Updated February 2, 2013 at 12:30 am: The costing for Next Wave projects has been corrected to reflect that spending for local projects and roads is included in the total of $34-billion rather than as an additional cost on top of that number.
The Ontario Liberal Party has a new leader, and soon the province will have a new Premier. Although I am not a Liberal supporter, I am extremely pleased by Kathleen Wynne’s rise to head our provincial government. She represents the progressive wing of the party, and a fresh outlook after the increasingly frustrating reign of Dalton McGuinty. A change of focus is already evident with social services, education labour relations, job creation and transportation infrastructure getting prominent mention.
Transportation is not first on the list, but it is vital to the GTHA. Mobility has many benefits for business and for individuals. Transportation infrastructure, especially transit, has far too often been treated as a cost to be avoided, to be offloaded, to be deferred while we strangle in congestion. That congestion isn’t just on roads, plugged highways and arterials, but on the very transit systems we keep telling drivers can be our way out of the mess of 21st century gridlock.
The scope of what we need is enormous. Within Toronto, we are accustomed to annual ridership figures now over half a billion, although this is well below half of all the journeys in the city. Elsewhere in the greater Toronto area, transit does well to carry 10% of all travel. The GTHA requires much, much more investment in transit infrastructure and in service to attract a larger share of the market. Making transit a credible alternative to the automobile will not be easy, and reaching a target of 1/3 of work trips by transit in 2031 requires far more than a few trains and buses.
“More of the same” is not an option for a new government, especially one with a tenuous minority in the legislature. Transportation problems are too big and have been set aside for another day for far too long.
Later this year, we will see the long-awaited Metrolinx “Investment Strategy”, a document that should have been published at least two years ago. The necessary background information has been available for some time, but nobody at Queen’s Park wanted to talk about new “revenue tools”. This lack of political fortitude and leadership, coupled with project funding delays and scope changes, cost the GTHA more lost time and compounded the deficit in transit building.
Fortunately Ontario now has a Premier-designate who is willing to talk about raising the money necessary to improve transit. The challenge will be to actually go from talk to implementation and the creation of a funded transit plan.
We are at an important time in the political and economic cycle for the debate and real progress to begin. Too many big announcements came just at high points when the economy boomed, only to lose the momentum to a downturn, retrenchment, and a shift of focus away from transit expansion, let alone changes in government. This pattern stretches back to the early 1970s and the Davis government’s aim to build cities for people with transit rather than with cars.
We are having the difficult, “mature” conversation about new taxes (whatever we might call them) when times are tougher. Building transit funds into the base of government spending rather than as good-time baubles will be a major change, if it happens.
Metrolinx and The Big Move
Metrolinx was created in 2006 “to improve the coordination and integration of all modes of transportation” in the region. In June 2007, Premier McGuinty announced MoveOntario2020, a grab-bag of 52 separate projects that would cost only $17.5-billion to build with 2/3 coming from Queen’s Park and the rest from Ottawa. Over half of these would be finished by 2015 with much of the remainder by 2020.
By late 2008, Metrolinx issued “The Big Move” setting out a 25-year regional plan, but the cost had gone up to $50-billion. The $11.5b provincial share of MoveOntario2020 wound up funding far less than originally intended. Recently Metrolinx announced “The Next Wave” of projects, but funding for these is uncertain.
A disheartening fact is that so little of the promised total has actually been spent on anything beyond press releases. Meanwhile, the delivery dates for projects are pushed back so that as much spending as possible falls in later years, not on current budgets. Today in 2013 the end date remains elusively 25 years in the future, almost a mirage on the horizon of transit planning.
Raising money on paper to build out Metrolinx’ dream is not enough. Real money must come along with construction and operation, not endless delay.
The Big Move is skewed to regional commuter projects with little attention to the value of local transit systems who will provide the feeder/distributor network. GO Transit’s model of commuters driving to parking garages will not work for a more diverse set of travel demands and a wider passenger base. Transit is a network of systems, and funding only part of them simply won’t do the job.
