Call it Toronto’s forgotten transit line.
While council has officially endorsed the Waterfront LRT as one of its priority transit projects, talk of the proposed light-rail line along the city’s lakefront has consistently been drowned out by debates about more high-profile schemes such as the relief line or Scarborough subway extension.
The Waterfront Business Improvement Area is hoping to change that. On Wednesday, the group is releasing an economic analysis it says shows the urgent need to move ahead with the line in the next few years.
“This is a huge opportunity to build transit first for a neighbourhood that is already growing but has even more growth potential. It’s truly staggering,” said Tim Kocur, executive director of the Waterfront BIA, which covers the lakeshore area bounded by Stadium Rd. and Yonge St.
The report was prepared for the BIA by Hatch, an engineering consultancy firm. It contemplates a seven-kilometre version of the Waterfront East LRT that would run between Union Station and Coxwell Ave., connecting downtown to the Port Lands and the Beach. Designs drafted by the city have the line running in a dedicated right-of-way along Queens Quay East from Bay St. to Parliament St.
The Waterfront East line would cost upwards of $1 billion, and is part of a larger $2-billion light-rail network that would stretch as far as Long Branch in the west. Some parts of the network are still in early design phases and, according to timelines presented to council, wouldn’t be complete until sometime after 2028. City staff are expected to provide an update on the project in the second quarter of this year.
The BIA report contends the Waterfront East LRT could be built as early as 2025, and compares that accelerated timeline to a worst-case scenario in which the project would be delayed until 2045.
It concludes that not building the route until then would cost $1.8 billion in lost productivity between 2025 and 2045. The delay would also cost more than $20 billion in foregone tax revenue to the city, provincial and federal governments.
The figures are based on projected waterfront development the report says would take place sooner if the line were built over the next six years.
Queens Quay East is already seeing significant construction, and the long-planned redevelopment of the Port Lands is expected to create a new commercial and residential hub almost equivalent in size of the existing downtown.
Sidewalk Labs, which is planning to build a high-tech test community on Quayside, has described the LRT as “critical to the future and success” of the project.
The BIA report claims moving forward the in-service date for the Waterfront East LRT would accelerate the creation of 19 million square feet of office space, 25,000 new housing units, and 1.3 million square feet of retail along the waterfront, which could support more than 135,000 new jobs and 67,000 residents.
Kocur conceded that much of the development would likely happen regardless of whether the LRT is built, but said without the transit line it wouldn’t happen as fast. He argued that by pairing new builds with new transit, the city has the opportunity to avoid repeating mistakes made in areas such as Liberty Village, where rampant development hasn’t been matched with new lines.
“This is a chance to build transit first as opposed to trying to catch up after the development has already happened,” he said.
Council voted in 2016 to designate the Waterfront LRT as one of the city’s priority projects eligible for federal funding, along with the relief line, Eglinton East LRT, and Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack plan.
Although the provincial and federal governments last year announced $9 billion in combined funding for Toronto transit projects, there is not yet a formal agreement to fund the Waterfront LRT.
City and provincial leaders have expended much more energy championing other projects council has endorsed, raising the possibility the waterfront project will be pushed to the back of the line.
Councillor Joe Cressy, who represents the ward that would cover much of the Waterfront East LRT route, said nothing should dislodge the relief line’s position as Toronto’s top transit priority.
But the councillor, who sits on the Waterfront BIA’s board, said that with the Port Lands development expected to start coming online over the next decade, the city can’t afford to wait to build transit to that area as well, and the clock is already ticking.
“We are building new commercial and residential neighbourhoods all along the waterfront east,” he said, and “the longer we wait to invest in transit the more productivity we’re losing.”
In the run-up to the June 2018 provincial election, the now-governing Progressive Conservatives were the only party not to make a specific pledge to fund the line.
Mike Winterburn, a spokesperson for Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek, said Tuesday the province is aware the city is working on a final design for waterfront transit, but has not yet “formally requested provincial funding.”
“Should the province receive a funding request, the business case would be considered in the context of other provincial infrastructure and budget priorities.”
Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr