Tories and Liberals: All Study, No Money

Two media reports caught my eye on the subject of TTC funding.  It’s amazing how much people can avoid making real commitments to transit, and how much they hide behind “financial accountability”.

In today’s column by Royson James in the Star, we find John Tory, leader of the opposition at Queen’s Park, saying:

Before getting new powers the city should do a “full line-by-line program review and value-for-money audit” to squeeze out every bit of inefficiency. Then, a new governance structure must be in place to force accountability.

Only after the audit, new governance, and a long-term fiscal deal drafted by the province do you pass the City of Toronto Act, Tory said. By then, the city would not need new taxing powers to ding business. As well, Tory argued, the Toronto region needs long-term plans for economic development, transportation, waste management and neighbourhood revitalization. “One subway, a faraway plan for an integrated transit pass and a relatively toothless regional transportation authority do not constitute a long-range transportation plan for the Toronto region,” he said.

Rather than actually giving us any new revenue with which to tackle the huge backlog of infrastructure projects, Tory would have us engage an army of accountants to count pennies and make sure we were not wasting them on frivolities. 

Even assuming there’s a lot of gold in them-thar hills, the amount of money we are likely to find is a pittance beside our actual needs.  Moreover, it’s the soft services, the ones where we cannot establish a dollar value on the benefits, that seem to hurt the most when we conduct these audits.

But having a study lets us put off the inevitable, the need for major new funding sources to repair our crumbling city and build transit networks.

Tory went on to say:

The city region needs plans to replace the Scarborough RT, extend the Bloor subway westward and the Yonge subway north, improve GO service and build more roads.

Hmmm … I don’t remember seeing Bloor or Yonge subway extensions on anyone’s plans.  Has John Tory talked to York University recently?  Is he pre-announcing new Tory transit initiatives?

Meanwhile on the Government side of the house, we have Minister of Transportation Donna Cansfield quoted by Jeff Gray in today’s Dr. Gridlock in the Globe.  Talking about the $400-million that has vanished from the TTC’s expected funding, Dr. Gridlock reports:

… she is committed to working with the TTC on its capital plans, but added, with a hint of exasperation in her voice, that the Liberals have already provided $1.5-billion over three years to the TTC alone:  “At some point you have to be accountable for the money you have received.”

This is laughable coming from someone who used to chair the Toronto school board and knows just how Queen’s Park likes to paint municipal agencies as spendthrifts.  At one stroke, Cansfield implies that we have somehow wasted all that money, or are hiding it under a rock, and that future spending clearly should be at a lower level.

The problems with transit go back into the 1990s when we began to systematically underfund transit operations and growth.  Now we have a backlog on the capital account to catch up with, and an operating budget that cannot fund the level of service we had in 1990.  It’s rather like a steel mill spending all its money on dividends and deferring maintenance only to find that they’re no longer competitive and can’t afford to modernize.

When someone can explain to me why the Sheppard Subway was the most important transit project of the 1990s, and why its cousin, the Spadina extension sits atop the pile today, then we can have a serious chat about “value for money”. 

Cansfield and the whole crew at Queen’s Park, on both sides of the aisle, need to stop pretending this history of disinvestment in transit didn’t happen.  Significantly more spending, both on capital and operations, are essential to meet the expectations we place on transit systems.  Otherwise, all the talk of smart growth, smart cards and transit cities is just hot air.

5 thoughts on “Tories and Liberals: All Study, No Money

  1. The financial problems are basically Queen’s Park doings.

    Mike Harris was able to get the money for his income tax cut by downloading responsibilites, i.e “passing the buck”, to municipalities and school boards.  His henchmen also conveniently ignored the capital requirements — i.e. buying new vehicles — of transit systems.

    John Tory is claiming that there may be some fat in the municipal system.

    It costs money to find it.  Thus you don’t realize all the savings anyway.
    There are some areas where the city has cut. If they had the money (or thought they did) they probably wouldn’t have cut in those areas.
    Even if there are “some inefficiencies” so what!  Why should that let the provinical government off the hook for the consequences of its own policies.

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  2. I suddenly have a mental picture of expensive auditors from PriceWaterhouse spreading out through the subway system, looking for all that lavish overspending — expecting to see marble busts of Howard Moscoe, yet finding nothing but missing ceiling tiles and water-damaged walls.

    I agree that underinvestment is the major problem, and am suspicious of any politican that tries to ignore that.  In particular, the TTC has that dubious distinction of being among the most cost-effective in the world.  They shouldn’t be exempt from fiscal scrutiny, but — operating on a lower subsidy-per-ride than systems with more elaborate systems of “accountability” — they should at least get the benefit of the doubt that their funding needs are reasonable.

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  3. I remember the way the TTC was back in 1990 and it was not matched by any other authority.  And as I also recall traffic wasn’t like it is today.  And as I do recall the Birchmount 17 had an express branch!

    The TTC should get what it’s asking and the big problem is that most Tories are from rural areas or Alberta, and they don’t understand the needs of mass transit.  If they did understand that transit is cheaper than building non stop highways and added a couple of lanes on roads then we can just maintain what we have.  This formula has worked in Eurpoe so how about Canada?

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  4. I would love to see the City Auditor come out with a report that monetizes all the deferred capital asset maintenance requirements.

    A public company is required by law to report whether their capital assets have not been maintained and what this pot of deferred liabilities will cost.  I bet it’s billions in TTC, roads, ExPlace, etc.

    There was a time when a pothole or a leaky roof needed fixing it was fixed.  Now there are buildings that people enter every day that do not meet standard safety code.

