SmartTrack: That Pesky Curve in Mount Dennis (Updated)

Updated October 17, 2014 at 4:15pm:  Information from Metrolinx about the revised design for the Air Rail Link spur line from the Weston subdivision to Pearson Airport has been added.

John Tory’s SmartTrack proposal has been roundly criticized by various people, including me, on a number of counts. When one looks at the scheme, it is the technical issues — the degree to which SmartTrack will crowd out the Metrolinx RER scheme (or simply take over its function), the question of capacity at Union Station, the route along Eglinton from the Weston rail corridor to the airport. But the biggest challenge is the link from the rail corridor to Eglinton itself.

Let’s get one issue out of the way up front. Writing in the Star on October 6, Eric Miller states:

And it’s interesting to note that very little criticism deals with the basic merit of the proposal as an addition to Toronto’s transit network. The design logic to address major commuting problems is self-evident; analysis to date indicates high ridership and cost-recovery potential that is expected to be confirmed by more detailed post-election studies; and it is modelled on successful international best practice.

Criticisms have, instead, focused on the line’s “constructability” where it meets Eglinton Avenue W. and on Tory’s proposed financing scheme. As already briefly discussed, however, the constructability issue is truly a tempest in a teapot. And with respect to financing I would suggest that all three mayoral candidates and most of the popular press still have this wrong.

In fact, constructability and the technical issues are precisely what could sink this proposal. Dismissing this as a “tempest in a teapot” is a neat dodge, but it is the academic equivalent of “you’re wrong because I say so”. Many who support Tory’s campaign see criticism of SmartTrack as the work of naysayers who, like so many before us, doom Toronto to inaction.

This is tantamount to saying we cannot criticize the plan because doing so is disloyal to the city’s future. Never mind whether the plan is valid, just don’t criticize it.

Miller’s comments in his op-ed piece (linked above) also don’t line up with statements in the “Four Experts” article of October 9 where he and others talk about what SmartTrack might do. Miller is much less in agreement that SmartTrack could achieve what is claimed for it. Should we dismiss his comments as being irrelevant or counterproductive? Of course not.

This article deals with the challenge of getting from the rail corridor to a point under Eglinton Avenue West at Jane Street, the first stop on the journey west to the airport. To put all of this in context, it is vital to look at the details of both the Eglinton Crosstown LRT (including amendments) and at the Metrolinx Georgetown South project in the rail corridor.

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Posted in A Grand Plan, Eglinton LRT, Elections, GO Transit, Transit | 67 Comments

Olivia Chow’s Lost Momentum on Transit

That I would prefer Olivia Chow, of the three major candidates, win the Toronto mayoralty is no secret. All the more disappointing that her campaign has aimed low playing to the “no new taxes” mentality of the Ford years rather than showing ambition for what the city could have if only someone had the leadership to actually pay for it.

My comments, as with those on the Tory and Ford programs, are on the Torontoist site.

Updated October 12, 2014 at 2:00 pm:

The Chow campaign objected to an original remark I had made:

… missing from her proposal is the substantial capital funding needed for stopgap repairs to old buses, and to permanently increase capacity by purchasing additional vehicles and adding more garage space. Moreover, Chow’s plan is silent on the streetcar network, where service has not improved much in 20 years.

Details of a capital funding plan were included in an early September announcement about a proposed bump in the Land Transfer Tax. Unfortunately, Chow took the TTC’s August proposals for service improvements uncritically and simply plunked down $184-million that would purchase:

  • The missing half of the funding for McNicoll Garage ($100m).
  • 10 additional streetcars (part of the proposed 60-car add on, $60m).
  • 40 additional buses ($24m).

Most of this money would not in fact allow Chow to provide the service improvements she proposed, but would simply backfill holes in the TTC’s long-range capital plans. 40 buses won’t go very far especially with a peak service of over 1,500, and with a delivery date out  in 2018.

The most disappointing part of this? Chow could have demanded that the TTC be more responsive and show what it could do. It’s hard to imagine a mayor Tory or Ford putting up with a shrug and “we can’t do it” as an answer from staff, especially when alternatives should be on the table at least for discussion.

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Streetcars Return to Queens Quay

After a two-year absence, streetcar service returned to Queens Quay today with the 510 Spadina and 509 Harbourfront routes resuming their normal operation.

Construction has not yet finished — there are sidewalks still to be finished, a bit of roadwork, the construction of the new bikeway and pedestrian area on the south side, and finally the trees — but that will all be finished for spring 2015.

For those who could not make it down to the waterfront on a fine Sunday morning, and for my out of town readers, here is a sample of views along the line.

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Posted in Spadina Car, Transit, Waterfront | 34 Comments

Who Subsidizes The TTC? (Updated)

Updated October 11, 2014 at 12:45 pm:

This article and accompanying charts have been updated to include data from 2010-2013. (A further update was added on October 13 to show the breakdown of declining reserve funds.)

We hear a lot from every government about how much money they shovel out the door to support transit in Toronto, but it is useful to look at just how much they are spending, where it goes, and most importantly whether there are ongoing increases in funding levels.


There are ten charts in the file linked here:

The first two show operating subsidies in two formats: one with the values stacked to show the total subsidy received by the TTC each year, and one with lines tracking the level of subsidy from each source. In both cases, the section labelled “Ontario” (in red) is for special “one time” subsidies while the gas tax is shown separately.

The gas tax subsidy devoted to operations has remained flat at $91.6-million since it began in 2006. This tax actually arrives at the city in a lump sum for capital and operating, and the city has chosen to dedicate the same amount each year to operating.

Since 2009, the city has absorbed all of the increased operating subsidy of the TTC, although there has been a notable clawback in the Ford years.

The next two charts show capital subsidies in the same two formats. Again, the lion’s share of the subsidy is now borne by the city. The next largest chunk is Ontario subsidies other than the gas tax. These are important because this large share of the overall capital program will dwindle as projects end. Of $301-million in Ontario subsidy for 2013, the breakdown was:

  • $71.6-million from gas tax
  • $58.6-million from the “Quick Win” reserve, primarily for the subway resignalling project
  • $3.6-million from the Ontario portion of the Canada Strategic Infrastructure reserve
  • $145.3-million from the Spadina subway extension fund
  • $21.5-million for the new streetcar program
  • $0.6-million for residual costs on the Transit City program early in 2013.

Over 2/3 of the total provincial capital subsidy in 2013 actually came from reserves, funds that were set up with money from Queens Park years ago when times were good and held in trust by the city.

The amount of Ontario gas tax has fluctuated from year to year between roughly $69- and $75-million depending on the total tax given to Toronto less the $91.6m reserved for the operating subsidy.

Contributions by the Canadian government in 2013 of $257-million were made up of:

  • $154.4-million from gas tax
  • $3.5-million from the Canadian Strategic Infrastructure Fund
  • $99.1-million for the Spadina subway extension

The federal gas tax amount given to Toronto has not changed since 2010. Contributions from CSIF are winding down, and the subway funding is project-specific.

The “Other” category of capital subsidy is almost entirely money from York Region for its share of the Spadina extension.

The fifth chart tracks payments from various sources. In some cases these values are the same as those in the Capital Subsidy chart, but in others the amounts can vary because some money travels to or from reserve accounts.

Those reserve accounts have been dwindling since 2008. When times were good, governments, and especially Queen’s Park, were happy to shovel money out the door as a “current expense” to reduce their surplus, such as it might be, and to sequester the money in accounts outside of the government’s books. Of several funds that were created, the only ones that still have any money in them are the CSIF reserve ($15.3m) and the “Quick Wins” reserve ($133.9m) at the end of 2013.

(The negative reserves accumulating to 2006 were accounts receivable for funding programs that had been announced by Ottawa and Queen’s Park, but not actually implemented. The TTC recouped this money in 2007.)

The reserves are charted in two ways: as total amounts by source government, and as individual amounts within each reserve fund.

The reserves shown on this chart do not include the Spadina Subway fund because money for that project is handled differently by each government. Some made a lump sum payment into a trust managed by the City of Toronto, while others pay-as-you-play making contributions as the project progresses.

Spending on the Spadina subway extension is shared between Toronto, York Region, Queen’s Park and Ottawa based on an agreed formula. The federal contribution is capped, and it is unclear what will happen if the project exceeds its total budget.

Transit City spending was subsidized by Metrolinx up until early 2013 to a total of $248m. Part of this will be the sunk costs of work on the SRT replacement that may be chargeable to Toronto as part of the settlement of the Scarborough Subway project. The remainder relates to the Eglinton, Sheppard and Finch lines. These are now completely Metrolinx projects, and this item should disappear in the 2014 financial statements.

The Low Floor LRV (streetcar) project is funded 1/3 by Queen’s Park, and the amounts shown as revenue are the Ontario share.

A few common threads run through these numbers:

  • Gas tax revenues at both the provincial and federal levels have been static more or less since these subsidies were introduced.
  • Reserves created mainly before the financial crisis of late 2008 are now substantially depleted and nothing has replaced this source of funding.
  • The responsibility for operating and capital funding (except for project-specific accounts such as the Spadina subway extension) falls overwhelmingly on the City of Toronto.

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Posted in Finance, Transit | 14 Comments

Getting Ready For Streetcars Returning to Queens Quay

After many delays, the Queens Quay reconstruction project will be completed to the point that streetcars can return on the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend, October 12, 2014.

Years of utility construction, rebuilt sidewalks and a completely new trackbed for streetcars are almost over. When the project finishes in 2015, Toronto will finally see more than beautiful presentations and websites, we will see the street as the designers intended.

Updated October 8, 2014

Test car 4164 ran to Union Station on October 7.

Photos from Harold McMann:

View from 4164 eastbound at Lower Simcoe and Queens Quay:

Oct 07, 2014/Toronto, ON:   TTC. EB #4164. Queens Quay at Simcoe St. First car to Union, testing track & overhead structure.

Union Station Loop:

Oct 07, 2014/Toronto, ON:   TTC.  #4164. Union Station Loop. First car to Union, testing track & overhead structure.

Photos linked from a comment by “Thomas”:

Approaching Lower Simcoe Westbound

West of Lower Simcoe

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Posted in Transit, Waterfront | 79 Comments

The Ford Family Subway Plan

Over on the Torontoist website, I have posted a review of Doug Ford’s transit platform. Please leave any comments there.

For those who are wondering, a critique of Olivia Chow’s platform will follow later this week.

Posted in A Grand Plan, Elections, Transit, Urban Affairs | 1 Comment

Measuring and Reporting on Service Quality

On September 30, 2014, the TTC’s Bloor-Danforth subway suffered a shutdown from just before 8:00 am until about 3:00 pm on the segment between Ossington and Keele Stations. The problem, as reported elsewhere, was that Metrolinx construction at Bloor Station on the Georgetown corridor had punctured the subway tunnel. While the weather was dry, this was not much of a problem because, fortunately, the intruding beam did not foul the path of trains. However, rain washed mud into the tunnel to the point where the line was no longer operable.

In the wake of the shutdown, there were many complaints about chaotic arrangements for alternate service, although any time a line carrying over 20k passengers per hour closes, that’s going to be a huge challenge. The point of this article is not to talk about that incident, but to something that showed up the next day.


[Click to enlarge]

According to the TTC’s internal measure of service quality, the BD line managed a 92% rating for “punctual service”. This is lower than the target of 97%, but that it is anywhere near this high shows just how meaningless the measurement really is.

The basic problem lies in what is being measured and reported. Actual headways at various points on the line and various times of day are compared to a target of the scheduled headway plus 3 minutes. This may look simple and meaningful, but the scheme is laden with misleading results:

  • On the subway during peak periods, service is “punctual” even if it is operating only every 5’20″, or less than half the scheduled level. Off-peak service, depending on the time and day, could have trains almost 8 minutes apart without hurting the score.
  • There is no measurement of the actual number of trips operated versus the scheduled level (in effect, capacity provided versus capacity advertised). Complete absence of service has little effect because there is only one “gap” (albeit a very large one) after which normal service resumes.
  • There is no weighting based on the number of riders affected, period of service or location. A “punctual” trip at 1 am with a nearly empty train at Wilson Station counts the same as a train at Bloor-Yonge in the middle of the rush hour. There are more off-peak trips than peak trips, and so their “punctuality” dominates the score.

An added wrinkle is that the TTC only includes in its measurements periods of operation when the headway is unchanged. With the service being so often off-schedule, it would be difficult to say just what the value of “scheduled headway plus 3″ actually is at specific points along the route during transitional periods.

All the same, we have a measurement that has been used for years in Toronto and it gives a superficially wonderful score. Sadly, the formula is such that falling below 90% would require a catastrophic event, and some silt in the tunnel does not qualify.

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Posted in Service Cost and Quality, Transit | 17 Comments

SmartTrack Reviewed

My review of John Tory’s transit plans, notably SmartTrack, has just gone up on the Torontoist website. Please leave any comments there.

A separate article by David Hains about Tax Increment Financing appears there as Part Two.

Posted in A Grand Plan, Elections, Transit, Urban Affairs | Comments Off

Building the Connection to Leslie Barns (Updated September 24, 2014)

September 24, 2014

As segments of the utility work below Leslie Street are completed, the project has reached the stage where track, or at least foundations for track, are starting to appear south of Queen Street. The photos below were taken on September 21.

Looking north on Leslie across Eastern Avenue (one block south of Queen). The track only extends the width of the intersection at this point, but the work allows east-west traffic to resume.


Looking south from Eastern Avenue. The track will be laid in a form (see also the next photo) whose design is intended to distribute the load across the street and avoid problems with poor soil conditions below. The form shown here moves on small rails.


Looking north from Mosley Street showing the one-piece track foundation.


Looking southeast across Lake Shore to the new Leslie Barns under construction. The entrance to the site will be at Commissioners Street, the next block south. The large smokestack is not part of the barns, but of a sewage treatment plant which is a neighbour to the barns.


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Posted in New Streetcars, Queen Car, Transit | 71 Comments

King & Sumach: Connecting to Cherry Street (Update 10: September 21, 2014)

Last year, the TTC built new track on Cherry from Eastern Avenue south to the rail corridor that, eventually, will host a new streetcar service in spring 2016. Why so long you ask? The south end of the line sits in the Pan Am Games’ Athletes’ Village and won’t be ready for service for two years even though most of the track will already be in place. The opening will co-incide with the period when purchasers of condos (originally used as athletes’ quarters) will start moving into the neighbourhood.

New photos will be added to the end of this article as the project progresses.

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Posted in King Car, Transit, Waterfront | 73 Comments