Preliminary TTC 2016 Operating Budget (Updated July 30, 2015)

Updated July 30, 2015: Comments on the discussion at today’s meeting have been added.

The Budget Committee met today and received the presentation linked from the main article. There was considerable debate, a welcome change from the Stintz/Ford years at the TTC where detailed knowledge of the budget was not of much interest to politicians. Now there actually is a Budget Committee, and its members take their job seriously. The idea is that by the time the budget hits Council, there will be a group of informed advocates beyond the senior staff who, in past years, have been left to fend as best they could as proponents of better transit in a hostile environment.

Among the topics that came up were:

  • the question of the “average fare” and the role of a monthly pass in the fare mix;
  • the future role of and arrangements for fare collection with Presto;
  • the implications of various possible fare schemes, including increases, and the resulting effect on the TTC budget and subsidy requirement;
  • the provision of improved service, its cost and its beneficiaries;
  • the staffing of TTC and especially the numbers of new staff and their cost for various functions.

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TTC Board Meeting July 29, 2015 (Updated August 1, 2015)

The TTC Board will meet on July 29, 2015, and various items of interest are on the agenda. These include:

  • The monthly CEO’s Report
  • A presentation by Toronto’s Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat
  • Faregates for PRESTO implementation
  • Purchase of new buses and implications for service growth (Updated August 1, 2015)
  • Improved service standards for off peak service on “frequent” routes
  • Proposed split operation of 504 King during TIFF opening weekend
  • An update on Leslie Barns
  • Excluding Bombardier from eligibility for future contracts
  • Council requests related to Lake Shore West streetcar service

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Service Analysis of 501 Queen 2013 to 2015: Part 2, Running Times

In the first article of this series, I reviewed the headways (time between vehicles) on route 501 Queen from August 2013 to May 2015. A pattern there is that headways on the outer parts of the route are consistently, at times extremely so, worse than the advertised frequencies. Even in the central part of the route, average headways are close to scheduled values, but the regularity of vehicle spacing is not – cars commonly run in pairs on a much wider combined headway than the schedule calls for.

With this route listed among those that will be part of the TTC’s “Ten Minute Network”, actually achieving that goal will be as important as the inevitable hype that will accompany the announcement. This is also a route destined for better service thanks to new loading off-peak loading standards.

This article turns to the question of running times – the period required for a typical vehicle to get from point “A” to “B” on a route. These are important for a variety of reasons:

  • If the scheduled time is commonly less than the actual time needed, then vehicles will always be late, and there will be a strong incentive for cars to short turn.
  • If the scheduled time is commonly more than what is needed, then vehicles will either dawdle along their routes, or take extended siestas at terminals.
  • “Congestion” is a routinely cited reason for the TTC’s inability to operate reliable service, but it is not a consistent phenomenon across the route, by time of day or by day of the week. Some of the worst disruptions arise not from chronic congestion, but from events such as construction projects or diversions around festivals. The location of the delays is not confined to the core area.

There is a lot of material here, and I don’t expect that most readers will go into all of the detail. The first part looks at the route overall, and then I turn to individual segments. If there is any overall message, it is this: the operation of a long, busy route like Queen is affected by many factors. Some are institutional (schedules, procedures). Some are chronic (predictable congestion). Some are transient (accidents, illness). Some of the worst are from relatively short-lived events such as construction work or event diversions where the resulting service leaves much to be desired. There is no one “magic solution” that will fix all of them with minimal pain for either for the TTC or for other road users.

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Service Analysis of 501 Queen 2013 to 2015: Part 1, Headways

Of the TTC’s many routes, 501 Queen is the longest and the subject of ongoing complaints about service quality and reliability. Two standard explanations are offered to the long-suffering riders: we cannot operate a reliable service thanks to traffic congestion, and we have no equipment with which to operate more service.

I have published detailed reviews of individual months of operation in past articles, but an accumulation of data for various periods and conditions now makes a retrospective look at the route’s behaviour possible.

