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Weather and mood: ready to sing in the rain

This dreary weather has a way of playing on my mood, and based on the expressions on the faces of those I walked past on my way to work this morning, I’m not the only one to be affected.  Nobody was smiling and no one interacting. It’s a gray and gloomy day and the commute to work among hundreds of other public transit users, was one of the quietest and most lifeless journeys yet.
I wanted to take a picture- I didn’t get a seat and began noticing the scowls. I thought about how I could change this. By starting to dance in the packed subway car, or making eye contact with a commuter and smiling in their direction? Perhaps plastering a false smile to my face until I feel it would spark a chain reaction.
I’ve also noticed that my less cheerful mood brought on by rainy weather, causes me to be less friendly to others.. I wonder if this causes a chain reaction of less positive interactions. The gloom has a strange hold, just as warm sunshine on a cold  day can liven my spirits and put an extra bounce in my step that sets my pace over the rest of the day.
It’s amazing how much more cheerful I feel when I can reach for my sunglasses and immediately put them on,  as opposed to grabbing them with the hope that the clouds will part and the streets will dry. I actually still put my shades over my eyes during the rainy weather, not just for style, but as a way to coax a change in weather and to bring on the sunshine.
This extended winter seems to be paired with cloudy and damp weather. As Canadians we have a short window to enjoy warmer temperatures and patio weather. I’ll bask in the sun as much as I can when these days do finally arrive.
Despite knowing that sunshine and warmth will arrive soon, I still wish I could climb out from under the negative cloud that hovers when it’s gloomy outside. I know it’s human nature to be affected by the weather, but I’m set on attempting to bring sunshine to dreary days as best as I can. I need to learn how to sing.

Ontario Government Announces Plans To Expand GO Transit

Due to increasing congestion on roadways and expenses of owning a car making public transit a more viable option for commuters, I always take it as welcome news when the government announces its plans for expansion and improvements that will further connect me to outlying regions with greater efficiency.

Kathryn McGarry, Ontario’s transportation minister, has said that the provincial government has now set plans to expand GO Transit in Greater Toronto and the Hamilton region.

McGarry has shared the news about the GO Transit expansion while appearing at Union Station on Monday, when she indicated that the government has issued a request to begin selecting companies to initiate the designing, building and financing, in addition to operating and maintaining the GO Regional Express Rail network.

“Today, I am pleased to announce that we are on track to deliver the next stage in GO Transit’s evolution — Regional Express Rail,” McGarry said. This includes new trains, refurbished vehicles, infrastructure for electrifying the entire GO corridor, and improvements such as bridges, tracks and noise walls to make travel seamless. This also includes improvements right here at Union Station to its tracks as well as its platforms to make room for more train service and electrification across the entire network.”

The process is therefore underway, ahead of any contracts being offered for GO Transit expansion. Ontario will issue a request for qualifications.

Six new Toronto Smart Track stations will also be built, and there will be upgrades made to 22 current GO stations that will involve renovations to stations, digital signage and new bus loops.

Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster said the request for qualifications is a “big milestone” and the transit projects are “hugely exciting” for the provincial agency. “In many transit jurisdictions, these are the biggest projects out there today,” Verster said. “For our customers, this is really exciting.”

Regional Express Rail is also to include more than 400 projects across 40 municipalities, which is being financed with the city of Toronto.

The project Mayor John Tory initiated during the 2014 municipal election, SmartTrack, will include integrated services via rail on the Stouffville, Lakeshore East and Kitchener GO lines, as well as on the Eglinton West Light Rail Transit extension, between Mount Dennis and Renforth.

Spokesperson for Metrolinx, Anne Marie Aikins, says that this is “another step closer to building the transit people need.”

 

 

Underground Sounds: Auditions for next generation of TTC musicians to begin, grand prize offered by Universal Music Canada

The weekday hustle to get to the office or to a pressing meeting seems to always be made even less enjoyable due to overcrowded streetcars and subway trains, not to mention due to the frequent delays which plague commuters near-weekly. The newly unveiled fund boost offered to Toronto City transit by the provincial and federal government, totaling nearly $9 billion, is hoped to soon diminish these issues.

Until that point, however, one pleasant fixture that exists at many TTC terminals and subway stations, which helps to put a bit of enjoyment in my morning or evening commute, is the soothing music that can be heard as the masses bustle along various platforms.