As a regional agency, Metrolinx needs to connect with the public as it grows into a major operator with millions, not thousands, of daily riders. An appointed, almost unreachable board who meet publicly a few times a year simply cannot provide the accountability its growing mandate as a transit operator will demand. Metrolinx must become an agency people think of as “theirs” much as many in Toronto have a personal love/hate relationship with the TTC. If transit is something we build for “everyone else” and most voters don’t even know what Metrolinx or The Big Move are, we have a huge problem. This won’t be fixed by strategic media buys, but by actual accomplishments people can see and benefit from.
Community outreach by staff may be well-intentioned, but staff cannot answer hard questions that stray into matters of policy and long-term planning. For that, a political component is required, and the decision-making process must be much more transparent. Plans should be developed in public, not by ministerial announcements.
The Next Wave projects appeared without any background material setting out the rationale for their selection. Many components of the 15-year plan (originally aimed at 2023) are not even in the Next Wave, and there is no indication when or if they will be in a revised 25-year plan.
The Mature Discussion
[The following paragraph and a later reference have been updated to reflect a correct interpretation of the Next Wave's cost.]
The funding discussion has started, but the context remains uncertain. The Next Wave list was announced with a total cost of $34-billion, and a further roughly $11b would flow to local transit and road improvements. That $45-billion will soak up all of a $2b annual revenue stream for over two decades, not allowing for inflation in construction costs.
The funding discussion has started, but the context remains uncertain. The Next Wave list was announced with a total cost of $34-billion, of which 25% or $8.5b would would flow to local transit and road improvements leaving $25.5b for Metrolinx projects. That $34-billion will soak up all of a $2b annual revenue stream for most of two decades, not allowing for inflation in construction costs.
Many projects in the 15- and 25-year plans don’t appear in any funding list today, and there is no sense of how we might pay for them.
Voters need honesty about what the plan will achieve and cost, and what is left behind. Metrolinx has been clear that even if we build their entire list of projects, this will only just keep pace with increasing population and travel demand. For those lucky enough to live near corridors with significant service improvement, travel times will go down, but the rest won’t be so lucky. However, we now see that the original $50b total and $2b annual spending is well below the level needed just to keep pace never mind get ahead of the curve.
If 1/4 of any new revenue goes to roads and local transit (as the Next Wave materials show), that would be $500m/year on a $2b base (the number commonly used for public sessions on new revenue tools). This may sound like a lot, but spread across the GTHA it may not go very far especially if other revenue streams such as gas taxes and infrastructure stimulus funds stay at current levels or decline. How much would go to capital works and how much to operating subsidies? Does Metrolinx have any thoughts on a provincial standard for quality (coverage, frequency, crowding) and regional integration of service and fares?
Metrolinx quotes project costs in “old” dollars–2008$ for the original Big Move, 2014$ for the Next Wave announcement–but lines are built and operated in current dollars. That $34b Next Wave total does not include inflation, and this will have to be built into the revenue streams so that they can keep pace.
Premier-designate Wynne has stated that she would “love to see” Ottawa come in with new money, but that we must “take responsibility … locally and provincially” to pay for transit. [CBC Metro Morning, January 28, 2013] This will free us from meaningless announcements that depend on a 1/3 federal share whose arrival is uncertain, at best. But what does this mean for municipalities? Do they face new costs on their own tax base, and does the GTHA face balkanization of service depending on the local will to support improved transit?
GO Transit’s role will change from being mainly a provider of peak-period, peak-direction service to an all-day regional rapid transit system with frequent service on major routes. This requires a completely new attitude to funding and service at GO which makes virtue of a high farebox recovery ratio, something that is possible only where there is strong latent demand (commuters) and customers who can be served cheaply with a comparatively small amount of service. All-day service costs money, not to mention the cost of local service improvements to transit systems that GO will feed. GO’s cost recovery ratio will almost certainly fall and this must be built into the new cost and revenue stream.
Premier-designate Wynne trumpets the job creation possibilities of transit spending echoing so many Premiers and Mayors before her, but this can be a dangerous path. Transit construction should not be promoted just to create work for the engineering and construction industry, but because the end product will actually make a difference to the GTHA’s transportation network. Big projects should exist because they have big effects and benefits, not simply because they employ many people. Indeed, many medium-sized projects may have a greater benefit than a few very big ones.
