The Metrolinx Board meets on February 14 with an agenda that, as usual, features a rather long private session followed by a shorter public one. There will be brief updates on GO Transit and the PRESTO farecard project, a Customer Service Committee update, and one substantive item – updates to the regional plan, The Big Move, and feedback from the public consultation sessions now in progress.
Updated February 15, 2013 at 9:10 am: Notes from discussions at and after the Board meeting have been added to this article.
Update 2 at 12:45 pm: The date for Board approval of the Investment Strategy has been clarified.
This report is largely a rehash of 2012 changes and improvements with no indication of plans for the coming year. Metrolinx is hamstrung in part by the change in government at Queen’s Park and the impending budget. Until they know how much additional subsidy they will receive for the fiscal year starting April 1, they will not be able to commit to service improvements. Moreover, this sort of announcement often involves someone at the Ministerial level.
Although the GO 2020 plan provides some indication of where the system would like to be, this document is getting a bit dogeared as it originates from late 2008 in the era before GO/Metrolinx amalgamation. A later item on the agenda formally brings GO 2020 and The Big Move into alignment, but it also pushes some projects out into the longer timelines (15 and 25 years counting from today) of the regional plan. There is no real sense of which services, beyond a few for which construction is underway, will actually materialize. In turn, that is tied up in the Metrolinx Investment Strategy and new ongoing revenues that may or may not be implemented, and the degree to which these fund operating rather than capital costs.
The current year-by-year arrangement is an inevitable result of the way Queen’s Park operates, but this stifles advocacy and leaves current and would-be riders with no sense of when the system will improve. Always transit tomorrow, not transit today.
With a six percent growth rate, GO obviously has a market. Packed conditions on some trains indicate that latent demand could push this rate higher if only more service were operated. As GO grows, its ability to achieve a high farebox recovery ratio will decline especially when services expand on a policy basis – e.g. all-day two-way service or opening/expansion of routes – rather than simply the addition of trains in already busy peak periods. This requires a financial plan and the will to increase operating subsidies completely separate from capital construction projects and their ribbon-cutting opportunities.
Metrolinx has not published any projections of what its future might look like or the scale of spending required under various scenarios. The new Minister of Transportation, Glen Murray, could do worse than encouraging a more activist role from Metrolinx and a frank discussion not just of lines on a map, but of what services will be provided and how we will pay for them.
Updated: During his presentation of the report, GO President Gary McNeil observed that as long as the region continues to grow, GO will never have enough capacity. Expansion of service beyond the peak period is essential to handle this challenge by shifting some demand to the shoulders and allowing commuters to change their work hours. However, new train capacity is generally consumed within 6 months.
I spoke with McNeil after the meeting, and he confirmed that the constraint on capacity expansion is track time both on the corridors and at Union Station.
Train operations during the snow storm on February 8 achieved 85% “on time” performance. GO’s storm plan was used and this includes the conversion of all express trains to local service. Because trains do not need to pass each other, the amount of switching is reduced and the possibility of delays due to frozen switches is reduced.
In reply to a question about the gap in capacity and the degree of service integration with local transit systems, McNeil replied that local systems are not at capacity, but are trying to increase service to GO. At Oakville Station, 35% of passengers arrive by transit, but service design is complicated by the “wave” nature of demand meeting trains.
During a later discussion of updates to The Big Move, a question arose about charging for parking at GO lots. A tax on commercial parking spaces around the GTHA has been proposed as one of the future “revenue tools”, but this discussion turns onto the lots GO already owns. Metrolinx is open to the idea, but CEO Bruce McCuaig cautioned that motorists will expect better service in return for their payments.
“Service” requires a combination of capital and operating funding to expand track capacity, buy more trains and pay the net cost of carrying more passengers. These improvements won’t happen overnight, and might not specifically benefit locations where large parking lots exist.
To put this idea into context, assuming that all spaces are occupied on every business day, the 65,000 spaces represent 16.25-million space-days per year. Every dollar of parking fee would generate about $16m annually, not a large amount on the scale of Metrolinx spending plans.
