What of SmartTrack Will Survive Without John Tory?

What of SmartTrack Will Survive Without John Tory?

Is SmartTrack off the rails now that John Tory has, well, left the building?

Tory left City Hall and his role as Toronto’s mayor last month, but whiffs of his SmartTrack plan continue to linger in the air. This week, the City’s Executive Committee considered a staff report discussing the future of SmartTrack — the former mayor’s pet transit project. The staff report updated councillors on the status of the remaining stations from the plan and advised them that it needs a cash infusion to continue.

But, as the CBC’s Shawn Jefford reports, “some transit experts are urging City Council to view… Tory’s departure as a chance to re-evaluate spending on the transit station plan and ensure it’s worth the money.”

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Map of the SmartTrack Stations Program, image, City of Toronto

Readers with long memories may recall that Tory proposed the SmartTrack plan in 2014 during his first successful campaign for mayor. Originally, the plan recommended that the City of Toronto operate trains every 15 minutes along a 53-kilometre line, mostly beside GO Transit rail corridors and along Eglinton Avenue West, west of Mount Dennis. The scheme included 22 new stations of a “surface subway” between Unionville and Toronto Pearson International Airport for $8 billion with a goal of completing the new line in seven years. The idea was to extend rapid transit service to suburban areas that were distant from the subway network, while connecting employment centres in Markham, Downtown Toronto, and near the airport. Passengers would pay the same fares as they would aboard TTC vehicles.

It was an idea that wasn’t without some merit. It was also an idea that wasn’t without precedent. London benefits from a similar passenger-train service along railway lines that its transit agency dubs the Overground. (It supplements subway service–the Underground.)

The plan apparently struck a chord with Torontonians. According to the Toronto Star, before the campaign was over, nearly 60 percent of Toronto voters recognized the SmartTrack “brand”.

Map of the SmartTrack plan as first proposed by the John Tory campaign, image, John Tory campaign

In early 2015, City Council — with John Tory as Mayor — approved a study of the plan for $1.6 million. In a news article, Globe and Mail reporter Oliver Moore wrote, “A key part of the studies will be the viability of running [the] heavy rail plan along or under Eglinton Avenue. That part of the proposal conflicts with a previously studied provincial plan to extend the still-under-construction Eglinton Crosstown light rail transit line farther west. And questions about how much tunnelling will be required and the impact on the neighbourhood have made that stretch the most controversial part of the proposal.”

But, by late 2015, Metrolinx’s then chief executive officer had declared that operating SmartTrack as a separate service from GO was “unaffordable and unworkable.” The Globe and Mail also reported that the Eglinton West leg alone would “soak up $5 billion to build.”

The City and the University of Toronto released ridership projections for SmartTrack in early 2016. They showed that the service, if built, would attract between 282,990 to 321,436 daily boardings in 2031, handily surpassing the current 270,000 riders hopping on GO Transit every day. But those figures only resulted from a service with trains operating as frequently as every five minutes. The boarding figures decreased dramatically, once service planners reduced the models to ten- and fifteen-minute frequency.

The same report also reviewed the Eglinton extension of the line unfavourably, explaining that a heavy-rail arrangement along Eglinton West would be as much as five times more expensive, attract a quarter to half as many people and have more negative community impacts. With that in mind, city councillors endorsed light-rail transit on the roadway — basically to extend the still-under-construction Line 5 Crosstown LRT further westward toward the airport — and recommended that SmartTrack remain only on the rail corridor and continue only as far northwestward as Mount Dennis.

Moore of Globe further explained that, “Mayor John Tory’s SmartTrack transit plan is becoming smaller and cheaper, with the promise of more frequent service… Staff with the city and the regional transit agency Metrolinx have been working on how to integrate SmartTrack with plans to expand GO Transit rail service, and, according to sources and a draft government document, a revamped version of the plan is taking shape.

“The latest estimate is that the proposed integration of SmartTrack would add $2-billion to $3.5-billion to the existing GO plans. Although details have not been finalized, Metrolinx staff are expected to recommend adding only four or five new stations along the Kitchener and Stouffville corridors, and an LRT — instead of heavy rail — along Eglinton Avenue West to Pearson airport. The plan originally called for three stations along that stretch, but with an LRT, staff are looking at between six and 17 stations.”

