Selling Scarborough Streetcars

Combino Toronto AV

Futuristic Streetcar – Photo Credit: Siemens

The thought of streetcars trundling past her church is a “weird thought” for Mary, a regular churchgoer at Victory Sanctuary of Praise. “Very weird,” she says.

The scene she is envisioning is one usually associated with downtown Toronto. Yet in a few years time, streetcars running atop the suburban roads of eastern Scarborough, is set to become a reality 15 kilometres away from Toronto’s core, at least, in the minds of some city politicians, despite growing financial hurdles and yet-to-be-held community consultations.

Leading out from the terminus of the Bloor-Danforth line at Kennedy Station, a planned light-rail transit line—an element of the city’s 12-year Transit City proposal that will include a network of streetcar lines across Toronto—will head east into the heart of Scarborough, along stretches of road lined with used car dealerships and newly built townhouses.

The same route is already serviced by bus lines, which ferry 9.6 million passengers a year as far north as the Malvern community.

A streetcar teeming with these riders would take them along a projected $630-million, 15-kilometre length of eastern Scarborough, past strip malls overcome with weeds and crumbling pavement, peeling apartment buildings, and the church on Kingston Road, where Mary is standing, mulling the idea of streetcars rushing past the window she is looking through.

“I’m just looking at the roads, we don’t have wide enough streets for streetcars, honestly,” she said, doubting that there would be any change in the frequency of rides.

Next door, Bill, who has owned a variety store neighbouring the church for 2 years, likes the idea of a streetcar stop that would bring more customers. Yet he is not looking forward to the construction delays.

Local opposition is one of the problems facing the idea, despite the touted benefits of a new generation of streetcars the Toronto Transit Commission is musing.

The sleek, futuristic proposals the TTC is looking at made an early appearance at the Canadian National Exhibition over the summer. Low floors, wide doors, and air conditioning will define the new Light Rail Vehicles from the ones currently in several cultural districts downtown. Though the new streetcars will likely run through Chinatown, the entertainment district, and through the heart of the University of Toronto’s downtown district long before making an appearance in Scarborough.

As well as a new fare system that won’t require an operator to scrutinize the coins falling into the till, the LRT vehicles will also emphasize environmental sustainability, in an effort to help curb greenhouse gases.

Giving an option for drivers wary of rising gas prices and improving quality of life are part of the package being dangled by Councillor and TTC Vice-Chair Joe Mihevc to confront the friction being encountered to raise taxes.

Mihevc sees new money as an integral element to continuing the project, despite objections by a majority of Toronto’s City Council.

“There’s no such thing as low taxes, high services…if you want to build the city it’s going to need money,” said Mihevc.

The councilor’s fiscal worries are eased by the promise of funding for Transit City from all the major provincial parties in the upcoming Oct. 10 election.

Despite local misgivings, at least one community member is hoping for the streetcars. At stake for Anne Gloger, manager of East Scarborough Storefront, is an opportunity for Scarborough to break out of its isolation.

Located on Lawrence Avenue, north of Mary’s church and Bill’s convenience store, off Kingston Rd. on Lawrence Ave., the storefront offers a number of youth, employment, and legal services to the community, serviced by the “horrendous” 54A Lawrence route.

“All the oldest buses in the city run along there, so the buses themselves aren’t accessible…and then we have schedules that say they come every eight minutes and you wait 45 minutes for a bus,” said Gloger, who avoids the bus herself due to motion sickness induced by the jolting busses.

“In the afternoon I walk 20 minutes to the GO station, and pick up a GO train to go home, I have that choice, I can afford it, most people here can’t.”

A streetcar along Kingston Rd. would give residents a much-needed direct line into the subway system. “It’s real hindrance to people accessing any services, employment, or educational opportunities downtown, because from here it takes so long to get anywhere that people tend to remain isolated in Scarborough,” said Gloger, adding that the centre was located in this area since most people had to venture out of Scarborough to access the same services in the past.

Even if Gloger’s hopes for streetcars to provide a faster route out of Scarborough are realized, those on the frontlines are doubtful there will be any improvement in the speed of service. The average 40-minute travel time of the proposed route, mostly serviced by the 116 Morningside route might not change a great deal with new streetcars. One morning bus driver said the streetcar drivers likely wouldn’t risk going at the high speeds bus drivers do, especially with a number of steep hills along the route, according to one morning bus operator.

As the process moves forward—the first phase of Transit City is slated to start within five years—community consultations and budget woes will still need to be overcome before Mary will know whether the streetcars will fit on Kingston Road, when Bill confronts lengthy track construction outside his convenience store, and Scarborough discovers if it gets an opportunity to escape its isolation.

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