Is there anything to be done about overcrowded TTC bus routes, such as 36 Finch?

National Post - Jan 21, 2012By Steve KupfermanRenewed interest in reviving some variant of the Transit City light rail plan is traceable to a sound bite spoken by David Miller during a September interview on Newstalk 1010. “You could turn it on like a switch,” he said. “If you wanted to you could start construction on Finch in about two months.”It’s no coincidence that Finch Avenue was the first route to Miller’s lips. Riders of the 36 Finch West bus — which vies with the 25 Don Mills, the 32 Eglinton, the 35 Jane and others for the dubious title of busiest in the city — are arguably the constituency most deeply affected by the wrangling over the future of surface public transit that began with the election of Mayor Rob Ford.Idil Mohamed, a 19-year-old who came with her family to Canada from Somalia at age five, is one of those Finch riders. She lives near the intersection of Finch Avenue and Martin Grove Road, in the northern reaches of Etobicoke. On a recent weekday, she made the same trip she makes five times every week: home, from York University, where she’s double-majoring in English and history.At 4 p.m., she caught the 106 York University bus south to Finch, where she disembarked and crossed Sentinel Road to begin the worst part of her commute — waiting for the 36 Finch West during rush hour.After 15 minutes, the bus arrived, already packed with riders. Mohamed, along with about a dozen others, squeezed on board. If there hadn’t been room — which happens sometimes — she would have had no choice but to wait for the next one.Being on the 36 Finch West in such conditions is like being in the thick of a dense crowd at a tiny bar where there isn’t anything to drink. In other words, awful. (The TTC tries to keep it so that loads at peak times never exceed 51 riders per bus, on average.) At Jane Street the crowd thinned out. Mohamed took a seat and began reading a book. She’s aware of the transit cutbacks her community has faced of late, and has even participated in a widely publicized effort to challenge politicians to ride the TTC for a week. “I feel like we’re being targeted specifically,” she says. She’d buy a car if she could afford the gas and insurance.We know, more or less, why the buses on Finch West are so crowded. Runaway development in the aftermath of the Second World War caused the area’s population to surge from about 29,000 to about 337,000 in 25 years, and the Metro Toronto government lacked the foresight to build infrastructure to serve the low-income communities that would eventually take up residence in the apartment towers there. But what nobody knows is what the future holds for transit on Finch West.The Transit City plan was a provincially financed bid to gird the suburbs with light rail transit (LRT), most of which would have run above ground in curb-separated lanes down the centres of major streets. On Finch, construction was to begin in 2015. According to an analysis by Metrolinx, the project would have enabled the TTC to increase peak capacity on the route from its current 1,200 riders per direction per hour to approximately 3,400 — the route’s projected ridership in 2031, assuming the light rail lines were to be constructed.As one of his first acts in office, Mayor Ford brokered a non-binding deal with the province to restructure the Transit City light rail plan. Now the approximately $1.2-billion that would have been spent on Finch is instead to be spent on putting Eglinton’s stretch of light rail — originally planned to run above ground for part of its length — entirely underground. Sheppard Avenue, whose light rail line was actually under construction when Ford took office, is to remain in limbo pending the results of a bid to fund a subway extension there in part with private dollars. As a result of all of this, the Finch LRT is no longer part of the planning equation.The TTC is studying ways of enhancing bus service for 36 Finch West riders, the most expensive of which — a separated bus lane — might allow the TTC to more than double the route’s current capacity. “You reach a point of maximum capacity with it, but maybe that’s a strategy,” says Eric Miller, a professor at the University of Toronto’s civil engineering department, who has studied public transit in Toronto. “You start with [enhanced bus service] and build demand and at some point you convert over to LRT.”It remains to be seen whether the political will can be found to muster that. Outcry from the communities surrounding Finch West has been conspicuously absent from the public discourse, as Wanda MacNevin, a director at the Jane Finch Community and Family Centre, knows all too well.“A lot of the fight in this community goes to meeting basic needs and services,” she says, seated at a small table inside the centre’s offices on the ground floor of a public-housing high-rise. “It doesn’t have a track record of fighting for transit.”Nevin thinks one reason the area hasn’t organized around transit issues is that the people who live there are simply too busy. Finch West runs through working-class neighbourhoods, where residents are more likely than the average Torontonian to be employed in manufacturing or trade labour. Nevertheless, they are, according to a 2006 survey, disproportionately likely to pass up riding the TTC in favour of cars, which indicates that already-tight budgets are being stretched to make up for the lack of viable public transit.Politicians that represent the Finch West area are in disagreement over what their constituents want them to do next.For light rail on Finch West, “There is just simply overwhelming support,” says Councillor Anthony Perruzza, whose Ward 8 encompasses the area east of Jane and Finch.“No one stands up and says, ‘Oh, this is a bad thing. Oh, this is St. Clair,’ ” he adds. (St. Clair Avenue’s streetcar lane, completed late and over budget, is frequently referenced by critics of surface rail.)Meanwhile, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, who represents the ward just to the west of Perruzza’s, believes the opposite.“The community does not support the LRT,” he says. “The community wants a subway. It’s the only fair and reasonable proposal.” (Subways were rejected by TTC planners because they’re deemed too expensive to operate in low-density neighbourhoods.)Could the Finch LRT really be turned on “like a switch,” as David Miller has suggested? The project’s environmental assessment has been completed and approved. But the only thing we know for sure about its future is that what’s missing now are the same things that always are: money, and the desire to proceed.TRAFFIC JAMSFinch West isn’t the only route in limbo as a result of changes to Miller-era light rail plans.Sheppard Avenue A light rail line was already under construction, but abandoned at Mayor Ford’s request. It would have run from Don Mills station to Conlins Road, at an approximate cost of $1.1-billion. A report on the possibility of extending the Sheppard subway through the corridor using a combination of private and public money is expected in February.Scarborough RT Rapidly approaching the end of its service life, the line is slated to be replaced with light rail, so that it will be continuous with the underground Eglinton LRT. In order to facilitate the upgrade, the Scarborough RT will need to be shut down for about four years, starting in 2015. The TTC expects to replace it with bus service during that time.

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