Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster: ‘Transforming transit – a balance of preservation and progress’

As progress on building new transit shifts into a higher gear, CEO Phil Verster explains how Metrolinx puts people at the centre of planning and design decisions so our projects build up our communities for a better future, while respecting what makes them special today.

When we think of what makes the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) such an exceptional place to call home, it’s impossible to overlook the personality and history of its vibrant, welcoming neighbourhoods. It’s one of the many reasons why I instantly loved this city when I moved here from Great Britain three years ago.

Transit was the reason that I made that move. What we are experiencing here in the GTA is one of the most exciting infrastructure transformations happening around the world. As we now deliver the largest transit program ever in Canada, we have a rare opportunity to create even stronger connections between our communities.

Image shows a construction site.
Building projects within established Toronto communities, means working to be a good neighbour. (Metrolinx photo)

Within ten years, we will have added more than 40 kilometres of new subway lines, almost 50 kilometres of new light rail transit lines, more than 200 kilometres of new GO train tracks and upwards of 100 new stations and stops to help people move throughout the GTA, Hamilton and Niagara Region. These tracks, stations and connections are needed to support the nearly 10 million people who are expected to live here by 2041. The improvements we make today will ensure a healthy region in the future.

Each and every project we’re working on will make it faster and easier for people to get to where they need to be, making their lives a little less stressful and giving personal time back in their days for what matters most.

“Our region is growing, but public transit growth has not kept up.”

Metrolinx CEO, Phil Verster

Still, no matter how beneficial these transit projects will be for our region, there are complex and difficult decisions that must be made. Many of those difficult decisions are about how we make these important projects fit in our already developed cities and towns. Right now, we have more than $75-billion worth of new transit projects underway. In a city such as Toronto, there isn’t an abundance of free space available to build new subway stations or to create temporary room for construction equipment. This means that Metrolinx has no choice but to acquire properties, either permanently or temporarily.

Phil Verster is seen at his desk.
Metrolinx President and CEO, Phil Verster, speaks to members of his senior management team virtually from inside his office at Union Station. (Matt Llewellyn photo)

We meticulously work through decisions when it comes to acquiring property, and that’s why it takes time to confirm what’s needed. We understand that our decisions will affect people’s lives. Even at the early design stage, our goal is always to affect the fewest number of people and come up with as many pragmatic solutions as possible.

The Heart of Toronto

For example, the Ontario Line, where we must build critical new transit through the heart of the city and through thriving, busy communities. I’ve likened this project to performing surgery on an athlete, while they’re running a race. It’s why we’re designing the Ontario Line to travel through Riverdale and Leslieville using existing GO railway corridors that have served Toronto for decades.

By building on land that already belongs to us, where transit already operates, we can limit the number of properties we need and ensure that important community destinations stay in operation throughout construction and beyond. Using this space also enables us to avoid creating several major excavation sites, as well as dozens of hydro, natural gas, and water disruptions for our neighbours.

Image shows a large pit with workers in it.
Looking up – Metrolinx is engaged in a number of transit projects which will help Ontario move into the future. (Metrolinx photo)

We’re going to use this opportunity to better shield neighbouring communities from all railway operations in that corridor, including GO and VIA services in addition to the new Ontario Line. We will add effective, well-designed sound barriers with landscaping, new trees and greenery to significantly reduce the sound and visibility of the corridor and the trains that will travel within it.

Mount Dennis Station Concourse

The future Mount Dennis Station concourse is another excellent example of how we work with communities to find the right balance of preservation and progress. A four-storey, 3,000-tonne industrial building that had once been part of a Kodak film factory had long been abandoned by the time Metrolinx started planning the Eglinton Crosstown LRT. The community couldn’t picture their neighbourhood without this local landmark.

Our engineers stepped up with a creative solution to carefully separate the building from its foundation so that it could be lifted and moved along rails to a temporary site. This allowed our teams to lay new foundations to give the structure a new life as hub for the Eglinton Crosstown LRT; along with GO train, UP Express, and TTC services.

Image shows a worker working on rails.
“A truly connected transit network will ensure that our people and communities are connected,” writes Metrolinx CEO, Phil Verster. (Metrolinx photo)

Preserving and Elevating History

We’re also collaborating with the community to raise the profile of the site in downtown Toronto where Canada’s first parliament buildings used to stand. With the original buildings long gone, this site is now mostly occupied by a parking lot. We want to make sure that any history hidden under the surface is preserved and showcased as part of the Ontario Line design. Archaeologists will carefully explore the site before construction begins so that important artifacts can be documented and conserved. It’s also an opportunity for us work with Indigenous communities to better understand the important histories and rights of the peoples that have lived in this area for centuries. Commemorating the rich history of this site and any uncovered artifacts while delivering a much-needed transit connection will be a win-win.

Properties

Despite our best efforts, we will still need to acquire properties that are already occupied. As we refine our plans, we will explore how we might adjust infrastructure placement to lessen property impacts for the people and communities we serve. When we’re confident that we’ve minimized impacts as much as possible, we will have confidential, one-on-one conversations with each affected property owner.

Whether we have to use a sliver of a backyard for a period of construction or take some land permanently, we always sit down with every property owner to work through the options together. We take that responsibility seriously.

Our region is growing, but public transit growth has not kept up. Now is the time to close that gap. A truly connected transit network will ensure that our people and communities are connected. Transit creates jobs, drives our economy, and provides an essential service to our region. We recognize the pandemic has put some things on pause, but we are building for a future where we are all moving again. 

There will be growing pains as we get there, but I’m excited for a future where we can all get on board.

Learn more about what we’re building at Metrolinx.com/projects.