The Transit Crunch on Finch West

Article on TorontoistWhen you talk to riders of the 36 Finch West bus, you hear the same stories about delays, overcrowding, and unreliable service. The word "frustration" comes up in practically every conversation. Bus drivers talk of the stress associated with daily interactions with unsatisfied patrons.It's a given that most people would prefer a subway along this route.Unfortunately, no one is seriously proposing one. In fact, almost nothing is being said about Finch Avenue West—a route that spans seventeen kilometers and serves around forty-three thousand riders on an average weekday—even as city councillors reassess transit priorities under Mayor Rob Ford's new administration.

Ford has been criticized for announcing the end of Transit City, a plan envisioned by former mayor David Miller and former TTC chair Adam Giambrone, and fleshed out by TTC staff and Metrolinx, the provincial transit planning authority. That plan includes a proposed Finch West Light Rail Transit (LRT) line to replace the 36 Finch bus. However, Ford cannot be blamed for last year's provincial funding decisions that delayed LRT construction along Finch by several years. In addition, while Ford is guiding the TTC towards new priorities, and talking mainly about Sheppard Avenue East and Eglinton Avenue developments, city council as a whole will almost certainly have to vote on any new transit measures.Councillor James Pasternak (Ward 10, York Centre), whose ward includes a portion of the troublesome stretch of Finch, spoke with us following a meet-and-greet he hosted for constituents recently. Pasternak believes that "Finch West is not on the radar screen" at City Hall, but said little to indicate that he himself considers improving the route a priority. He spoke at length about his opposition to an LRT on Finch, saying repeatedly that the plan would "remove [traffic] lanes from system roadways." Pasternak seemed genuinely surprised when we insisted that the environmental assesment for the Finch LRT [PDF] contains no lane reductions, as the roadway would be widened to accommodate the rail line while preserving the existing number of traffic lanes.Pasternak readily acknowledged that the current route "is a mess. The timing and frequency of buses is all wrong." In the same breath, however, he told us that he had not "spoken specifically to [Mayor Ford] about Finch." Instead, Pasternak has been lobbying for a subway extension along Sheppard Avenue that would connect the existing Yonge and University subway lines. While he expressed grave concerns about construction disruptions and operating costs associated with the proposed Finch LRT, he had no similar concerns about subway expansion. And although Pasternak argued that widening Finch could eliminate parking along some stretches of the road, he added that "our ward wouldn't really be affected by that."Councillor Anthony Perruzza (Ward 8, York West), whose ward would be served by phase one of the proposed Finch LRT, spoke with us by telephone. He expressed concern that Finch West “is not working for transit users, cars, trucks, and certainly not for pedestrians and bikes.” Perruzza has been extremely supportive of the proposed rail plan, but says he has been unable to speak to the mayor’s office about it.While Perruzza told us he is “committed to considering the TTC’s new plan,” he is skeptical that transit staff, who have already spent $14.4 million to study options along Finch, could come up something more appropriate. Perruzza criticized what he called a “Finch be damned” attitude coming out of the mayor’s office, and said that if the new plan contains no improvements for the route, “we’ll have to see how we respond to that as a community.”Most of the 36 Finch West bus riders we spoke with knew nothing about Transit City in general, the Finch LRT proposal in particular, the funding delays, or the possibility that the status quo might prevail for years to come. Those who did know were angry that they may continue to be at the mercy of unreliable bus service. Sue Mason, a decades-long user of the route, told us improvements along Finch West are “a long time coming. I think people are starting to lose hope.” Referring to plans for residential growth in her Bathurst and Finch community, she suggests that “there’s plenty of room for the people, but it’s the cars that worry me. Where are you going to put them?”Indeed, the city’s official plan suggests opportunities for residential development along Finch Avenue near Bathurst, as well as near the intersections at Jane and Keele streets respectively. The entire Finch West bus route is designated as a “priority segment” among surface routes in the city [PDF].Ian, a resident who once lived near and still works near Finch Avenue, summarized the growth challenges in an interview with us: “If everything is growing, and the service is not, how can you help people?” Ian also lamented how the unreliable service impacts time he is able to spend with his eleven-year-old son, describing it as “time that’s stolen from him. That’s a school project, that’s a book I can read with him.” He says the lack of urgency to address problems along Finch West sends the message that “my family, friends, and problems don’t count.”Hannah Bontogon, a community outreach worker who has been commuting to her workplace via the 36 Finch bus for three years, highlights the fact that Finch West includes the priority neighbourhoods of Jamestown, Jane-Finch, and Westminster-Branson, identified because of their relatively poor access to local programs and services [PDF]. She says improvements to transit would “increase access to places where residents receive programs and services,” and improve their employment prospects.Gordon Chong, a former councillor and member of Rob Ford’s transition team, offered a suggestion to improve transit fortunes along Finch in a recent opinion piece. He suggested that the Finch LRT “should be scrapped in favour of a bus rapid transit service in the Finch hydro corridor using state-of-the-art highway coaches.”While the TTC has not specifically explored BRT options in the hydro corridor, the Finch LRT study states that staff prefer light rail to buses “due to (the) more appropriate passenger-carrying capacity” of the light rail vehicles. An LRV can carry 280 passengers, more than four times the capacity of a TTC bus.When we asked Anna Pace, director of strategic partnerships for Transit City, to elaborate on TTC staff's preference of an LRT, she noted that building light rail along Finch keeps transit “where the development and people are.” Transit activist Steve Munro, who spoke with us by telephone, agreed, adding that a rapid bus option "would do nothing in terms of serving future density in the area."Munro also stated his view that rapid bus service in the hydro corridor is not a comprehensive plan for Finch West because the hydro corridor diverts west of highway 400. "You'd either have to end the bus at the 400, which offers nothing for riders at Humber College and Rexdale, or you'd have to put the bus back into traffic west of the highway," said Munro.Ford and new TTC chair Karen Stintz had originally hoped the new transit plan would be ready by late January, and there’s no official word on a revised deadline. Riders of the 36 Finch bus will have to wait and see if their route, which consistently ranks in the top five in terms of ridership city-wide, will be chosen for an upgrade. Says Bontogon, “whatever the plan is, it needs to be timely. People need transit now.”

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