By Michael Ryval

As Ontario continues to grow and expects to add another three million people in the next 20 years, the pressure on transportation networks increases, straining existing roads, highways and public transit systems. But after decades of under-investment, the province is now playing catch-up. Through Metrolinx, a provincial agency responsible for GO Transit and strategic planning for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area, it will be spending $50 billion over the next 25 years to put Ontario back on track.

And to a great extent it will follow the pattern of expanding transit systems to foster development as Toronto has done in the past, says Peter Smith, vice chairman of Metrolinx, former chairman of GO Transit and president and co-owner of Andrin Ltd., a development firm in Toronto. “Look at the Yonge subway line: at each station you see intensified development,” says Smith. “Where there are intersecting subway lines, there’s massive intensification. At Yonge and Bloor, for instance, there are many condo towers. And look at the Kipling station [the western terminus for the TTC’s Bloor-Danforth line] where there are a lot of high-rises and office buildings. Clearly, transportation facilitates intensified development.”

The same trend is apparent along the GO rail line between Georgetown, Brampton and Toronto, with concentrated development around each station. “People want to be close to a station, either within walking distance, a short drive or easy access by local bus,” says Smith, adding that Oakville is another vivid example, as each day tens of thousands of people take local buses to the GO station on Trafalgar Road.

Transit can be regarded as one leg of a three-legged stool, says Smith. That is, one leg represents the provincial growth strategy as articulated in the 2005 Places to Grow Act; another leg represents protection of green spaces through sustainability; while the third leg is transit. “How do you get people from one growth area to another? How do you get them from Hamilton to Oakville, or Barrie to Toronto? This approach — managing growth, the environment and public transit — is the focus of the provincial strategy. By putting in the transit systems, we will encourage residential and commercial development.”

However, Metrolinx certainly faces some daunting challenges, says Paul Bedford, former city planner for Toronto, and adjunct professor of urban planning at University of Toronto and Ryerson University. “We want to make sure that the alignment of interests of the public and private sectors come together at the right spots,” says Bedford. “You do that through providing better transit accessibility — because it makes a site more attractive — and through various planning and development tools such as height density and land use incentives. You have to align policy with practice and make it attractive for the private sector to build these mixed-use developments at these various nodes.”

A so-called mobility hub is one way to foster development, says Leslie Woo, vice president, policy, planning and innovation for Metrolinx. With about 20 in the planning stages, these hubs will feature the intersection of several rapid transit lines where land use can be maximized. For instance, the Bloor-Dundas intersection in Toronto ties together the TTC subway and bus service, Air Rail Link connecting the downtown with Pearson International Airport, and GO train to Georgetown. “There’s quite a lot of convergence there. And there are also opportunities in terms of development of adjacent vacant land. There’s high potential for more mixed-use development. It’s more than just a transit station,” says Woo, referring to The Big Move: Transforming Transportation in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area, which articulates Metrolinx’s 25-year regional transportation plan.

“It offers the potential for improved public amenities, more seamless transition between different modes of transit, such as from subway to bus, or subway to GO, and taxi to bus,” continues Woo. “In the design of that station, we’re working with the local city councillor and the community to deliver a station that has heightened value not just for transit purposes but also community purposes.”

In a similar vein, Metrolinx is working closely with the Town of Oakville and Infrastructure Ontario to find ways to maximize the mixed-use development of a parcel of downtown land. “The key for Oakville and us is to set up the infrastructure and planning mechanisms to make it attractive for that type of development. If we create the right conditions and put the right incentives in place, then there is no reason why it couldn’t happen sooner rather than later,” Woo explains.

Another community that will benefit from massive transportation investment is Kitchener-Waterloo. “Here in Waterloo Region, they’ve determined the preliminary route, the technology and the stations and are in the process of completing the required studies, which we hope to have done sometime in 2012,” says Douglas Stewart, chairman of the OHBA Land Development Committee and senior planner at Stantec Consulting Ltd. in Waterloo. “From that [process], the first rapid transit train and bus will be functioning in 2017.”

Built at a projected cost of more than $800 million, the system includes a train that will cover about 19 kilometres from Conestoga Mall in Waterloo, through the suburban business parks, the downtown areas of Waterloo and Kitchener and continue to Cambridge, where passengers will board a bus rapid transit system that extends about 17 kilometres to the southern end of Cambridge.

“It’s time to connect these communities,” says Stewart, noting that the Waterloo Region is making the investment because it expects to grow from 500,000 people to about 720,000 by 2029. “What’s also important is that there is planned enhancement of the existing bus system to provide connections to the stations that are proposed for rapid transit. In addition, since the end of December we’re connected to Toronto through the GO train, which goes via Guelph.”

The final piece of the puzzle is the evolving housing market in Kitchener-Waterloo that is linked to transit systems and corridors. “We’ve had tremendous success of buildings that go up. There are a number of projects that have been built and others that are being planned,” says Stewart, crediting local officials for spurring the development of the Kitchener’s Kaufman Lofts and Arrow Lofts, both condo conversions of former manufacturing plants. “The market is here.”

Originally published in Spring 2012 Ontario Home Builder.

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