “much less about commuter peaks in the mornings and evenings,” and transit will have to become “more decentralized” to connect different cities in the GTHA with each other, rather than being oriented downtown.

That would make GO Transit expansion, a project Metrolinx was already pursuing, all the more important. The massive $17-billion project would increase frequency on GO lines to provide all-day service in both directions throughout the regional rail network, replacing the older service model designed to ferry commuters downtown each morning and home each night. Metrolinx had anticipated the increased service would be phased in between 2025 and 2030.

Two-way GO service will be especially important if shifting work patterns lead to more suburban employees travelling to corporate satellite offices in places like Richmond Hill and Markham instead of towers downtown.

Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney says the pandemic hasn’t swayed the Ontario PC government’s determination to complete Premier Doug Ford’s $28.5-billion GTA transit expansion plan, which consists of the Ontario Line, Yonge North subway extension, Scarborough subway extension and Eglinton West LRT. All four are scheduled to be complete by 2031.

“We have not wavered in our commitment to transit expansion,” Mulroney said in a speech to the Board of Trade Wednesday.

Mulroney predicted new lines will be required not only to meet the region’s long-term population growth but to provide jobs in the post-pandemic recovery. The government estimates the Ontario Line alone will support about 4,500 jobs in construction and related industries.

Matti Siemiatycki, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Department of Geography and Planning, agreed that the province needs to continue building transit. But he said the strain the pandemic is putting on government budgets underscores the need for Queen’s Park to ensure it’s investing in projects that make sense.

Two of Ontario’s priority projects, the Scarborough subway and Eglinton West LRT, are being built mostly underground through non-dense suburban areas and have been criticized by experts as wasteful overbuilds.

“Putting expensive transit lines underground in places where it’s not needed is not a good use of money at any time, and it’s really not a good use of money right now,” Siemiatycki said.

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation for the Star. Reach him by email at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

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