The TTC board met on July 23 with some items of modest interest on the agenda. This is the second last meeting of the current board before the October municipal election sweeps away at least some of the current crew. Nothing of real substance will happen until the new Council takes office, and a new Mayor attempts to forge an agenda for transit that is more than a simplistic, pandering slogan.
Included in the agenda are:
- The monthly CEO’s report;
- A purchase amendment regarding the new TR trainsets to retrofit additional handholds and to provide speakers outside of cars so that riders can hear door closing announcements;
- The Transit Project Assessment (TPA) for McNicoll Garage (a proposal already contested by the neighbourhood where it will be built);
- The proposed sale of the Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs) used for the Spadina Subway Extension;
- A proposal from Commissioner Heisey that the City of Toronto seek a change in TTC and Metrolinx governance so that one member would be cross-appointed between each board; and
- A request from newly minted Commissioner Pasternak for a report on his pet project, the Sheppard Subway extension west to Downsview.
Update: An additional item came in via correspondence: a request for an express bus route from Liberty Village to downtown.
Update: There was little discussion of this report as it came near the end of the meeting after a long series of deputations and debate on the proposed McNicoll Garage.
There is little new in this month’s CEO’s Report. Ridership continues to run slightly below budget thanks to the severe winter, but even in the spring (stats are shown only to the end of May), ridership remains slightly below expectations. Combined with a lower average fare than predicted (in part because those pesky Metropass buyers keep trying to save money), the TTC’s projected revenue for 2014 is $7.6m below the budgeted value of $1166.5b.
Meanwhile, expenses are predicted to come in almost exactly on budget, and so there is an $8m “hole” to be filled. This is under one percent on a total budget of $1.6b, but the TTC will sweat bullets to “break even” somehow.
Remember that this is the same TTC whose former Chair attempted to squirrel away a “surplus” from 2013 to finance a 2015 fare freeze.
Route reliability statistics continue to be reported against a goal of ±3 minutes of the scheduled headway. That’s rather generous, especially on routes with frequent service like the subway. New measures to better reflect the actual customer experience have been under development since 2013, but they have yet to make a public appearance in status reports. I understand that this is part of a larger project to improve real-time service monitoring now underway.
The TTC has a new Customer Satisfaction Survey for the first quarter of 2014, but the details have not been published yet. However:
The overall customer satisfaction score in Q1 2014 (71%) was consistent with results observed in the previous quarter and a year ago. Perceptions of streetcar service improved significantly, and currently overall satisfaction is comparable across the different modes of transportation. [Section 2.2, page 6]
It is a mystery why in the dead of winter, riders thought better of streetcars than they did last fall. Possibly last fall was a statistical aberration, but if so this would indicate that the survey has a fairly wide margin of error and should be read accordingly.
According to the report, the second “production” new streetcar was delivered on July 4, 2014. When we will see more depends on the current labour dispute at Bombardier, not to mention their ability to ramp up to the planned 3/month rate.
The TTC has not yet published a revised fleet or rollout plan to explain how service will be maintained with the available cars, nor is there any indication of service improvements beyond some net benefit of larger (even if fewer) new cars as they enter service. Some routes may wait 5 years on current plans before they see any capacity upgrades.
Update: Approved without debate.
For several months, the TTC has been testing handholds in the low ceiling sections of one TR trainset as well as door chimes audible outside of the train.
The handholds were, putting it mildly, an oversight in the original design which left a large area for standees who had nothing but each other for support. The exterior door chimes are an accessibility requirement so that blind passengers will know that the doors are about to close. Both of these are described as “safety” features, and one cannot help asking why they were omitted from the base design.
The cost to retrofit the TR fleet will be $4.3m and $10.9m respectively for these features, but this will be largely offset by reduced costs in other parts of the contract notably liquidated damages (e.g. penalties) for late delivery ($7.2m) and a reduction in the number of spare trucks (the undercarriages including the wheels, axles and primary support for the cars) that will be purchased under this contract ($8.1m).
McNicoll Garage has been on the TTC’s books for years as a site that will permit expansion of the bus fleet. The property was purchased by Metro Toronto for this purpose about 25 years ago. When the Transit City plan would have led to a major reduction in bus requirements, this project went onto the back burner, but as Transit City withered away, the TTC had to bring it forward. Indeed, the project is now a top priority for what TTC management would do if $100m fell into their lap.
It is little surprise that since the land was bought, development has crept around the margins, and the neighbours are now upset about the traffic and other effects a new garage might bring. Deputations are expected at the board meeting, and it will be interesting and instructive to see whether the Board has the courage of its convictions to proceed with approval of the Transit Project Assessment (TPA), or if the whole question will be punted beyond the election to ensure a few more votes for some worthy Councillor.
Update: There was a long series of deputations from residents opposed to this project, followed by a lengthy debate among the board members, but in the end the report was approved with amendments.
The proposed garage site (see page 7 of the report) has two neighbours: the Mon Sheong long term care home and the Scarborough Chinese Baptist Church. In the case of the church, its parking lot on the east side of the site and immediately north of the new garage would be separated from the church by a proposed new road. In the case of the seniors’ home, the concerns are the noise, fumes and potential danger of an industrial facility next door to a home that now borders an open field.
The deputations by people involved with Mon Sheong varied in quality and credibility. Their strongest case lay in issues of process and transparency with echoes of the “bad neighbour TTC” we saw on the additional subway exits project for Greenwood and Donlands Stations. The major points here are:
- A claim that the TTC changed the garage design to shift the entrance and exit traffic from the south to the west side thereby affecting the seniors’ home. This change was made because a proposed grade separation of McNicoll at the GO Stouffville line immediately east of the site would change the road grade and make access from the south impossible.
- The land is and always has been zoned “industrial” and that is why the City of Toronto bought it in 2005 for a future bus garage. However, because certain institutional uses, notably churches, were having trouble gaining acceptance in residential communities, the term “industrial” was widened to allow their construction in lands that were otherwise sitting unused. The problem here is that the conventional sense of that designation remained setting up an inevitable conflict between old and new uses.
- It is unclear whether the two affected properties have a caution on title that disruptive uses might spring up next door on what was once vacant land.
Some deputations engaged in irresponsible fear-mongering showing a photo of a major explosion, and citing disasters both in Downsview (Sunrise propane) and Lac Megantic (volatile crude oil) as examples of what might happen at the garage. The deputants also cited bio-diesel as a health and explosion hazard despite the fact that the TTC stopped using this fuel in 2009.
The fact that diesel fuel used by buses is not subject to explosion was not mentioned, and we were even treated to one board member fearing that the bus terminal at Bay and Dundas might endanger the building we sat in, City Hall, a few blocks to the south. The TTC has operated diesel garages in the middle of residential areas for decades. Management finally corrected this misunderstanding quite late in the debate.
By overstating their case and using misleading, dare I say, inflammatory information, opponents of the garage created a perfect environment for their concerns to be discounted.
The board was also well aware of the problem of storage capacity and the shortcomings of the current bus fleet. Staff described McNicoll Garage as something they should have started three years ago.
It is worth tracing the history of this site:
- Anticipating the need for a new garage in Scarborough, the City bought the site in 2005 after a search for appropriate properties in 2004.
- When Transit City was announced, the TTC forecast that its future bus storage needs would be replaced by new carhouses for the LRT lines, and the McNicoll project was put on hold.
- With Transit City delayed by Queen’s Park and then cancelled by Rob Ford, the garage reappeared in the capital project list.
- When Rob Ford and Karen Stintz engineered the cut in TTC service standards, this allowed the bus garage project to be deferred again, thereby pushing its capital and operating costs into future years and artificially trimming the TTC’s budget.
- Those “future years” are now upon us thanks to strong ridership growth and the garage is needed even without a return to the more generous “Ridership Growth Strategy” loading standards.
In another of her breathtaking attempts to woo votes any place she can find them, former TTC Chair, now mayoral candidate Karen Stintz proposed that no money be spent on McNicoll until the TTC’s legislatively mandated accessibility program be fully funded. The amount required is $240-million (see last page of the TTC’s Capital Budget). Yes, this is the same Karen Stintz who attempted to divert a $47m “surplus” from 2013 operations into a 2015 fare freeze rather than to capital funding as is the City’s policy. This is the same Karen Stintz who engineered the service cuts for “the greater good” of Toronto’s transit system. Her attempt failed on a 6-to-3 vote with support from board members Josh Colle and James Pasternak.
In the end, the report passed with amendments:
- The TTC will explore a land swap between the Scarborough Chinese Baptist Church’s parking lot and the lands proposed for the TTC’s own parking. This would make the church’s land contiguous on the west side of the new roadway and leave the TTC entirely on the east side.
- Although the design already foresees construction to Toronto’s Green Standard, there will be attempts to improve beyond this.
- The Toronto Board of Health will be asked for comments on the health issues around urban garages as this has implications for all existing TTC sites.
Separately, the board asked management to report in August on tradeoffs in the Capital Budget that could be made to bring the Accessibility projects back “above the line” into funded status. Management had already flagged the bus garage as its top priority if any new money becomes available, and future changes in priority will depend both on updates to funding projections (including the use of the 2013 surplus) and on any “new money” that may arrive from other governments.
There is also the small matter of a Council that is prepared to levy a special tax to fund its share of the Scarborough Subway, but won’t provide the considerably lower funding needed for accessibility.
The McNicoll Garage has a Project Website.
Update: This item has been referred to the August board meeting so that Commissioners can offer additional suggestions and the Board can take a position in advance of the August Council meeting. The general reception of this proposal was “nice in theory, but there are many potential problems”.