The data used in this analysis come from the TTC’s vehicle monitoring system which collects GPS information on the fleet every 20 seconds. The raw data are transformed by several programs I have developed over the years so that they can be presented in a consolidated format. Interested readers should see Methodology For Analysis of TTC’s Vehicle Tracking Data for details of this process. The data were provided by the TTC, but the analysis and interpretation are entirely my own.

Service History

The last significant change to 501 Queen schedules occurred in Spring 2013 when weekday services were adjusted to address overcrowding. Since then, there have been only two basic schedules used on the route:

  • The standard schedule provides service between Neville Loop in the east and Long Branch Loop at the city’s western edge. Half of the cars are scheduled to short-turn at Humber Loop, and except for overnight service, from that point westward the scheduled service is half the level of that east of Humber.
  • On some occasions, construction has required that the line operate in two segments. One is from Neville to Humber, and the other (using buses) is from Humber to Long Branch. Service east of Humber is similar to that on the standard schedule. To the west, scheduled bus service is more frequent to allow for the capacity of low floor buses versus the two-section streetcars (ALRVs) used on 501 Queen. (A variation on this includes a shuttle service from Humber Loop to the condos east of Park Lawn, but it does not alter the service provided on the main part of the route east or west of Humber. This shuttle is not part of the service analysis.)

501_ServiceHistory

This table shows the two service designs for 501 Queen including the headways (scheduled time between vehicles), numbers of vehicles, end-to-end trip times and “recovery” time.

This last item deserves comment because it is not, as the name implies, intended to give operators on this extremely long route a break after their journeys. Instead, its primary function is to make the schedule work out so that the round trip time is a multiple of the headway. Because of the difference in trip times on the two branches of the route, this can produce long recovery times at periods in the day when they are not badly needed simply to make the schedule work out properly. I will turn to trip times and reliability in the second part of this series.

This article covers the following periods of operation on 501 Queen:

  • August-October 2013 (service split at Humber Loop after Thanksgiving weekend)
  • January-April 2014 (service split at Humber Loop for April)
  • September-October 2014 (service split at Humber Loop)
  • March-May 2015

As a general observation, service on much of the Queen route is very unreliable and, in some cases, to the point where it exists more in theory than in practice. Bunching is commonplace, and there is no evidence of any attempt to keep cars spaced apart from each other even long before they enter the most congested section of the route. If there is an operating discipline, its aim is to keep operators on time, with service to riders coming as an afterthought. In principle, if all of the service is on time, then reliability will take care of itself. However, in practice, the service routinely operates well off of its scheduled headways. This cannot be put down entirely to “traffic congestion” given how pervasive a problem this is and has been on 501 Queen for years.

Service on this route, particularly on its outer portions, has been an issue for as long as I can remember, and the TTC always has an excuse. If only they would expend one tenth of the effort to manage headways on this major route as they do to tell us about their latest of clean subway stations and other “customer service initiatives”, there would be many happy riders, and an incentive to bring even more. The route is developing medium and high intensity buildings along its length, but the service levels are unchanged since 2013 (and with only minor changes before that).

The TTC plans to introduce new schedules on Queen later in 2015 (or possibly early 2016) to address some of the reliability problems. However, without the will to ensure that vehicles on this very  long route maintain proper spacing, the concept of reliability, let alone the “ten minute service” network of which Queen will be a part, will be meaningless.

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Coming Soon: July 2015

Since that blizzard of articles about TTC budgets and fares, it’s been rather quiet in here. Fear not! I actually have works in progress to tide us over the relatively quiet summer months until the political season heats up in the fall.

There will be a series of articles about the operation of the downtown streetcar lines looking at their behaviour over time, and reviewing how changes that have been made (or are planned) affected them. These include:

  • 501 Queen (including the effect of split operation with a bus shuttle on Lake Shore to Long Branch)
  • 502/503 Downtowner & Kingston Road (including the recent move to a 10-minute off-peak headway on 502)
  • 504 King (including the effect of additional running time on service levels and terminal operations)
  • 505 Dundas
  • 506 Carlton (including a look at the effects of the College/Spadina construction diversion)
  • 509 Harbourfront (including a review of the changes on Queens Quay)
  • 510 Spadina

The TTC plans additional meetings of its Budget Committee and these will, no doubt, produce more details about plans and options for 2016 and beyond. I will cover this material as it becomes available.

A Little Rant About Transit Fares

A recent article, The Flirtation With Fare By Distance, has sparked a debate in the comment thread about the relative merits of flat vs distance-based fares, and the whole issue of how we choose to subsidize some groups of riders versus others. In a recent reply, I took strong issue with some of the concepts advanced by writers, and the thread of my argument is strong enough that it deserves to be seen in an article of its own.

There are two related comments, and I will reproduce them here to set the stage:

Rishi (@PlanGinerd) wrote:

Fare-by-distance is a tricky one that I’m not yet firmly decided on. It clearly works on many large systems worldwide, and I have tons of friends and family who live in Zone 4 or Zone 6 in London who while they do complain the Tube is expensive, they still take it daily and never ever drive or take a cab or a regional train into the core. Perhaps it can only be coupled by changing the economics/costs of driving?

I am 100% sympathetic that FBD benefits those who can afford to live closer to the core, whilst disadvantaging those who live within the borders of Toronto but farther out. I haven’t done enough research yet, but I always think about why someone who lives so far from the City of TO core, would still choose to live within our borders vs. in Peel, York, or Durham regions. Is it really the cheap access to the TTC or is it other services? In other words, what incentives are there to convince them to live in “expensive” Toronto in the first place?

My friends deep within Metrolinx and TTC are also torn. They feel that it is not the role of the operator to handle the social equity, but the role of the province through transfers and tax breaks. I ask Steve and the community, if the province was to pair FBD for all GTA transit agencies and truly integrated fares, with a tax break to help those disadvantaged, would that change your mind?

It reminds me of a conversation I had last week on Twitter with Moaz RE how social programs that give out free TTC fares would cope without tokens. I see Presto tech. as enabling if done right, and it would be easy to give out cards with balances on them, or a periodic reload to help with fares, whilst also giving valuable O-D and usage data.

Maybe I’m too much of an optimist but things like this, and exiting fare gates are commonplace and the norm in cities everywhere. Yes local context is critically important, but I think we have to get away from the nay-saying that Toronto is always different and every other best practice could never work here.

Jonathan C wrote:

Flat fares are a very ineffective way to reduce inequality as the benefit is not well-targeted to those who need the help. There are plenty of people making long trips who could afford a higher distance based fare, and plenty who struggle to pay the flat fare for short trips or end up walking long distances because they can’t justify the cost. In most cases everyone would prefer better service. If you want to help those in need then push for an increase in the low income tax credits, don’t try to use the transit system as it is a very blunt instrument.

In a way the flat fare leads the poor to live further from the core as only those who are better off can afford higher housing costs plus the flat fare. The poor service to far-flung locales also pushes commuters into cars, while those who can’t afford to drive end up trading their time for a lower fare.

My replies:

This discussion seems to be taking place as if we were proposing to introduce flat fares as a net new subsidy that would benefit people who don’t need it. If that were the case, I could certainly understand arguments for targeted rather than broad-brush subsidies.

We are not. The discussion is of the potential effect on a wide range of transit users who now have a common fare no matter how far they travel compared to what they pay today. If you want to talk about actual need, then let’s expand the debate to free fares for all children, or reduced fares for all students and seniors. During the whole debate over cheaper fares for university students, I was struck by the absence of advocates for the truly poor saying “hey, what about us”, and the hand-wringing extended to a group that on the whole comes from relatively affluent backgrounds.

I have yet to hear a cogent argument for distance-based fares beyond “other people are doing it”. Well, no, throughout much of the GTHA, “local” fares are flat. Even London UK, that oft-cited bastion of fare-by-distance, uses flat fares for its surface system with time-based transfer privileges.

Correction: London does not have time-based transfers on its surface routes, with very limited exceptions. [July 2, 2015]

The question of flat fares vs fare by distance has nothing to do with “nay-saying” or “best practices”, it is a political and social choice the city has made. If we want to talk about fare collection technology, or the best way to operate a transit system, those are fair game for criticisms of the “not invented here” syndrome so common in Toronto.

“Equity” as Toronto defines it may well mean a flat fare. Don’t forget that the pesky border with the 905 is a comparatively recent phenomenon, and problems of low market share for transit within 905 systems (i.e. for local travel in York Region, or Durham, or Mississauga) have nothing to do with fare by distance, but with built form and the relative lack of competitive transit services. Fare by distance will only “solve” the problem for trips that are now cross-border by giving them a (presumed) discount. It won’t add better bus service unless there is a substantial jump in revenue to offset costs, net costs that are higher in the 905 because of the much richer per rider subsidies.

Where people choose to live is a product of many factors including income and service (broadly defined) availability. Try living without a car out in the 905 — the TTC for all its problems is a damn sight better, and it can certainly be argued that there is a stronger, longer history of community support services within Toronto than elsewhere even if these are stronger in the “old city” than in Toronto’s suburbs. Some of this is also historical — the 905 suburbs simply didn’t exist when many families moved to the outer 416, or they were aimed at a very different demographic. Markham is not noted for its large pool of social housing.

When we speak of transit discounts as a “social service”, this is usually in the context of truly disadvantaged groups who for mainly economic reasons are deemed worthy of additional social supports. There is a big problem with arguments that they should be funded through alternative means to transit fares such as tax rebates. Social subsidy programs are chronically underfunded and have exclusionary eligibility tests. Tax credits are a wonderful thing, but they are almost always structured to benefit those who have a taxable income in the first place, and can even disproportionately benefit the well off.

If we start talking of flat transit fares generally as a “social service”, we miss the whole point that encouraging people to use transit has an economic benefit for the city by avoiding pressure for more road construction, and a general benefit to all residents by reducing the need for one or more cars in their families. This is the sort of thing that would show up in any full accounting of costs and benefits. The hidden subsidies to motorists are not subject to the same scrutiny, nor are they regarded as some sort of social service. We also build roads for the economic benefit of the trucking industry and all of its clients. Maybe we should start thinking of that as a “social service” too because it is a form of job creation.

It is very easy to characterize things we don’t want to spend money on as “social service” or even worse “welfare”, while the things we prefer (often for political and ideological reasons) as “investments”.

Any scheme that discourages transit use relative to what is and has been in place for decades is the equivalent of a “disinvestment”, almost like asset stripping where dividends are more important than the health of a company.

If you want to call me a “nay-sayer” for that attitude, you have that right, but it’s a pejorative term, an artificial, ad hominem argument that does not engage in debate of the basic principles.

I would remind you that the “nay-sayer” epithet was used by John Tory during his campaign against those who criticized SmartTrack, and we now know what a bag of crap that proposal was.

The availability of vast amounts of travel data is routinely cited by those who would move us to fare by distance. Dare I remind readers that distance-based fares have existed for much, much longer than the ability to collect this data, and they are a product of political and business decisions about pricing service, not a means to collect O-D info.

The next time you go shopping and someone makes it harder for you to get through the store because they want detailed data about your buying habits, be sure to co-operate fully.

The TTC does not, repeat, not need a mountain of O-D data to provide better service. You can find out where the riders are simply by looking at the buses and streetcars, and broad network demands can come from O-D data in the TTS survey.