One of the most congested underground stations is Bloor/Yonge- one which I am a daily visitor to. The talented musicians set up to entertain passengers on this platform, often put a smile on my face. Just the other day, my grumpy demeanor was eradicated and instead was replaced with a smile, when a musician at the said station performed a fantastic rendition of a favourite Springsteen song. My scowl was instantly transformed into a smile as I clumsily sang along.

The TTC is fully aware that commuting is not always a joy in this city, yet the commission continues to seek to bring that bit of musical therapy that can add a pep in your step. This is the reason for its support of TTC musicians. The commission is currently calling all musicians who wish to be added to the current pool of performers, to audition, beginning April 9, 2018.  The auditions will take place online where the public will be able to cast their votes for their favourite artists.

A total of 90 three-year licenses are available from the subway musicians program, which has become known as “Underground Sounds.” Additional incentive comes by way of a TTC partnership with Universal Music Canada. Thanks to this partnership, one lucky winner will get to record their song, that will then be featured in an exclusive Apple Music “Tracks on Tracks” playlist.

Chair of the TTC and the Toronto Music Industry Advisory Council, Councillor Josh Colle, spoke about the impact these talented musicians bring to commuters daily and also commented on the new audition process, which seeks to reach a broader audience online.

“We know Toronto is filled with incredibly talented musicians and this is a chance for some of them to be heard by the 1.8 million customers the TTC moves every day. By moving to an online audition format, we are able to engage our customers, and residents of the Toronto area, and allow them to have a say in who earns one of the coveted licenses.”

Auditioning musicians will post their performances to You Tube between April 9 and May 6. If any musicians are in need of a camera, live auditions will be held on April 18 and 19, after which a created video recording will be uploaded to the audition site.

Online voting, to determine the top 10 qualifiers, will run May 7-28. Those qualifiers will perform live for a panel of industry experts, including representatives from Universal Music Canada, where the grand prize of recording time and a spot on an exclusive Apple Music playlist alongside top recording artists, will be awarded.

“The TTC takes you where you are going. Music transports you to another world,” said Jeffrey Remedios, President & CEO, Universal Music Canada. “This is a partnership designed to invigorate the TTC’s Subway Musician Program with a long-term digital solution, giving more musicians a chance to participate and connecting riders through their passion for music.”

It has been 40 years since the TTC initiated the Underground Sound flavor at various subway stations across the city. As of the fall, there will be 30 stations that are complemented by the sounds of talented musicians.

Toronto transit receives massive funds infusion totaling nearly $9 billion

By Jessica Ashley Merkley

Let’s be honest, it’s clear that the Toronto transit system is due for an overhaul. I, like many out there, am faced on the daily with the somewhat archaic city transit system that can certainly do with an upgrade.

Perhaps the delays and technical issues that cause frustrations quite regularly to commuters, will be a thing of the past, all thanks to a massive infusion of funds granted to Toronto transit by both the federal and provincial government, this week.

It was announced yesterday that Toronto transit will be receiving a massive boost from the federal government to be put to use over the next decade. The provincial government has also stepped up and nearly matched the amount given by the federal government.

It is now confirmed that the federal government has allotted $5 billion to the city of Toronto’s transit system. Additionally, the provincial government has matched this amount, allotting over $4 billion for various projects that are in the plans for the city’s transit infrastructure.

During a press conference that was held in Mississauga on Wednesday, the infrastructure ministers on both the federal and provincial level, joined forces and announced the signing of a bilateral agreement, which will see nearly $12 billion of federal funds used across Ontario for public transit, various community projects and environmental green infrastructure throughout the next ten years.

Of the near-$12 billion, Toronto is set to receive over half of the funds which have been allocated for Ontario transit- a figure that is roughly $8.5 billion. This infusion of money will allow the city to pay 40 per cent of the cost for slated transit projects.

It’s certainly refreshing to witness two levels of government joining forces to achieve a common goal. Ontario Infrastructure Minister Bob Chiarelli, also holds the same opinion on this as I, stating “I often say that the people of Ontario are best served when all levels of government work together,” while at the press conference on Wednesday.

As to the reasons why Toronto was allocated such a massive sum compared to other regions of the province, Federal Infrastructure Minister Amarjeet Sohi explained:

“The city of Toronto is getting a significant amount of money, Toronto’s ridership is larger and we want the resources to go where the resources are needed.”

The specific plans for how the funds allocated to Toronto transit will be used, have yet to be determined fully, however, the financial boost is sure to bring massive improvements to Toronto transit over the years.

GO Transit gets a sustainable and digital revamp

Thursday, the provincial government announced they are taking the next steps in exploring hydrogen-powered trains, or “hydrail” as a more sustainable alternative to electric trains.