Commissioner Heisey, for a variety of reasons listed in his motion, proposes that the TTC and Metrolinx Boards should each include one member cross-appointed from the other agency. The idea is that the goals of both organizations could be better co-ordinated.
Aside from the fact that Queen’s Park is already reviewing the Metrolinx Act and there have been proposals for a return to some municipal representation on that board, there is a much more basic problem with the fact that these are two different levels of government that do not always see eye-to-eye. Moreover, these are two boards whose demonstrated level of involvement in actual policy of their respective agencies is, shall we say, tenuous. Management and external political bodies (Queen’s Park or City Council) make the important decisions and the boards may ask a few soft questions to indicate that they are “in control”.
Negotiations between the agencies for, say, an operating agreement for a fare card system or a shared piece of infrastructure could run into delicate problems of inter-agency conflict with board members wearing two hats at once. And we won’t even talk about a TTC board member whose mission in life is to get one pet project built even if other plans must be distorted around it, or a Metrolinx member with no appreciation for transit’s function at the fine-grained, local level.
Challenges of provincial-municipal relationships on transit require far more than simply having a seat at each other’s table. Neither a transit commissioner nor a Metrolinx director can commit their respective governments to policy or funding directions, and may not even be aware of work happening within, nominally, their own sphere. I have been at enough meetings listening to badly informed board members at both agencies to know that the idea they might fruitfully interpret each other’s world has the makings of comic opera.
Update: This item was withdrawn from the agenda as the potential purchaser no longer wishes to pursue the purchase of the TBMs. Meanwhile, Mayor Ford has objected to the proposed sale, but TTC management remains convinced that as and when new subway construction begins, it should be with new boring machines.
In the continuing search for ways to build a Scarborough Subway as quickly as possible, the Board asked for a report on whether the Tunnel Boring Machines (TBMs) from the Spadina extension project could be reused for the Scarborough line. This option is not recommended by management because:
- the cost to retain and refurbish the four-year old machines would be about $28.8m;
- new machines are expected to be more productive based on improvements already seen in the TBMs used for the Sheppard Subway vs the Spadina extension project, and the value of this productivity in reduced construction time is about $22m;
- the company that produced the TBMs, Lovat (subsequently bought and then closed by Caterpillar), no longer exists and there is no ongoing support for their technology;
- the TTC has a buyer willing to pay $9.2m to purchase the Spadina TBMs.
Update: This item was referred to staff for a report.
With the election of former Councillor and TTC Board member Peter Milczyn to the Ontario Legislature, Council was faced with a vacancy to fill. Who should show up as our new Commissioner: Counciller Pasternak from North York.
His pet project is the extension of the Sheppard Subway to Downsview Station, and to that end he has a motion on the agenda asking for a staff report on the status of any past studies on this option, timelines for conducting an EA, and estimated costs.
Never mind that the Sheppard West line isn’t even part of The Big Move’s phase 1 or 2 “waves” of projects. With Toronto’s rapid transit plans being gerrymandered to suit every election campaign, what’s one more change?
If nothing else, this will get us an update on the status of the proposal, and a clear statement of the cost and possibilities. All that is needed then is a by-election in the appropriate riding, and the Sheppard West line will be home free!
To answer some of Pasternak’s questions in advance:
No, there is no track heading east from Downsview Station. When that part of the Spadina line was built, the structure was set up to allow either an extension northwest (the TYSSE now under construction) or east along Sheppard. It was not designed to permit a blended service, and most certainly not to allow trains to originate north of Downsview and head east on Sheppard.
This was a political compromise between the then deadlocked advocates of a York U subway and those who wanted the Sheppard line. The Downsview extension from Wilson Station was common to both, and it was designed so that either could be built.
West of Sheppard-Yonge station, there are tail tracks extending beyond the station, but that doesn’t take the line very far, and a 4km extension, including a new crossing of the west branch of the Don River, would be required to reach Downsview Station. We are easily looking at over $1b even if the line has only one net new station at Bathurst. That sort of spacing will not do well to support intensification of Sheppard Avenue except at a few locations.
Liberty Village Express Bus
As if we don’t have enough Councillors trolling for votes with transit proposals, Mike Layton has asked the TTC to study the possibility of an express bus from Liberty Village to downtown to supplement the King car.
Leaving aside just how “express” any such service could be and the resources it would entail, this is symptomatic of a much deeper problem with Toronto’s transit. Rather than making what we have work better (the trunk streetcar routes), we see bandaid “solutions” that are at best applicable only to specific trips that might have a “bypass” route to their destination.
The TTC does not publish cost and revenue stats for its express downtown routes and this leaves the impression that they are a cost-effective way of serving demand. The fact that they only come into existence when a Councillor (often also a Commission board member) lobbies for them speaks volumes about their true place in the network.