The St. Clair Avenue West saga continues to test how well City of Toronto departments and agencies work with each other. The first major hurdle in adding exclusive streetcar lanes to this midtown artery was coming up with a design acceptable to both the TTC and the traditionally pro-car transportation division.
St. Clair is wider than most downtown streets, but there was still a great deal of compromising to fit in transit and traffic lanes, plus parking and sidewalk space. Everyone got squeezed and there will be no bike lanes.
Then came the job of getting Toronto Hydro, the TTC and the city to harmonize their construction schedules — a task apparently so complicated that St. Clair residents and shop owners may have to put up with construction beyond 2009.
Now, it seems Toronto Fire Services has found challenges in actually using the St. Clair transit lanes.
Although involved in the planning process since early on, the department recently identified real problems for large vehicles trying to access and travel the streetcar “right-of-way.”
The city’s fire chief insists St. Clair’s new layout is safe for fire trucks, although some “minor adjustments” are required. The question for me is whether it could be safer. Two physical obstacles are of top concern — the location of poles that hold up streetcar power wires and the edge of the raised platform that runs down the middle of the street.
This design is also proposed for the citywide network of light rail lines known as Transit City, and although most of the suburban roads slated for construction are wider than St. Clair, compromises are still going to be necessary.
Putting poles between the tracks has the advantage of reducing maintenance costs as well as the number of wires stretching across the street (a bonus for aerial ladders) — but the poles force fire trucks to slow down. Also, the right-of-way’s raised platform keeps cars off, but the curbs may be so high that even drivers of emergency vehicles and TTC buses can’t mount them without fear of damage.
In theory, the St. Clair transit lanes should have allowed a speedy way to bypass traffic, but in practice it looks as if some fire trucks may avoid them. Likewise, whenever streetcar service is disrupted, replacement buses are more likely to end up fighting congestion next to empty transit lanes. Were these trade-offs necessary?
St. Clair is not complete, so remedies are still possible — including raising the adjoining pavement to minimize the height of those curbs. Such a potential costly fix has to be avoided for Transit City. What’s more, the pole locations need a real rethink. Cost and aesthetics are valid priorities, but not if these have the effect of keeping emergency and TTC vehicles off the right-of-way.