Map of the 2021 version of SmartTrack, image, City of Toronto

After “marathon meetings” in March 2016, the City’s Executive Committee and Council approved a transit plan for a number of projects, including SmartTrack. But, by then, the plan only included service between Unionville and Mount Dennis, with as many as eight new stations and service as frequent as every 10 minutes.

By the end of June that year, Metrolinx’s Board of Directors approved seven new GO stations in Toronto — Finch-Kennedy and Lawrence-Kennedy on the Stouffville line, Gerrard-Carlaw and East Harbour, serving both the Lakeshore East and Stouffville lines, Spadina-Front on the Barrie line, and Liberty Village-King and St Clair-Old Weston Road on the Kitchener line. All of these, except for the Spadina station, supported the SmartTrack proposal.

In November 2016, UrbanToronto.ca reported that

“During a nine-hour debate… Council approved an agreement with the Province of Ontario to share costs for what’s left of the original SmartTrack plan and other transit projects, worth a total of $11 billion. Metrolinx, the province’s regional transit agency, gave the City a deadline of November 30 to approve the plan, because it wants to start working on designing and building the stations. The new stations will all form part of GO Transit’s Regional Express Rail (or RER) program of rapid all-day, two-way service along all GO train lines.

“Under the plan that Council approved, the City agreed to pay:

  • the capital costs for building [the] six new GO stations in Toronto… These stations—all that’s left of SmartTrack—will likely cost the City $3.7 billion.

  • the capital costs for extending the Crosstown LRT further west along Eglinton Avenue West between Mount Dennis and the Renforth Gateway Station on the Mississauga Transitway. The cost of this is $2.5 billion. The City also hopes to extend this line to Toronto Pearson International Airport and intends to formally ask the City of Mississauga and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority to contribute as much as $470 million to complete this part of the future line.

  • $60 million to improve GO stations and other infrastructure for [regional express rail]. This proposal also allows GO to build two more new stations—not part of the SmartTrack scheme—on the Barrie line near Spadina Avenue and Front Street and near Bloor Street West and Lansdowne Avenue.

“Although staff recommended that City Council approve the agreement with the Province, the staff report that Council considered did not specifically recommend a way for the City to pay for all of this.”

Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster’s proposal for an outer “U” on GO lines to supplement the inner “U” of TTC subways, image, Metrolinx

SmartTrack received a major blow, as Sean Marshall explained in Torontoist, when Metrolinx released a report in March of 2017 that “overall ridership would actually decline… as existing riders would abandon the system due to longer travel times with the new stops”.

However, the City and Metrolinx continued to plan for SmartTrack as a supplement to the regional express rail services along GO corridors. In fact, during an event at the Toronto and Region Board of Trade in February, 2018, Metrolinx chief executive officer Phil Verster announced that his agency was proceeding to the next stage in developing future GO Transit stations that support the SmartTrack frequent rapid transit service or the Metrolinx program of regional express rail service on GO lines.

During his speech, Verster pointed to a slide illustrating the new GO stations and highlighted the frequent service that GO and SmartTrack could provide to Toronto. His map showed frequent train service extending northwest along the Kitchener line as far as Bramalea. This outer U of frequent rapid transit, he said, could supply an alternative to the inner U of the TTC Line 1 (Yonge-University) subway.

In May 2018, the City and Province of Ontario signed a memorandum of understanding to advance the SmartTrack program. Then-premier Kathleen Wynne also announced funding — totalling as much as $9 billion — to support other transit projects. The Government of Canada supplied about $4.8 billion of the $9-billion sum.

Under the MOU, the City agreed to pay for building the six SmartTrack stations. The new stations would “open by 2025” as part of the Metrolinx plan to offer regional express rail (RER) service along many of its lines.

City Council had already approved the capital costs for the six SmartTrack stations — as much as $1.46 billion. Of that total, Toronto was contributing $878 million, while the remaining $585 million emerged from a federal government transit fund. The city proposed raising some of the cost of the program with a tax increment financing (TIF) scheme. Under that plan, it would designate certain areas near the SmartTrack stations as TIF zones, where land values would likely increase due to proximity to rapid transit. The city proposed borrowing money to help fund the project, expecting that its property tax revenues from the TIF zones would increase. Then, it would dedicate the extra taxes it received from those lands to repay its loans to build the project.