Transit isn’t just about construction, but also operations and maintenance. Opening a new subway line may offer many photo-ops and lots of ribbon cutting, but once the trains are running, someone has to pay for them. As one example, the TTC faces a $10m annual increase in net expenses for the Spadina Extension, but nobody has offered to help in the cost of providing this regional service. Meanwhile, GO Transit continues to tithe local municipalities for a share of its capital programs.
Fare and service integration will cost money too. If a rider now facing separate fares for trip segments in the 905 and 416 will receive an integrated (and cheaper) fare based on usage (be that measured in time or kilometres, a subject for a separate article), then additional subsidy and a mechanism for revenue sharing across the region will be needed.
GO Transit is a particularly annoying case in this regard as “co-fares” for a local transit trip to a GO train are offered in the 905 but not in the 416. If we are serious about “fare integration”, this means all systems are treated the same way regardless of their area codes.
The Air Rail Link
The ARL is a pet project at Queen’s Park and is too far “down the track” for changes in the short term before the service begins operation in advance of the Pan Am Games. This started life as a federal project under the Chretien regime with SNC-Lavalin as a private sector partner, and moved to Ontario as a provincial PPP. The partnership fell apart when Queen’s Park refused to guarantee revenues to a business with dubious prospects.
We are stuck with this line for the short term, but Metrolinx and the government need to explain why other airport services, notably the Eglinton and Finch LRT connections, don’t even appear in the Next Wave. When these parts of Transit City were originally delayed, the excuse was that the GTAA (the airport authority) wouldn’t be ready to incorporate a transit terminal for the LRT lines until 2020. Now we are looking well into the 2020s if not the 2030s for anything beyond a premium fare, downtown-focused route to serve the airport.
Pearson Airport is supposed to be one of the two major “Mobility Hubs” in the Metrolinx network, a companion of Union Station, but you would never believe this from the paltry attention it gets in long range plans, and especially in the concentration on air passenger trips while the large workforce at and near the airport is ignored.
For many years GO Transit and Metrolinx resisted calls to electrify major routes in their rail network. GO’s attitude, understandable in years past, was that the limited funds it received were better spent improving service and expanding infrastructure. That may be short-sighted like so much planning in the GTHA, but at least it is a credible position.
As the scope of The Big Move and future service levels on GO corridors became clear, so did the need for electrification. Some at Metrolinx advanced arguments against the project that betrayed either a deep misunderstanding of the technology or a willful ignorance intended to portray the scheme as too expensive and technically impractical. Now Metrolinx sees that it cannot achieve the service levels foreseen in The Big Move without electrification, but much delay could have been avoided.
When an agency is caught out giving misleading and incorrect information on major policy issues, this damages not just the debate at hand, but the whole credibility of transit proposals. One need only look at the TTC’s experiences with projects gone wrong to see how screwups (even those not entirely of their own making) stick like barnacles dragging down their credibility as project proponents (including to staff and politicos at the province). Metrolinx cannot afford to damage its reputation as a purveyor of trustworthy planning.
Electrification brings challenges for Metrolinx in finding appropriate rolling stock, adapting its infrastructure and especially in convincing the mainline railways–over whose tracks electrified service will run–to allow this cohabitation. These are fundamental problems affecting the future evolution of the GO network and the achievement of its transformation in The Big Move.
Funding Strategies, Ownership and Accounting
As the Transit City proposals evolved, Queen’s Park generously decided to provide 100% funding, but with this came a lot of baggage. With 100% funding came 100% control over scope and timing. Project delivery schedules have been stretched, and lines that should have been open within the next few years are now out at 2020 to suit debt and cash flow plans.
The lines remain in provincial ownership, an accounting ruse to keep spending from showing up as increased provincial debt from capital subsidy to Toronto. (New infrastructure such as the Eglinton LRT counts as an asset, one that could be sold to a private operator, balancing off the debt floated to build it.) The pretense about “regional” vs “local” roles for Metrolinx and the TTC has completely vanished, and Metrolinx finds itself the proprietor of lines that go nowhere near the 416 boundary. These lines are unlikely to become truly “regional” for decades.
