City to complete West Toronto Railpath extension

A man plays with his dog near Wallace Avenue on the Toronto Railpath, a 2.1-kilometre narrow road that runs beside the railroad north from Dundas Street West and Sterling Avenue to Cariboo Avenue and Osler Street.

A man plays with his dog near Wallace Avenue on the Toronto Railpath, a 2.1-kilometre narrow road that runs beside the railroad north from Dundas Street West and Sterling Avenue to Cariboo Avenue and Osler Street.

When finished, the corridor could function as a bike commuters’ superhighway

So far, it’s an off-road bike trail to nowhere, a stub of a path along the side of a rail line in the west end of Toronto.

But if plans to extend the two-kilometre-long West Toronto Railpath to its full six kilometres come to fruition, it could become a veritable bike commuter’s superhighway running all the way from the Junction neighbourhood directly into the downtown core.

A completed trail “would be amazing,” said Daniel Egan, manager of the city’s cycling infrastructure and programs. “What’s in place now doesn’t really go anywhere, but you can get a sense of what’s possible. … You don’t need much imagination to understand how important it could be.”

But the completion of the trail into downtown is likely several years off, and still faces significant design and construction hurdles.

The path currently runs in a diagonal slash, starting from just north of the Dupont and Dundas intersection and running alongside the rail tracks that roughly parallel the southeast trajectory of Dundas Street West. It abruptly ends, however, dumping the commuting cyclists who use it near the dangerous confluence of Dundas, College and Lansdowne. Those cyclists – along with joggers, rollerbladers and people just out for a quiet stroll – can’t wait for the day that the trail is completed further down the rail corridor to the eastern edge of Liberty Village, a stone’s throw from the centre of Toronto.

“Everybody who has used it absolutely loves it and is anxious for it to be completed,” said Yvonne Bambrick, executive director of the Toronto Cyclists Union. “It’s always great to get off the streets that are at times hostile, and always busy and smelly.”

The initial northern portion of the path that opened last fall took almost a decade to come to fruition. It occupies an unused railway right-of-way that the city bought back in 2001, adjacent to the GO train tracks that carry passengers to Brampton and Georgetown.

On the six-minute bike ride – or 20-minute stroll – down the completed portion of the railpath, the sculptures, signage and planted greenery aren’t the most arresting features. Much more impressive is the industrial landscape lining the route – factories and warehouses built decades ago. Riding along the path gives a perspective on the city that is hard to find elsewhere.

But if it is to become more than just a recreational trail, and open up a new commuting route for cyclists, the southern portion of the trail down to King and Strachan needs to be completed. That depends on whether room can be carved out alongside the rail corridor that is being expanded to provide more frequent GO train service and a rail link to the airport.

With the GO expansion set to be finished by 2014 – ahead of the 2015 Pan Am Games – the full railpath could be in place by then as well.

Fortunately, everyone who needs to be involved to make it work seems to be on side.

Metrolinx, the government agency planning the GO expansion, says it will try to make room for the railpath alongside its tracks. The city is willing to pick up the tab for construction costs, and will accommodate the trail on adjacent land or streets in the sections where it can’t be accommodated on rail land. And the grassroots group Friends of West Toronto Railpath, which pushed for years to get the path under way, is lobbying hard and helping with the design of the extended path.

There are still some substantial stumbling blocks, however, and they could be expensive to overcome. Four existing railway bridges – at Lansdowne, Brock, Queen and King streets – aren’t wide enough to allow the bike path to be squeezed in alongside. That may mean the city will have to pony up for new bridges, along with the cost of building the trail itself. Since the existing portion of the trail – which needed no new bridging – cost about $4-million, the price tag for the southern section could be steep.

Despite the costs and potential engineering headaches, the city, Metrolinx and the “Friends” all see the extended route as a huge gain for Toronto’s bike-path system. And it carries none of the controversial baggage of building street bike lanes on car-heavy routes such as University and Jarvis.

Mike Foderick, one of the founders of the Friends of West Toronto Railpath, emphasizedunderlines how important it is to make use of Toronto’s underused industrial corridors for recreational purposes. The part of the trail that is already in use “takes a forgotten side of the [city] and just turns it into a place you want to hang out,” he said. “The [factories] were all built to orient away from the tracks, and now they are unboarding their windows for the first time. They are opening up doors onto that land. … It’s a beautiful thing.”

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