    As far as the province’s responsibility, the City way back in Crombie and Sewell’s time decided to greatly expand the responsibilities of the city.  They downloaded things to themselves.  The province was only too happy.

    Steve:  Well, no: the most recent downloads have been of large programs that the Province originally said it would fund.  Transit was to be funded by Queen’s Park after Bill Davis’ big splash when he cancelled the expressway network.  Public Housing and other social costs are supposed, by law, to have substantial provincial funding but the province refuses to pay its share. 

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  5. I do think that the potential over-payment for the new Subways proves that John Tory is on to something when he says that the city should do a full line-by-line program review.  He didn’t say it would solve all of Toronto’s financial woes, he is just saying that if you think you have no money, you might want to check your bank account first before you decide on how much money to take out as a loan.

    • “It costs money to find it. Thus you don’t realize all the savings anyway.”

    That sounds too much like, “Don’t look for the money in order to strengthen the ‘We don’t have any money’ argument.”  An audit can easily be priced in advance and the city could decide if it wants to do it once it has those numbers.

    • “There are some areas where the city has cut.  If they had the money (or thought they did) they probably wouldn’t have cut in those areas.”

    I don’t think that the city of Toronto is in the “spend every dollar effectively” mode.  If they were, they would, at least, investigate Siemens’ claim that it could save the city 100 million dollars.  (You have to say that last part in an Austin Power’s voice) There would also be no computer-leasing fiasco if the city truly understood what it was doing with the money it has.

    • “Even if there are “some inefficiencies” so what!”

    If the city is misspending its own money, it gives the province the ability to say, “It’s not the amount of money that’s the problem, but your inability to spend it effectively.”  Toronto needs to remove that argument by proving that it spends wisely.  I think the audit idea strengthens the city’s position. I think the resistance comes from a fear that the audit could embarrass the city.

    Steve:  There are a lot of points here.  First off, when someone talks about audits and value for money and all that sort of thing, there are basically two kinds of things you are going to find:

    odds and ends sprinkled through various programs that are dubious, and maybe even a few that are downright outrageous, but nothing that is going to make a serious dent in the budget.
    major programs where the debate really is “should we be funding this at all” as opposed to “could we be funding this at less expense”.

    The fact that John Tory starts off by proposing new subways shows that he has already jumped over the second point where we would debate which subways, if any, are needed and what order should we build them in, if so.  He has also missed the whole “value for money” debate which is at the heart of subway vs LRT vs busway discussions.  You can’t talk about getting value for money when your first proposal involves spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need, or where we have not done a comparative evaluation of the need.

    Having said that, there is the larger question of whether we should have transit service at all, and what it should be trying to do:  handle commuting traffic, deal with the changing demographics of the suburbs where everyone cannot afford to have a car and the roads are jammed even when they get one, or leave public transit as a dog eat dog world where we treat it as a service for the poor and infirm.  Until you know what you want to achieve, you cannot even determine where your spending should go or how much you should spend on what.

    There is a serious problem with inadequacy of service all over the GTA.  The service we run and the financial plans we have, such as they are, cannot keep pace with growing demand even if we bought all of our equipment overseas.  Note that in the case of subways, we still have to build the infrastructure here at North American costs, and that’s far more than the cost of the vehicles.

    Yes an audit can be priced in advance, but an audit will look at what we spend and what we get.  It will not address the social and political questions of what we should spend our money on.  That is far more complex.  If we provide good service in a suburb that is full of large immigrant families, do we provide an economic benefit by increasing their mobility, allowing them to work and providing them with a sense that the community at large is trying to help them earn a better life?  That decision is not an audit.

    On the question of wise spending, nobody has ever come right out and said:  TTC, that billion dollars you want to spend on maintaining and improving the transit system is a total waste.  Indeed, people are lined up around the block with demands for even more spending.  Take Greg Sorbara, whose little subway line will set us back about $1.5-billion just to get to Steeles Avenue.  Does he ask if this is a worthwhile expenditure?  We have a double standard here where the argument that the city’s financial house is out of order is a smokescreen for funding cuts.  At least Mike Harris was honest about it.

    As for Siemens’ claimed $100-million saving, the issue here is a political decision to keep jobs in Ontario.  The Province (and Ottawa) are letting the city take the flack for an economic support program that is tiny by comparison with what we spend on fisheries, farmers, mining, forestry and the auto sector.  When someone starts asking hard questions about how much it costs per job to keep or expand these industries, then at least we will be debating on an even keel.  It would be really interesting to know what the new GTTA would do if this decision were in its lap — buy Ontario, or ship the work overseas.

    The “so what” argument addresses a basic issue in managing any enterprise:  how much does it cost in dollars and effort to achieve a saving?  There is a point beyond which making something “more efficient” is counterproductive when seen on a larger scale.  A good example is the question of paying overtime, something that can give ordinary staff rather elevated salaries under circumstances.  But what would it cost to have more staff who would also draw benefits (something that overtime does not attract at anywhere near the same rate as the base salary)?  When we talk about “efficiency” we have to be careful which yardstick we are using.

    Finally, the computer leasing fiasco was brought on by a combination of several factors:

    a vendor who was happy to let the city misunderstand the terms of the agreement
    a pliable council (I am being delicate here) and a mayor who worried more about being boiled in a pot for dinner than he did about running a good civic administration
    a civic organization that was scrambling to survive the upheavals of amalgamation.

    In such an environment, the opportunity for unscrupulous activity is available to anyone.  However, for all of the TTC’s problems, nobody can accuse the staff of trying to pull a fast one with Bombardier — the former Chief General Manager opposed the deal.  The decision here is a political one. 

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