JANUARY 02, 2016

Last Friday was the 70th anniversary of an event that put Toronto on track to becoming the major participant in our country’s quest for faster and more efficient public transportation, a position we held for many years. It was on Jan. 1, 1946, that by an overwhelming majority of 79,935 to 8,639 the city’s electorate voted to authorize the TTC to construct both a Yonge St. and a Queen St. rapid transit line to the tune of $51,750,000, provided that the federal government picked up 20% of that cost. Following voters’ approval, all details and specifics related to those two projects would be determined by TTC engineers.

But as it would turn out, two of the items incorporated in the rapid transit plan never materialized.

The idea that 20% of the project cost be funded by Ottawa, never happened because the necessary federal-provincial agreement on other infrastructure financing couldn’t be confirmed between the two jurisdictions. As for the second part of the proposal — that is the Queen St. rapid transit line that would have seen the Queen streetcar line operate through the heart of downtown in an underground tunnel with entry and exit portals located just west of University Ave. and east of Jarvis St. — was held in abeyance for the time being. In fact, only the Yonge station of this proposed route was built. The rest of the Queen St. part of the 1946 vote never happened, although the idea of going ahead with it surfaced several more times.

Even with the vote confirmed, it still took some time for anything to happen. Finally, on Sept.8, 1949, construction began on Canada’s first subway, the Yonge line with terminals at Union Station and Eglinton Ave.

From an historical point of view (after all, that’s the purpose of this column) the rapid-transit approval given seven decades ago wasn’t the first time Torontonians wanted something done to improve the increasingly poor service they were getting from the Toronto Railway Company, the privately owned enterprise that ran the system from 1891 until the municipally controlled Toronto Transportation (Transit after 1954) Commission took over in the fall of 1921.

During that 30-year interval of private ownership, it was common knowledge that a maximum return on the Toronto Railway Company’s well-heeled investors was paramount. So while the TRC had control over surface transit, nothing in the agreement covered underground transportation. As a result, when the voters were asked at the municipal election held on Monday, Jan. 3, 1910, for its approval of some form of underground subway to be built at a cost of $5 million, a majority of 8,571 citizens ticked the ballot’s “Yes” box.

Interestingly, while the subway proposal was approved, another item on the ballot was a suggestion that a viaduct be constructed across the Don Valley to connect Bloor St. with the Danforth. Too costly and too soon the voters said and the idea was defeated by more than 4,400 votes. What we now know as the Prince Edward Viaduct would have to wait. And wait it did until it was built and ready for traffic eight years in the future.

And even though the construction of a subway had been approved it too would have to wait. In fact, by the time the 1912 municipal election arrived, subway interest had waned primarily because of the huge increase in construction costs. (Just a brief aside; up until 1956 municipal elections were held annually, then from 1956-1966 every two years, from 1966-1972 every three years, 1972-1982 back to every two years, 1982-2006 every three years and since 2006 every four years. What’s next?)

The subject of underground rapid transit never really surfaced again in a major way until the First World War was successfully concluded. That interest led to the Jan. 1, 1946, vote and 3,010 days later the Yonge subway.

However, both before and after the end of First World War (people were too busy during that war making sure the good guys didn’t lose) there was some interest in an idea put forward by Sir Adam Beck, the founder of the original Ontario Hydro. He proposed the creation of a network of high-speed surface electric “radial” lines that would, as the name suggests, radiate east, west and north from the city and connect the many surrounding communities with the big city (a concept some would say was not unlike an electrified version of today’s GO Transit system). Politics and the increasing use of cars and trucks ended that idea. (For a comprehensive discussion of Beck’s electric “radial” scheme and it’s possible impact on alleviating today’s transit problems had it been implemented, see David Spencer’s book Transit Progress Derailed (Railfare*DC Books).

To bring the status of subway construction up to date, the extension of the Yonge-University-Spadina line continues to push its way north and west into the City of Vaughan with a planned opening in 2017. Regarding the extension of the Bloor-Danforth line further into Scarborough, to paraphrase the words of TTC’s CEO Andy Byford, the project “is in the planning stage, test drills are under way, Environmental Approval consultations are happening and various preparatory contracts have been let”. Is the Scarborough light rail version still possible? Will financial constrains change that picture? Stranger things in the wonderful world of Toronto transit planning have happened.

One last item, though not strictly a subway, it’s important to note that the Eglinton Crosstown (a 19 km light-rail service with 10 km of the route in a sub-surface right-of-way = subway) is on schedule for a 2021 opening.

After several false starts the work on the city’s first rapid transit line began on Sept. 8, 1949, when the first piles were driven at the intersection of Yonge and Wellington in the very heart of the city. The new Yonge subway opened four years, six months and 23 days later. In the TTC Archives photo, the view looks south on Yonge towards Front St. The building with the conical tower is the long demolished Board of Trade Building in which the TTC had its offices until moving to the present W.C. McBrien Building at 1900 Yonge St. in 1958. William McBrien was the Chairman of the TTC for 22 years and passed away less than a dozen weeks after the new subway, for which he fought so hard, opened. The Metro Toronto Chairman Fred Gardiner, when eulogizing McBrien, suggested the Yonge line be named the William C. McBrien Subway.

Even though one of the hottest topics around town these days is the need for improved public transportation, especially the construction of that elusive DRL (Downtown Relief Line), Torontonians had actually started agitating for some sort of improved “rapid transit” to and from the heart of the city as early as the first decade of the last century. The reason for their collective concern becomes obvious when one inspects this 1914 photo and counts the number of streetcars (as least 14) operating up and down Yonge St. from the King corner as far north as Shuter St.