The farecard uptake by riders of GO and local systems in the GTHA continues with January 2013 totals of 470-thousand active cards in January 2013, 58-million “taps” and $238m in fare revenue collected. These figures are reported at every Board Meeting, but they would be more meaningful if expressed as a percentage of market with trending information to show where and why the growth happens.
Today, the growth rate is high with the “tap count” rising from about 10m to nearly 60m in less than a year. However, that is mainly caused by the conversion of GO riders from legacy fare media, a “bump” that cannot be replicated on the GO system next year. Similarly, as new transit systems like Ottawa and Toronto come online, they will contribute large increases to PRESTO activity, but this will mask information at the detailed level with one-time growth numbers. What proportion of fare revenue, for example, is collected with PRESTO on the GTHA local systems, how fast is this growing, and what barriers exist to greater market penetration?
PRESTO’s next major step will be the rollout of its “Next Generation” technology in Ottawa. This is beginning to ramp up with a full rollout planned for April. After a failed attempt in 2012, this is a crucial test for PRESTO’s credibility going into much larger markets than its home system, GO, notably a planned TTC implementation in 2014-15.
For its part, the TTC has been silent on changes to its fare system, and this discussion needs to come out into the open as soon as possible. Implementation of the TTC’s byzantine transfer rules is impractical with a new fare payment system, but there is no sense of what alternative might be used such as distance or time-based fares.
A related policy discussion at Metrolinx and Queen’s Park must focus on truly regional fare integration. This is more than simply having one card a rider can use on multiple systems, but a real integration of revenue streams across multiple operations including GO Transit. PRESTO is only a tool, but there has been little public discussion of revenue and cost sharing models, fare structures, and the goal of providing a “seamless, integrated” structure that does not penalize riders and distort travel patterns with fare boundaries.
Updated: Ottawa is in the early stages of their PRESTO rollout with 17k “taps” per day on a base of 13k issued cards, a ratio suggesting that more people have cards than use them for round trips by transit on a daily basis. There are “no problems” with the rollout (press reports from Ottawa may tell a different story), and 98% of transactions are successful on a “first tap” basis according to the newly appointed VP of the PRESTO division, Robert Hollis.
Plans are underway to improve the card registration process, an area of annoyance to new users, and to simplify operation of the PRESTO website.
PRESTO has achieved an 80% market share for GO riders, and the number is up to 50% in Brampton. Figures for other systems using PRESTO were not cited.
In Toronto, PRESTO plans to begin rolling out on the surface system when the new streetcars begin revenue operation in April 2014. (I have been advised by the TTC that a report on fare policies will come to the Commission sometime in spring 2013.) Detailed planning for the TTC rollout is in progress with the first phase targeted at the streetcar lines and intersecting subway stations. Pan Am Games support will focus on routes serving venues for that event. (Whether this is actually practical given the integrated nature of the TTC network and its fares remains to be seen.)
GO continues to have strong support among its riders with an “overall satisfaction” rating of 78%, and 80% of riders would recommend the service to friends. While these are good numbers, like so much else at Metrolinx they need context. What level of service quality will be needed to sustain this level of satisfaction? What challenges will GO face as its corridors bump into capacity limitations, and the drive-park-ride model runs out of room for more commuters?
Parking is becoming a problem at GO stations, and this is flagged by the Customer Service report. Schemes to increase utilization now underway include reserved parking for car pools, shuttle services to remote lots and support for car sharing. What is missing here is the local transit component, an issue flagged by participants in the Big Move consultations.
On January 6, there was a two-hour power outage at Union Station that uncovered shortcomings in emergency power distribution notably to fare machines and elevators. The station is under construction raising problems of ad hoc changes, but these things must be planned for. GO is working to ensure reliable power for operations at this critical station in the future.
This report requests that the Metrolinx Board formally approve changes to the Big Move plan proposed in December 2012. Some of these are intended to bring GO 2020 and TBM into alignment while others recognize shifting priorities and/or implementation constraints for various routes and services.
Feedback from affected municipalities has been mixed but generally positive. Of particular note is the discussion of constraints to service expansion in some corridors, an item notably absent in the line-drawing exercises of some planning. Some of the requested changes fall outside the review now underway, but will be incorporated in the mandatory 2016 update of TBM on which work will start in 2014.
