Charlene Flynn didn’t mince words as she stood in the biting wind, smoking her cigarette and waiting for her bus outside a gas station at Overlea Boulevard and Thorncliffe Park Drive.
“The bus system sucks,” she said. “Sometimes it takes forever.”
There’s no shortage of TTC routes serving the intersection near the border between Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park. But residents say during rush hour, transit vehicles crawl along the gridlocked streets, packed to the doors and stuck in traffic.
That could change in the coming years, if the provincial government follows through on its transit expansion plans.
The “crown jewel” of those plans, as Premier Doug Ford has described it, is the Ontario Line, a 15.5-kilometre rail line that would snake all the way from Exhibition GO station through the downtown core, and into Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park. The line, which would operate with smaller, lighter trains than the TTC subway, would end with a connection to the under-construction Eglinton Crosstown LRT at the Ontario Science Centre.
Aspects of the Ontario Line plan are controversial. Few experts believe it can be built by 2027 and within the $11-billion budget the Ontario Progressive Conservative government has pledged. And the new line replaces earlier city-led designs for a relief line subway that were much more advanced, and may have gotten under construction quicker.
But there is little dispute that providing rapid transit to the low-income, immigrant communities in Thorncliffe and Flemingdon is a major benefit of the Ontario Line. And yet, the specific design of the line looks certain to generate controversy — the province’s intention to operate trains on an elevated guideway for portions of the route is already facing opposition in Thorncliffe and Flemingdon, just as it has in more affluent neighbourhoods elsewhere along the proposed alignment.
Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong, the councillor for the Don Valley East ward that includes Flemingdon Park, said his constituents are “excited by the idea that this area that was pretty much ignored in transit planning is finally right on the map.”
But “the one thing that residents are raising is that they would like to see something underground,” he said.
“They don’t believe that they should be treated any differently than communities that are in the downtown that are also wanting underground transit.”
The East York neighbourhoods of Thorncliffe Park and Flemingdon Park are bounded to the south and east by the Don River Valley, the western branch of which also divides the two communities, with Thorncliffe in the west and Flemingdon in the east. The topography limits the main points of entry and exit to just two streets: Don Mills Road and Overlea Boulevard, both of which are lined with strip malls, fast food restaurants and apartment towers.
The neighbourhoods, which have a combined population of more than 43,000, can feel physically isolated from the rest of Toronto, and their demographics also set them apart. Roughly two-thirds of residents in both communities are immigrants, and more than three-quarters are visible minorities, according to the 2016 census, whereas those figures are both about 51 per cent for the rest of Toronto. Pakistan, the Philippines, India and Afghanistan are the most common countries of origin for newcomers.
In Thorncliffe, roughly 45.5 per cent of households are below the low-income measure, more than twice the portion for Toronto as a whole. The number is about 35 per cent in Flemingdon.
Residents are more dependent on public transit than the rest of the city, with about 45 per cent commuting by transit, compared to about 37 per cent of all Torontonians.
“I think we need to be connected better. There’s so many barriers that people (face), especially the newcomer communities that live here,” said Esel Laxa Panlaqui, manager of community development at The Neighbourhood Organization (TNO), a non-profit that provides employment, housing and settlement services to local residents.
She said it can feel like people in the rest of the city don’t “know that we exist, this neighbourhood exists.”
Eslam Solyman, 38, said the Ontario Line would improve commutes for residents like him. He works at a hotel downtown and relies on the TTC to get around.
“We need more service,” he said, as he waited for the bus on Overlea Boulevard.
The area is not a transit desert. Several TTC bus routes, including the 25 Don Mills, 81 Thorncliffe Park, 88 South Leaside, 100 Flemingdon Park, connect residents to the subway system. But Solyman said during busy periods they’re far too overcrowded.
“A lot of people (are) coming, and most of them standing up in the bus,” he said.
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Early designs for the Ontario Line show it would have three stations in the communities: at Overlea Boulevard and Thorncliffe Park Drive, in Flemingdon Park, and at the Ontario Science Centre.
A study commissioned by Metrolinx determined about 13,000 people in low-income households would be within a 10-minute walk of one of the new stations.
Local residents “will be significantly more well off or (have) improved life quality if they’re trying to commute, especially in and around the downtown core,” said Steven Farber, a transportation geographer at the University of Toronto Scarborough and lead author of the study.
In addition to providing Thorncliffe and Flemingdon residents with greater access to the rest of the city, Farber said the Ontario Line would also provide the reverse benefit of making it easier for residents from elsewhere to access the area. That could bring more economic activity.
“All of a sudden being on a rapid transit line means you have a much more attractive office space than you had before, when people would have to connect to a bus to get to you,” Farber said.
“The real estate is going to become more attractive for commercial activities,” he predicted, and “businesses there might see an uptick in patronage because they’re easier to get to.”
Swapnil Shirke, 30, works in a Fido store in the East York Town Centre, the local mall where a Shoppers Drug Mart and Dollarama sit next to discount luggage stores and independent rug shops, and seniors spend afternoons drinking coffee in the food court.
Shirke lives downtown and used to commute to the mall by transit, but the 45-minute trip each way convinced him to buy a car. He said the Ontario Line would be helpful for people like him.
“There is no train connectivity for East York, not a proper train connectivity,” he said.
Metrolinx, the provincial transit agency that is overseeing the Ontario Line, says it currently takes about 42 minutes to get from Thorncliffe to downtown. The new line would cut that to 26 minutes.
While the Ontario Line route would be built underground in sections of its route that run through dense parts of the city, preliminary designs show it would operate on an elevated guideway through Thorncliffe and Flemingdon, running along Overlea Boulevard, then turning north up Don Mills Road to the Science Centre.
It would also be built on an elevated structure in the section further south, running through the existing GO rail corridor between roughly Gerrard Street and the mouth of the Don River. Plans for that section have provoked organized opposition from homeowners in Leslieville and Riverdale, who say the construction and frequent train service would reduce their quality of life.
Metrolinx has described the above-ground design as critical to the Ontario Line’s success, because it would allow the project to be built much quicker and at a lower cost per kilometre than an underground subway.
Elevating the line “instead of building a very deep tunnel that runs underneath will significantly reduce project costs and construction times,” said Metrolinx spokesperson Anne Marie Aikins, who noted the design in Thorncliffe and Flemingdon would leave the route fully separated from traffic.
“The cost and schedule savings associated with building and operating on an elevated or above-grade guideway unlocks the opportunity to build beyond the limits” of the previous relief line plan, she argued.
But a survey conducted by TNO this fall found while there was strong local support for bringing rapid transit to Thorncliffe and Flemingdon, only about one in five respondents said they supported an elevated train.
“There is much more support for an underground subway,” TNO board member Jason Ash told a meeting of the mayor’s executive committee in October. He told the Star residents are concerned about the noise of the trains, as well as the esthetics of erecting an elevated structure through the centre of the neighbourhoods.
Farber, the U of T researcher, said residents are right to raise concerns. He argued that if done poorly, building the Ontario Line on an elevated structure along Overlea Boulevard and Don Mills Road would risk undermining the economic benefits of the project.
“I think it makes the neighbourhood less attractive to residents and commercial activity,” he said.
“(If the goal is creating) an attractive mixed-use commercial strip, and you can’t cross the street because there’s a horrible cement barrier, that’s dark and cold and unsafe to cross, it’s not going to make that strip a vibrant place to hang out.”