A study was released saying it was feasible to build and operated electrified rail service on both GO Transit and the UP Express with hydrogen-powered trains. This change will be a comparable cost to conventional electrification, which uses overhead wiring.

“The potential benefit of hydrogen fuel cells compared to overhead wires makes exploring hydrogen rail technology worthwhile,” said Ontario Minister of Transportation, Kathryn McGarry. “Our government is taking the next step in assessing how this important technology could work for our own transit system.”

Concept designs are being produced by manufacturers Alstom and Siemens.

What is a hydrogen-powered train? Energy is created when hydrogen, which is stored at the top of the train, is combined with oxygen. That energy is then converted using fuel cells, which charges batteries stored below the train. This creates electricity to run the train. Additionally, extra unused energy is stored in lithium batteries and allows the train to be more efficient because it doesn’t have any waste energy.

The hydrail is considered carbon neutral. because it takes hydrogen already in the environment and re-uses it. Though electrification doesn’t have any carbon output, hydrogen fuel cells are able to provide more flexibility in hard-to-reach places because they don’t require a lot of infrastructure to build, a common issue on train routes.

The first hydrogen-powered passenger train was revealed in December 2017 in Germany.

GO Transit will also be testing wireless Internet on two of their GO trains and four GO busses. While most GO stations and terminals have free Wi-Fi, none of the trains do. That is something Metrolinx, the transit agency responsible for GO Transit, wants to change.

“We are committed to making the entire GO experience even better for people. These enhancements are an example of how we are modernizing GO Transit and enhancing services for people across Ontario,” McGarry said in a statement.

Information will be gathered from commuters about the wireless internet and quality will be examined before it is installed in all trains.

Both of these revitalizations are part of a $21.3 billion investment in GO Transit made by the Ontario government.

-with files from Kaeleigh Phillips

Expanding urban revitalization across the GTA

In the last couple of years, Toronto has begun to transform the downtown core into a more liveable and walkable city. Beyond the King St. Pilot, which has increased transit use along the corridor, the city has also approved a bike lane pilot project, the revitalization of the Waterfront, the creation of a new skating trail under the Gardiner Expressway, the proposal of a rail deck park, and the expansion of smart cities with Sidewalk Labs and (hopefully) Amazon.

And now, North York and Scarborough want in.

Residents and city councillors of North York have put together a plan called “REimagine Yonge” – now “Transform Yonge” – that would see the six-lane strip between Sheppard Ave. and Finch transform into a more walkable community. The original proposal approved by city staff suggests the removal of two lanes, the creation of a raised bike lane, and the widening of sidewalks for more public space and foliage, essentially copying the King Street vibe following the pilot study. The plan has the support of staff, local councillors, and residents who are looking forward to being able to safely walk in their neighbourhood; however, it does not have the support of the mayor.

Toronto mayor John Tory announced earlier this week an alternative plan that would include bike lanes on Beecroft Rd., which is parallel to Yonge. In this scenario, there would be no need to remove a lane of traffic on Yonge. According to reports, this “enhanced” plan will cost an extra $20 million. Tory told reporters he believes the area can be beautified without removing lanes in such a well-trafficked area.

“Transform Yonge” (City of Toronto)

North York isn’t the only neighbourhood that wants change. City councillor Paul Ainslie wants to expand the Bike Share program into Scarborough, as the 270 stations in Toronto are currently situated in the downtown core. With potential partners in GO Transit and the University of Toronto campus, Ainslie believes the program could thrive in that region.

It’s not surprising that these two areas want to change alongside downtown Toronto. Too often, the outskirt neighbourhoods are ignored when it comes to growth and development. Residents have indicated that they want connectivity. They want to live in a walkable city where commuters have the choice of walking or cycling safely, or where a sense of community exists beyond the household. They want the same level of investment as those who live in the downtown core.

No one wants to live in an area that doesn’t feel like a community — and if city hall is dedicated to this new transformation towards a sustainable and smart Toronto, it should be for all of it.

Toronto approves 2018 budget, with extra funding for transit

City Council approved the Toronto 2018 budget Monday 33-11, with a special interest in transit. Included in the $11-billion operating budget budget is over $50 million for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to help in new investments and maintenance, as well as provide discounts for low-income riders and the hop-on-hop-off transfer.

There will also be a fare freeze for the next year.

The city is planning on investing in transit, shelters, recreational spaces, and the Vision Zero plan, among others. The revenue for this budget is being collected from various sources, including taxes, TTC fares, provincial grants, and reserve funds.