Originally, provision of all-day service to Milton was in the Metrolinx 15-year plan, but the updates propose shifting this to the 25-year timeframe.
For the Milton corridor there are significant infrastructure and operational challenges that mean it will not be possible to deliver two-way, all-day service all the way to Milton in the 15-year time horizon.
Additional tracks and potentially numerous grade separations are necessary are a pre-requisite to the expansion of service to Milton. The construction is especially challenging through built-up areas. This rail corridor is largely owned by CPR, a private third party operating freight rail. Their approval is required for any service and infrastructure expansion. Metrolinx continues to assess impacts, and negotiate with CPR, on ways to build the required infrastructure, recognizing the need to protect the natural and urban environment.
Two-way, all-day service can be delivered to Meadowvale in the 15-year timeframe, but the full extension to Milton can only be delivered over the 25-year horizon.
If the issue is corridor improvements, any physical constraints now in place will still exist regardless of the timelines, and care will be required to avoid encroachment that could impede future expansion. An obvious question is whether this is a matter of construction difficulties or of the project’s cost and its effect on the overall financial plans.
Deferred Implementation of Other Corridor Services
The proposed services to Bolton and Havelock have been shifted to the 25-year plan as has two-way all-day service for the outer portions of the Kitchener and Barrie corridors.
Both would require infrastructure upgrades, especially the Havelock service where, despite political support from Ottawa, we are unlikely to see trains in the near future. Track time is constrained on the inner part of this line between the CPR yard and downtown.
A more detailed review of the Havelock corridor will be included in the 2016 update.
A major change in priorities is the shift of the Downtown Relief Line from the 25-year plan to the 15-year plan. This project is also part of the “Next Wave” of projects competing for funding through any new revenue tools.
The City of Vaughan has asked that Metrolinx consider a further extension of the Spadina subway north to Major Mackenzie. This will be reviewed in the 2016 update.
Financing and Construction Industry Constraints
Buried in a proposed TBM describing the Investment Strategy is the following text:
The RTP capital and operating program is one of the most ambitious transportation programs in Canadian history. To see this program through, construction costs must be spread out using responsible long-term debt. Metrolinx will use debt appropriately and responsibly. Like a mortgage on a house, using long-term debt to finance major infrastructure enables the financial burden of that project to be paid by present and future beneficiaries, meaning people can benefit from the facility sooner. Additional revenues required will increase over time to better match the improved service people will experience.
Capital expenditures are also subject to the capacity of construction contractors and engineering firms to meet the labour and expertise needs entailed by the different projects. Labour and equipment shortages or the lack of enough engineering and design firms can raise construction costs and delay project completion dates, ultimately pushing the full realization of the RTP further down the road. Market readiness and the availability of skilled labour will therefore be an important consideration in the investment profile and system expansion will have to be scheduled accordingly. Metrolinx is already working closely with Infrastructure Ontario, in particular, to manage the capacity of the market to deliver this historic infrastructure build program. Metrolinx will continue to plan for and advance all projects, taking into consideration that implementation timelines for some projects are significantly longer than others.
Aside from upfront capital expenditures, the Investment Strategy will be implemented taking into consideration the need to support the ongoing operations, maintenance and rehabilitation costs of new and existing infrastructure. Furthermore, the benefits and costs of infrastructure and service improvements will be traded off to maximize efficiency in getting the best transportation system for each dollar invested.
This text raises important issues and deserves more prominence in ongoing debates.
First off we have a recognition that debt will be required to finance some of Metrolinx’ projects. This may always have been the intent, but the explicit statement gives a different context for new revenue tools and a $2-billion per year income stream. Pay-as-you-play is not the intent for the capital program, a quite reasonable position given the lifespan of the assets to be built. The question, then, is the scale of upfront construction so that services can be provided in the medium rather than the long term.
This brings us to the question of whether the plan is too big to build and the concerns about industry capabilities raised above. When the Transit City LRT plan was put on the back burner by the McGuinty government, one stated reason was that the industry couldn’t absorb all of the work. For the comparatively simple Finch West and Sheppard East projects, that is a troubling argument – if we can’t get $1-billion LRT lines built for want of industry capacity, how can we possibly undertake a 25-year plan of multi-billion dollar projects? The real goal, of course, was to defer the spending on these lines into the latter part of the decade.
