'At least a year': Scarborough RT could be shut down, internal documents reveal
City and provincial officials say they think a shutdown can be avoided, but they have yet to agree on a solution.
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The Scarborough RT would need to be shut down before a planned subway extension opens, leaving residents and commuters on the bus for at least a year, internal documents say.
Emails obtained in a freedom of information request made by the advocacy group Scarborough Transit Action and provided to the Star, reveal that in July 2017, Metrolinx told the city there was no way to build a new, contentious Lawrence East GO station and keep the SRT operational.
City and provincial officials have both told the Star that they now think a shutdown can be avoided, but they have not yet agreed on a possible solution.
Council has also endorsed the concept of building six new GO stations within the city’s limits, at the city’s cost, to add to the electrified network planned by the province’s transit agency Metrolinx. The stations form part of what remains of Mayor John Tory’s campaign “SmartTrack” promise.
One of those stations, Lawrence East, would take the place of the existing Lawrence East SRT station.
The SRT and GO train tracks run side-by-side in a separated corridor through Scarborough between Kennedy Rd. and Midland Ave. and from north of Ellesmere Rd. to Eglinton Ave. There is a narrow stretch of track between commercial properties just north of Lawrence East station, which sits beneath a Lawrence Ave. overpass, and residential neighbourhoods and a city park to the south.
The city’s SmartTrack website says the new GO stations, which have yet to be approved for construction, would be built by 2024. The subway, which is also not yet approved for construction, is not expected to be completed until midway through 2026. That leaves potentially two years where the connection to Kennedy station would need to be served by buses if construction was completed on time.
Not having to shut down the aging SRT during construction of replacement transit was seen to be a major advantage of the subway plan over the original seven-stop light-rail option to replace the LRT. It was pushed by those backing the subway on council as a reason to flip from the fully-funded LRT plan to the more expensive subway option in 2013.
The city has not budgeted for bus replacement service with the subway option. With the LRT option, an estimated three years of bus replacement would have been paid for by the province under a still-signed master agreement.
The potential conflict between building the Lawrence East “SmartTrack” station while keeping the SRT running was spelled out in a tense email exchange between provincial and city staff last summer.
In July 2017, James Perttula, the city’s director of transit and transportation planning, emailed Brian Gallaugher, Metrolinx’s director of project planning for Regional Express Rail, and others working at the city, Metrolinx and TTC, saying he learned Tory was briefed by Metrolinx on “an issue” with Lawrence Station.
Gallaugher responded: “The issue is the need to shut down the SRT in advance of the opening of the SSE in order to build the Lawrence East (SmartTrack) station.”
He went on to say the subway will not be open “for at least a year” after construction of the SmartTrack station is finished.
Perttula fired back: “This issue of shutting down the SRT in advance of the SSE being operation has not been discussed in any way at the staff level, nor has there been a decision made on this matter.”
“If there is a real issue here, we should discuss how we might deal with it in terms of the timing of station construction.”
A year before that email exchange, a Metrolinx business case prepared in July 2016 stated that building the GO station in the rail corridor at Lawrence would be "contingent" on removing the SRT infrastructure. The document assumed the existing Lawrence SRT station would need to be acquired to use as a construction staging area.
Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins said last week that while a construction schedule is not yet finalized and no final decision has been made, consultants believe it is possible to keep the SRT open. Metrolinx will be in charge of building the Lawrence East station.
“In the months since that email was sent, we continued to work with the city and our consultants and it is no longer anticipated that it will be necessary to close the SRT to build Lawrence East station,” Aikins wrote in an email.
“Metrolinx understands and has significant experience with undertaking construction while continuing to operate an existing transit service. We share the City of Toronto’s goal to keep the SRT open during construction.”
When pushed for more information Karla Avis-Birch, acting vice president of new stations for Metrolinx, conceded that the agency doesn’t yet know how it can keep the SRT running during construction, but asserted it was possible.
“We’re still working through the solution,” she said. “We believe we can keep the SRT operational during construction, but we are now working with our technical adviser on different options.”
She said it was possible that building the station could require “service interruptions” or weekend closures oF the SRT.
Avis-Birch could not say how the agency would address specific obstacles raised in the business case, which included the need to use the SRT stop as a staging area, and to expropriate land currently occupied by SRT facilities like track and a power substation to make way for the new SmartTrack station and realigned track.
In general, however, she said while the initial business case “assumed that the GO tracks would be right where the SRT tracks are,” Metrolinx has since “surveyed the area to find an alignment that pushes it away from that.”
“By our surveys, our technical advisers and us have assessed that we actually have the space needed or will be procuring the space required in that area.”
City spokesperson Wynna Brown said after learning of Metrolinx’s position, they worked to find an engineering solution.
She pointed to a November 2017 report that outlined “design refinements” being considered, including moving the station east of the existing Lawrence East SRT station and creating side platforms instead of an island platform, which would require tunneling beneath the tracks, the report says.
In a subsequent email, she said that “existing bridge piers would partially encroach on the northbound platform, leaving enough space for tracks and other station elements including elevators and stairs.”
The staging area for constructing the SmartTrack stop would be along the east side of the rail corridor, “likely beneath the bridge in the existing TTC parking lot.”
Both Metrolinx and the TTC said it was possible to safely tunnel beneath the tracks while maintaining GO and SRT service.
With work to add a second track for GO service along the corridor already underway, including at Lawrence, it’s unclear how the station could be shifted east. Aikins said in a follow-up email that they believe there is room.
Metrolinx said potential design changes would impact cost, but did not say by how much.
Further complicating the conflict at Lawrence Ave. is that the Lawrence East “SmartTrack” stop is currently under review after a Star investigation revealed that the ministry of transportation pressured the board of directors for Metrolinx to endorse the stop. Analysis found the station was not justified and should not be built for the next 10 years.
City analysis disagreed with the province’s findings.
The results of the provincial review, which included input from the city, are expected to be presented at a March meeting of Metrolinx’s board of directors.