Plan of Finch-Kennedy Station, image, City of Toronto

Then, newly elected Premier Doug Ford announced that his government would entirely fund the construction of four priority Toronto rapid-transit projects in April, 2019. While the name “SmartTrack” didn’t appear on the list of projects, the list did include extending the TTC’s Line 2 Danforth subway further into Scarborough and building a new Ontario Line subway between the Ontario Science Centre and Ontario Place/Exhibition Place. However, those two projects included stations that were close to two of the proposed SmartTrack stations — at Lawrence-Kennedy and Gerrard-Carlaw. These two stations eventually and quietly disappeared from the SmartTrack plan.

In August, 2019, the Government of Canada announced that it was supplying $585.2M to the cost of building the remaining SmartTrack stations. And, by February, 2021, the program reached its (possibly?) final state. We reported that Toronto City Council voted in favour of revising the “Ontario-Toronto Agreement in Principle” to include what it now calls the “SmartTrack stations program.” Under the revised agreement, the City would fund the construction of five new GO Transit stations in Toronto — Finch-Kennedy station; East Harbour, King-Liberty; St Clair-Old Weston; and Bloor-Lansdowne. (All of these except Bloor-Lansdowne appeared in Tory’s 2014 plan. Another station at Front and Spadina seems to have dropped out of sight of this plan.)

Then, in February, 2021, City Council approved terms that staff negotiated with the Province to allow the SmartTrack Stations Program to proceed to construction. These terms established that the province and its agencies, Metrolinx and Infrastructure Ontario, would deliver the program and that its scope would consist of five stations. Council reconfirmed the City’s capital contribution of $1.463 billion, including $585 million in funding from the Government of Canada.

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This week, a City staff report to the Executive Committee describes SmartTrack as “a significant investment to improve transportation choices within Toronto,” which “leverages existing transit infrastructure to serve more people. Combined with Metrolinx’s GO Expansion Program, SmartTrack will accelerate the transformation of heavy rail infrastructure in Toronto from a regional commuter service into an urban rapid transit network, thereby bringing transit faster to communities across the city.”

Plan of East Harbour Station, image, City of Toronto

However, the estimated cost of the program now exceeds its budget of $1.4B. To deliver the five-station scope, the city needs roughly $234 million in more funding. The City proposes asking the Province — which, currently has dedicated no funds to the program — to make up the shortfall. The report’s authors also comment that, “Since the Program will also benefit the Province through increased ridership on the GO system, and as the Province will own and maintain the SmartTrack Stations, there is a strong rationale for the Province to contribute towards the increase in Program’s costs.”

The report notes that since Metrolinx is about to begin the process of procuring contractors who will build the future Bloor-Lansdowne station, the City needs to ask to the Province to commit to the program as soon as possible.

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The report also updated the Committee members on the status of each of the five stations.



  • Early works, such as relocating utilities: started October 2022.

  • Main construction: starting October 2023.

  • Substantial completion: July 2027.

  • Station in service: August 2027.

East Harbour:

  • Metrolinx issued RFP April 2021 and the process has identified a successful proponent. However an agreement is still pending

  • Early works: starting March 2023.

  • Substantial completion: May 2028.

  • Station in service: August 2028.

Plan of King-Liberty Station, image, City of TorontoKing-Liberty:

  • Metrolinx issued RFP: August 2021.

  • Contract awarded: April 2022.

  • Construction: starting January 2024.

  • Substantial completion: December 2027.

  • Station in service: March 2028.


  • Metrolinx issued RFP: February 2022.

  • Construction: starting February 2024.

  • Substantial completion: May 2027.

  • Station in service: November 2027.

St Clair-Old Weston:

  • Metrolinx issued RFP: August 2021.

  • Contract awarded: April 2022.

  • Construction: starting January 2024.

  • Substantial completion: December 2028.

  • Station in service: March 2029.

Plan of Bloor-Lansdowne Station, image, City of Toronto

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Will the SmartTrack stations survive the end of John Tory’s mayoralty? Apparently, yes — for now. During this week’s Executive Committee, Councillors approved the staff proposal to ask the Province for financial support. But, they were prepared to ask staff to report back on further options for the stations, if the Province rejects their request. The report now goes to Council to consider during its next meeting, starting March 29.

Will the SmartTrack brand survive John Tory? Probably not, because it’s unlikely that passengers have any idea they’re entering a SmartTrack station, once the first of these is on line five years from now, each one will look like just another GO station, and they will just be getting on GO trains.

Plan of St Clair-Old Weston Station, image, City of Toronto

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UrbanToronto will continue to follow progress on this program. If you’d like, you can join in on the conversation in the associated Project Forum thread or leave a comment in the space provided on this page.

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