As the GTHA moves to new sources of revenue and funds construction with current income rather than borrowing, this accounting legerdemain loses its justification. Indeed, between local, federal and regional contributions, one might ask what right Queen’s Park has to “own” any new projects that are functionally part of local transit systems. This is not just an issue for Toronto but for any municipality where major capital projects are contemplated. If Metrolinx is to become an owner/operator on a wide scale, this will require a complete rethink of their relationship with local service provision, not just ad hoc arrangements on a project basis.
Who “owns” the new revenue streams? Will Queen’s Park or the GTHA municipalities set priorities on how it should be spent? If GTHA municipalities agree to tax themselves to fund transit, shouldn’t they have a say, or will the money simply be used to fund announcements from the Premier’s office?
Local projects have a role, but what defines what is “local” to be funded out of municipal revenues and/or the 25% of Next Wave income? Why is the Finch LRT a Metrolinx project while the waterfront transit schemes languish for want of funding? Which Bus Rapid Transit projects will get full provincial funding and which will be left to municipalities? We need a consistent policy on funding responsibilities almost as much as the new revenue streams.
Beyond the GTHA
There is more to Ontario than the GTHA and more to transit requirements than commuter trips to Bay and Front in downtown Toronto. Northern Ontario is right to question why their train service gets cut while billions are spent in the GTHA. Transportation needs across the province involve more than trains, however, especially with the decline in coverage and service on private sector intercity bus routes.
Public sector competition and the rise of GO has been blamed for the disappearance of private bus services, but this is a common problem in jurisdictions where there is no public agency muscling into the market. Ontario must seriously consider whether intercity transit is a role for public providers and not just in the GTHA.
Via Rail is another competitor for passengers even though it is a public agency. Declining funding from Ottawa plus uncertainty over GO’s intentions for expansion in Via corridors (notably Toronto-Kitchener) threatens declining service regardless of who actually operates the line. Ontario needs a policy that integrates all of its routes and providers in a coherent plan.
Roads and Trucking
Metrolinx is charged not only with improving transit in the GTHA but also with addressing problems faced by road users be they commuters in automobiles or the trucking industry. Goods movement shifted from rail to road decades ago, and this pattern will not be reversed.
Ontario has plans for highway expansion, although any new road schemes trigger loud debate. An important task is the examination of existing constraints in the network and likely future problem spots from traffic growth. Which of these can be addressed and how?
Part of those billions in lost productivity we hear so much about come not from long commutes but from the overhead represented by trucks stuck in traffic. Should Ontario focus on new infrastructure dedicated for goods movement? Is it even practical to think of disentangling road demand for auto travel from demand for trucks?
Today the heart of the transportation debate is “congestion”. Everyone hates it. Everyone wants it to go away. Politically, the urge is to say “we feel your pain” and give hope that somehow things will be better. Somewhere. Someday. [Cue music here.]
But we need to be honest about what can be achieved and how long this will take. Civic Action’s “32 minute” campaign keys off the difference between the “do nothing” approach and the full buildout of The Big Move. Commuters will face 32 minutes more travel, on average, if nothing is done to provide more capacity and improve travel speeds. That is an average, and it depends on a transportation plan that is only partly funded and mostly unbuilt.
An average improvement implies winners and losers, and we need to be honest about where the major benefits lie. Getting drivers off of the roads and into transit will shift some demand, but this will backfill thanks to population growth. Some travel is a legacy of car-oriented land use planning in the location of housing and jobs, and this simply does not lend itself to transit diversion. Those trips are not going away, and there will only be a major change in land use when the economic forces driving sprawl change.
When The Big Move was still in draft, the cost was too high both in dollars and in political capital, and the plan was cut back to “only” $50b. How much more is needed? Which projects have the greatest transportation benefit? Where are the “do it now” pressure points?
The Big Move is a plan to only barely keep up with projected growth, but it does not get “ahead of the curve”. We may think the cost of such a goal beyond our reach, but what is the cost of doing nothing, or of only building a few showcase projects? We need to know what our options are and how much we must spend to make a real difference.
Fundamentally what we need is honesty about the scope of our problems and how we can practically address them. The challenge for a new government is to engage voters and businesses with an open discussion, a clear set of believable goals and advocacy that will ensure support for major expansion of transit will transcend short term electoral politics.