“This is a good news budget. It invests in key areas while spending low and keeping tax increases low,” said budget chief Gary Crawford in a statement. “Toronto residents want City Hall to build the city but they also appreciate that we strike the right balance, that we tighten spending, find efficiencies and don’t hike taxes sky-high. For the fourth year in a row, I’m confident we have struck the right, responsible balance that people expect.”

Residential property taxes are set to increase 2.1 per cent along with the rate of inflation, while commercial taxes will only increase by one per cent. City staff say this will equal an increase of about $82 on average for homeowners with property valued at $624,418. Residents will pay an additional 0.5 per cent for the City Building Fund, which supports infrastructure projects such as transit and housing. The city will be relying on approximately $800 million collected from the municipal land transfer tax to fund services, something city manager Peter Wallace says is dangerous considering the real estate market.

Prior to budget approval, mayor John Tory announced $3 million (included in the $50 million investment) earmarked to help overcrowding on Line 1, including the prioritization of the relief line. The 10-point plan includes the addition of more subway cars during peak hours, overnight maintenance schedules, hiring of platform staff for the Bloor/Yonge station, and the use of express busses to alleviate overcrowding.

“I know delays and crowding can be frustrating. I know people want an expanded transit system as soon as possible. I know how maddening it can be when transit and traffic don’t move in this city,” said Tory in a statement. “I want Toronto residents to know that I am dedicated to getting transit and traffic moving. I’m dedicated to building our entire transit network plan. I’m dedicated to making sure the TTC is doing everything possible to minimize delays and ease crowding.”

Council also voted to approve a 50 per cent reduction in property taxes for culture hubs like 401 Richmond. To be eligible, a hub must prove their tenants produce cultural goods and services, charge tenants below market rent, and have a minimum rentable space of 10,000 square feet (5,000 if owned by the city).

Woman of the Week: Leslie Woo

Leslie Woo, Metrolinx’s Chief Planning Officer, approaches everything with curiosity. With an extensive background in both the private and the public sector, Woo is the kind of person who will move to a new position to fill an education gap and learn how everything connects. She calls it design or systematic thinking, something she acquired through her architectural background.

“Every time I twisted and turned in my career, it was because fundamentally, in my work, I identify something that drives me to solve some other underlying problem somewhere else,” she said.

Woo grew up in Trinidad with a middle class family surrounded by poverty, something she says is one of the reasons why she went into architecture and urban planning — to give back to the community. Architecture, Woo said, is an “interesting bridge between community and planning.” Her mother, who was interested in interior design, encouraged Woo in her love of math, art, and language, leading to a study abroad in in Canada.

When she arrived in this country, she found a hostile climate and a foreign landscape. Even the language was difficult, as she had a thick accent. But, Woo pushed through the culture shock, falling in love with environmental studies and city building.

“In reflection, everything in my life and career is about creating roots and being grounded and establishing a place for myself and for my kids and family,” she said. “This interest in urbanity and quality of space and access, that’s where it comes from.”

Woo’s career is extensive. Prior to joining Metrolinx, she worked with the Waterfront Regeneration Trust as well as Waterfront Revitalization, helped shape the Greater Golden Horseshoe Growth Plan with the Ontario Growth Secretariat, and acted as strategic policy director for the Ministry of Training Colleges and Universities.

At Metrolinx, Woo developed a large and expanding portfolio. She is responsible for the long-term vision of the provincial transit agency, based on The Big Move, a vast plan to create one of the “largest and fastest-growing urban regions in North America.” She is responsible for $31 billion worth of capital public investments and drives corporate sustainability and innovation.

“I don’t know that I have a love for transit planning to be honest,” she said. “I have a love for city building, and you can’t build a city without mobility. This job has changed three, four times as the organization has grown, as we have continuously demonstrated our capabilities and our expertise, and we have been rewarded to be a larger contributor to the success of the region. That energizes me. Transportation planning is part of the puzzle I have spent the last 10 years trying to solve.”

She is currently leading the 2041 Regional Transportation Plan, which will build on the foundations created between 2008 and 2018, and help create a fully integrated transportation system across the province. Woo says her biggest challenge was to separate herself from the original Big Move plan and take an objective view, focusing on fresh ideas. The first round of consultations has just finished.

“The people using the system, municipalities and public, they have real insights that are important,” she said. “Now we are focused on the ‘how’ – we feel like what we’ve got is a strong validation of the ‘what’ – the direction, the vision. The ‘how’ is about who is making the decisions, how will you prioritize, how will you develop the evidence, where is the money going to come from, what is the role of municipalities?”