They already have a mountain of data documenting the behaviour of their vehicles, and after many decades are finally starting to analyze it in ways similar to the work I have published. Problems with vehicle bunching and poor headway management contribute a great deal to crowding on the TTC. Even with this documented in excruciating detail, little is done to fix problems of “TTC culture”. This is even a double-edged sword in that with all this data, some claim that all we need to do for more capacity is to improve management and schedules, not to actually operate more service. This is a variation on the “efficiency” argument that neatly avoids an actual commitment to better service.

Let us have a debate on fare structure by all means, but let it be a real debate, not simply a fait accompli that shows up because Andy Byford and Bruce McCuaig decide to impose fare-by-distance on us all as a matter of simplicity for Presto’s implementation. The technology should serve what we, collectively as cities and a region, want to help transit achieve, not get in the way or penalize riders who happen to live in the wrong place. Let’s talk about GO Transit’s uneven handling of short trip fares and the discount structure that makes travel from Kitchener to Union Station far cheaper, by distance, than travel from Rexdale. Let’s talk about what is needed to make transit service in the 905 truly attractive so that more people will want to use it, and transit will have political support for spending on more than a few subway extensions and GO improvements.

That would be a real debate. What we have today is an utter sham.

TTC 2016 Budget Intro: Part 2 – Capital Budget

The TTC Budget Committee will meet on June 29, 2015 to consider a preview of the 2016-2025 ten year Capital Budget. This gives a sense of where the TTC is headed in its search for funding at the City of Toronto, Queen’s Park and Ottawa, as well as its priorities for future spending.

The Capital Budget often can be daunting both from its size (the detailed project description material fills two large binders), the complexity of its funding (many sources of money, one-time or ongoing schemes, and the fact that huge projects like subway extensions are mixed together with the more mundane work of routine repairs to refresh aging infrastructure.

This mix also shows the ongoing competition for attention between the megaprojects and the equally important job of keeping the TTC rolling.

The budget spans ten years, and each year brings updates to reflect planned work that now falls within the ten-year window, new projects that have not been included before, and changes to existing projects either in their scope or timing. For many years, the total budget has exceeded projected funding for the next decade, and many projects sit in limbo awaiting their own dedicated financing scheme, or the arrival of more money through increased subsidies. The balancing act the TTC faces is to keep the vital projects going in the short term while beating the drum for for better transit support in future budgets.

Funding from “senior” governments – Ontario and Canada – has declined considerably over the years. Although specific projects have large investments – notably the Spadina extension (TYSSE) and the Eglinton-Crosstown (which is now a Metrolinx project) – funding for basic capital maintenance is a hard sell. Toronto receives gas tax revenue from both governments, and in the case of the provincial stream, a bit over half is dedicated to operating subsidy, not to capital. The total gas tax capital flow each year from both Queen’s Park and Ottawa is about $220-million, less than one quarter of the typical annual spending. Almost all of the remainder comes from the City of Toronto.

This, together with other City financial pressures, has created a very tight squeeze in coming years which is shown in a chart from a recent budget presentation.

20162025CapitalDebtTarget

Recent decisions by Council have eaten up all of the headroom that formerly existed in the City’s capital debt plan. In order to keep spending on debt service under control, the City sets a ceiling of 15% of property tax revenues for this expenditure. This is actually much less than 15% of the overall City budget because property tax covers only about 1/3 of the total (for example, transit fares are roughly 10% of total City revenues). However, the other revenue streams are spoken for because they are dedicated to specific purposes, not to general operations. Also, some of these are non-recurring such as special grants, “surpluses” (actually underspending from previous years), or proceeds from asset sales. Such revenue cannot be counted on in future years as a source for debt payments. In simple terms, you can only spend an inheritance, or lottery winnings, or money from selling your antique furniture, once.

