Metrolinx considers significant design change to above-ground section of $11-billion Ontario Line

Friday, March 26, 2021 By Ben Spurr, Toronto Star

Metrolinx is considering significant design changes for a section of the Ontario Line subway, frustrating community groups who say the transit agency isn’t being transparent about how the $11-billion project will impact their neighbourhoods.

The proposed change would affect the contentious two-kilometre portion of the

line that Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency, plans to build above ground through an existing rail corridor between the Don River and Gerrard Street East.

For more than a year, Metrolinx officials have been publicly sharing designs that indicated the two new tracks for the Ontario Line would be laid on either side of existing GO Transit rail lines within the corridor, which cuts between Toronto’s Riverside and Leslieville neighbourhoods.

Now Metrolinx is considering building both of the Ontario Line tracks next to one another on the western side of the corridor, which could require shifting the GO tracks to the east.

In an email, Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins confirmed agency staff discussed the proposed change at a small community meeting Thursday but said, “the updated plans are not yet final, so it is too early to provide details.”

She said the alternate design was being investigated as a result of public feedback Metrolinx has received, and is intended to limit “impacts for customers and communities.” She said once the plans are finalized, Metrolinx intends to share them at a public consultation “in the coming weeks.”

In an interview, Coun. Paula Fletcher (Ward 14, Toronto-Danforth) said Metrolinx has spent months assuring her residents the previous design was the best option and would minimize noise and construction impacts on their neighbourhood. She predicted changing course now would further erode residents’ already shaky trust in the transit agency’s plans.

“The credibility gap is very large, and it’s just grown larger,” Fletcher said, adding that “nobody understands what the impacts” of the new design will be on homes, businesses and parkland near the route.

The councillor questioned why Metrolinx seems intent on squeezing the Ontario Line into the 150-year-old rail corridor in her part of the city instead of listening to local residents who want the line to be built below ground, which they argue would be less disruptive.

Metrolinx has estimated burying the two-kilometre stretch of the Ontario Line would add $800 million to the project’s cost. But Fletcher pointed out that’s less than the $1.8 billion extra the agency plans to spend building the Eglinton West LRT in Etobicoke underground, despite the fact there’s ample space to construct it at street level.

“As you keep looking at it, it makes less and less sense,” Fletcher said.

Representatives of Save Jimmie Simpson, a community group named after a park and recreation centre near the Ontario Line route and whose members oppose Metrolinx’s above-ground plans, say they’re worried the new design could require expanding the rail corridor further than previously feared to encroach on homes and businesses near the corridor. They say community spots like Bruce Mackey Park, Saulter St. Parkette and the Gerrard-Carlaw Dog Parkette are also at risk.

In addition to adding the two Ontario Line tracks, Metrolinx also plans to build a fourth GO track to the same corridor to allow it to ramp up service on the commuter rail system. As a result, the corridor would go from its current three-track configuration to six tracks.

“They have to take additional space,” warned SJS member Maggi Redmonds.

In addition to its property impacts, shifting the Ontario Line tracks to one side of the rail corridor could have significant consequences for how the subway operates. Metrolinx had previously said one of the major benefits of building the new line’s tracks on either side of the GO tracks is that Ontario Line passengers headed in either direction could get off at the proposed East Harbour station and walk a few steps to transfer to a GO train. That wouldn’t be the case under the revised design.

Aikins, the Metrolinx spokesperson, said the agency is still refining designs for East Harbour, which is anticipated to be a key transfer point. But she said the new design could bring “some significant benefits” to the station.

Aikins said Metrolinx is confident building the line above-ground through the rail corridor is the best option because it would “minimize construction impacts to nearby properties,” eliminate the need for disruptive underground excavations, and make it easier for riders to transfer between the Ontario Line, GO Transit, and TTC surface routes.

The Ontario Line would run for about 16-kilometres between Exhibition Place to the Ontario Science Centre and is the centrepiece of Premier Doug Ford’s $28.5-billion transit plan. When Ford announced the project in 2019 he said it would enter service by 2027, but Metrolinx has since estimated 2030 is a more likely opening date.

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