In addition to her work, Woo is deeply interested in mentoring and building up women. She said she was blinded about the gender divide in her early career, as a woman from a matriarchal family. But then, she took part in The Judy Project, an executive program within the Rotman School of Management in Toronto that helps prepare women for executive and CEO positions. The program really opened her eyes to the challenges women face in business.

For example, she said data showed that when someone was meeting a woman for the first time, they judged them 60 per cent on how they looked, 30 per cent on how they sounded in terms of their voice, and only a small percentage of what they actually said. “That for me was disturbing but really helpful in how I speak with other women,” Woo said. “It’s a great time to be a woman right now, but it is going much to slow.”

She continued her development at Harvard through a custom designed leadership program. As part of this fellowship, she founded She Builds Cities, a website where she showcases female city builders, people she has admires within the profession. She also leads Metrolinx’s network for women in management, which includes a mentorship program.

“I have formally and informally mentored younger women, older women, I have been mentored myself – I’ve been reversed mentored by younger women, which is refreshing,” she said. “Coaching, sponsoring, those are all things that are important. In my career, I had many mentors…men and women!”

Woo celebrated her 10-year anniversary at Metrolinx this week.

 

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What do you need to know about Toronto’s budget?

The 2018 city budget is set to go to city council on Monday. It is being described by Toronto Mayor John Tory as “balanced” and “affordable”, focusing on low taxes and transit.

The $11 billion operating budget sets the tone for services and capital projects for the next year. The city is planning on investing in transit, shelters, recreational spaces, and the Vision Zero plan, among others. The revenue for this budget is being collected from various sources, including taxes, TTC fares, provincial grants, and reserve funds.

Residential property taxes are set to increase 2.1 per cent along with the rate of inflation, while commercial taxes will only increase by one per cent. The city will be relying on approximately $800 million collected from the municipal land transfer tax to fund services, something city manager Peter Wallace says is dangerous considering the real estate market.

The budget will include $9 million for traffic initiatives, including $1.6 million for traffic wardens, $477,000 to fix temporary lane blockages on the Gardiner and Don Valley Parkway, and $2.7 million for smart traffic signals. “Over the last three years, people across the city have made it clear that traffic is one of the most important issues they expect City Hall to tackle,” said Chair of Public Works and Infrastructure Jaye Robinson, in a statement. “The 2018 budget builds upon work we have done each and every year on the City’s congestion plan to get Toronto moving.”

There will be a significant investment in transit this year, with over $50 million in new investments to the Toronto Transit Commission, including $4.8 million for the TTC Fair Pass, which will provide discounts for low-income riders, and the hop-on-hop-off transfer.

“I want every transit rider in this city to know that I am absolutely committed to improving and expanding the TTC so that their daily commute improves,” said Tory. “We are doing everything possible to make sure the existing system is running properly and that we are expanding transit as fast as possible for the future.”

Other highlights include $279 million in new funding for Toronto Community Housing Corporation, $486 million for the George Street revitalization, the creation of 825 new child care and 20,000 new recreational spaces.

TTC to address last week’s complaints

While there are a lot of things to complain about this week in terms of transit service, the one thing riders can’t complain about is the sincerity of staff to do better.

There were a lot of problems with Line 1 and Line 2, mostly caused by either human error (passengers claiming emergencies) or a crack in the rail, something the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is trying to rectify. A report will be presented at the TTC board next week about the issues.

“I want every transit rider in this city to know that I am absolutely committed to improving and expanding the TTC so that their daily commute improves,” said Toronto Mayor John Tory in a statement. “We are doing everything possible to make sure the existing system is running properly and that we are expanding transit as fast as possible for the future.”

Later this month, City Council will be approving a total operating budget, which will include $1.98 billion for the TTC. This is $21 million more than last year. This money will be used to help in repairs and upkeep that have been postponed over the last few years.

The mayor also confirmed the relief line was still a priority. By 2019, city council should have a detailed design to push forward. The city will be asking the province to match the federal government’s $4.8 billion investment — money that will be dedicated to transit, including the relief line.

“The federal government has made it clear that they expect provinces to match this investment at least 33 per cent, but other provinces across the country have committed to 40 per cent, and it’s time for Ontario leaders to commit to doing the same for people of Toronto,” said Tory. “Toronto is growing fast and we must keep up. Having a strong and robust transit system is vital to our residents, to our economy and to our competitiveness as a city and a province.”