By 2020, the anticipated debt payments bump into that 15% line and there is no headroom. Any new capital project, especially one that starts in the next five years, and which is financed by debt, would push the debt service cost beyond that 15% by 2020. For example, you may have spare cash today to cover a car purchase loan, but if you are facing another loan for a planned home renovation project in a few years, you won’t be able to carry both when the crunch comes. That is the situation the City finds itself in, and current budget guidelines call for no new debt-funded projects to be added for the next nine years until there is headroom once again for borrowing. (Note that the City’s projections allow for anticipated future changes in interest rates, although these take time to build into the debt service base because of long-term fixed interest rates on City debt.)

One obvious solution is to either raise the amount of tax revenue so that the 15% is measured against a higher income stream, or to get a new source of revenue to pay for capital costs without borrowing. Neither of these is palatable to City Council, and they look to other governments to increase funding.

Project-based grants can shift individual items off of the books (for example a new rapid transit line might be “free” because someone else pays for it), but these projects are not necessarily our top priority (we might value better accessibility in existing stations over a new subway through vote-rich ridings). Moreover, the completed projects could bring additional operating costs (the TYSSE will certainly do this) for which money must be found in the Operating budget.

The presentation includes a long list of funding programs created by various governments that have run their course (end dates in parentheses) [see pp. 41-45]:

  • Canada Ontario Infrastructure Program (2003)
  • Ontario Bus Replacement Program (2010)
  • Golden Horseshoe Transit Improvement Fund (2012)
  • Ontario Rolling Stock Infrastructure Fund (2012)
  • Canada Strategic Infrastructure Fund (near complete)
  • Metrolinx Quick Wins (near complete)
  • Transit Secure (2009)
  • Infrastructure Stimulus Fund (2011)

A few remain in place:

  • Light Rail Vehicle Procurement (to 2019)
  • TYSSE (to 2018)
  • Provincial Gas Tax (ongoing)
  • Federal Gas Tax (ongoing)

Promised funding for future projects such as the Scarborough Subway Extension (SSE) are not included in this list because they are not yet approved beyond preliminary planning and engineering. Metrolinx projects do not appear in this list because they are entirely handled at the provincial level and do not affect City capital requirements.

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The Flirtation with Fare by Distance

Recent presentations by TTC CEO Andy Byford both to his own Board and at a recent Metrolinx Board meeting included an undercurrent of references to charging fares based on distance travelled or some form of zone system. This shows up in the description of new fare gates for subway stations that would be provisioned at the TTC’s expense as part of the Presto farecard rollout.

What, you ask, is this all about? Don’t we already have Presto readers on existing turnstiles? Well, yes, but they have two problems according to Byford:

  • The reader is not ideally located (“it is too low”) for customers, and
  • New fare gates can be designed with provision for future “tap out” capability that would be needed for a distance or zone based fare structure.

The cost of this change is projected to be $38.1-million, and this is a net addition to the TTC’s already bulging 10-year capital project list.

Oddly enough, the new fare equipment arises from a joint effort with Metrolinx/Presto and it would be no surprise if the same gates show up at stations on the Eglinton Crosstown line.

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TTC 2016 Budget Intro: Part 1 – Ridership Forecasts & Service Planning

Recently, the TTC Board, a largely dormant entity during the era of Rob Ford and Karen Stintz, decided to take a more active role in oversight of the organization by striking new subcommittees. In addition to the already existing Audit Committee, there is now a Budget Committee with members Rick Byers, Councillor Shelley Carroll, Councillor John Campbell, Councillor/Chair Josh Colle, and Councillor Joe Mihevc.

Agenda materials for this Committee are available on the TTC’s website, but on a different location from the those for full Board meetings. The Budget Committee met on June 17, 2015, and its agenda included two reports related to ridership and service levels:

These are intended as introductory overviews for Commissioners who are not steeped in the details of TTC planning or policy, and they give a general sense of management’s focus as the TTC enters the 2016 round of budgets.

Note: The Service Standards document has most of its content in portrait format even though the pages are primarily in landscape. Save the document, open it with Adobe Reader, and then rotate the displayed images.

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