Metrolinx needs to review the rationale for its project timelines in light of new revenue streams and of a government that may be more supportive of building sooner rather than later. Indeed, that is another question for the new Minister and a chance to undo some of the damage to the credibility of transit plans brought on by the McGuinty regime.
Consultation about The Big Move is underway across the region under the rubric of The Big Conversation. These sessions will end on February 19, 2013. A download is available of the kit used for these sessions. It includes brief descriptions of technologies, projects in the first and second waves of TBM, and an overview of funding tools used in other major cities. The purpose of the kit is to allow “home brew” discussions among interested groups outside of the formally facilitated workshops. The information is similar to the content of the main site for TBM, but it is organized to support specific discussions.
Metrolinx has a big problem going into a year where voters will be asked to support new revenue tools that will generate at least $2b annually for new and improved transit. As an agency, Metrolinx and its plans are almost unknown. Many projects have been announced, but few have actually been launched, let alone completed for revenue service. The danger of being ignored as background noise must give Metrolinx execs sleepless nights.
The feedback from participants has been supportive, but with a sense of urgency, of getting on with improvements people can see and use. Local transit and system integration are important issues, as is off-peak, weekend, two-way service so that GO is supporting a transit lifestyle, not just commuters. A telling quote was:
”The lack of integration has created a system that is not worth my time to use.”
The “integration” talked of here is much more than having one green card with which to pay fares. It is full service integration so that local and regional services operate as one system regardless of the colour of the buses or who drives them. The key word is “time”, a commodity motorists prize, something badly co-ordinated transit services can waste with infrequent service and ineffective transfer connections.
Update 2: The date for Board approval of the Investment Strategy has been clarified.
Feedback from these session will be summarized in a report to be posted online, and Metrolinx will continue to seek input from various groups across the GTHA. In April, a final report will be presented to the Board with the intent of going to a public session on May 27 for formal approval before the June 1, 2013, legislated deadline.
(although the next public meeting is not scheduled until May 27). By that time, the Investment Strategy should be substantially completed in draft aiming at publication for the June 27 Board Meeting.
Updated: Various issues came up during the press scrum after the meeting including:
- Does Metrolinx have plans to take over the TTC, or at least its rapid transit system? CEO Bruce McCuaig replied that Metrolinx has an obligation to integrate regional transit, but that this refers to service and fares. A takeover is only one way to achieve integration, and this can also be one through collaboration among multiple system operators. McCuaig noted that the travelling public wants outcomes and they are not concerned with governance structures or political boundaries. Chair Rob Prichard stated that any discussion about system amalgamation lies elsewhere in government. Metrolinx needs to be able to respond if asked about the implications, but they are not “advocates” for such changes.
- Will Metrolinx ensure “efficiency” in its current spending as part of its plan to seek new funding? Bruce McCuaig spoke of the cost recovery ratio for GO mistakenly equating high fare revenues with efficiency. He then turned to the procurement process for capital projects, and cited Alternative Financing and Procurement through Infrastructure Ontario as an example of how Metrolinx would seek good value. Rob Prichard observed that the scale of investment required for The Big Move is much larger than the level of savings that could be achieved by trimming existing spending.
- What will be the effect of new revenue tools on non-users of the transit network? Bruce McCuaig replied with the commonly cited benefits of redirecting travel flow off of the road network, increasing land values, and better capacity for goods movement. (My own feeling about this question is that those answers are becoming shopworn, especially considering that Metrolinx itself has argued that The Big Move will only prevent congestion from getting worse, on average, not that it will actually improve conditions.)
- What are the least popular of proposed new revenue sources? McCuaig dodged this question saying that feedback varies among different groups and he did not want to prejudge the outcome of the consultations now underway. He noted that there was a lot of support for the general principles, but that Metrolinx needs to publish more information about how the tools are used elsewhere and how they might be implemented in the GTHA.
- What will be the fare for the Union Pearson Express? Discussions are underway, and there will be a firm proposal on this in late 2014. (That’s quite a non-answer considering the provincial Auditor General’s less-than-complimentary remarks on the UPX project.)