Much Ado About Very Little (Updated)

As I write this at 10:20 pm, it’s been a long day.  I spent the afternoon at City Hall for the TTC meeting, had a quick dinner, went to a movie (Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes) and then came home to a mountain of accumulated comments on this blog.

The TTC voted today to defer service improvements planned for September including the opening of Mt. Dennis bus garage, to get a pile of additional information, and to launch a series of community meetings to discuss service proposals.

Updated July 21 at 8:30 am

Now that I’m awake, here is a rundown on the discussion and proposals at the July 20 emergency TTC meeting.

By way of introduction, you can listen to a podcast of my interview on Ontario Today that aired just before the meeting.

The TTC has been asked by the City Manager to trim $30-million from its operating deficit in 2007, and at least $100-million from 2008 to flatline the subsidy at the 2007 level.  Various proposals were put forward (you can see the full list in the presentation), but most of these cannot kick in until 2008.  On the table for 2007 were:

  1. Cut poorly performing routes ($1 million)
  2. Cancel service improvements planned for September through December ($2-3 million)
  3. Defer opening of Mt. Dennis Garage ($2 million)
  4. Miscellaneous cost containment (travel, etc.) (amount to be determined)
  5. A fare increase of 10-25 cents effective September 1 ($3-15 million)

Of these, the Commission approved items 2-4.

For 2008, the list is much longer:

  1. Cut poorly performing routes ($10 million)
  2. Cancel 2007 service improvements ($20 million)
  3. Cancel 2008 service improvements ($20 million)
  4. Roll back 2007 off-peak service improvements ($13 million)
  5. Close Sheppard Subway ($10 million, to be verified)
  6. Defer opening of Mt. Dennis Garage ($7 million)
  7. Miscellaneous cost containment (TBD)
  8. 2007 fare increase (full year effect) ($20-45 million)

Newly appointed Chief General Manager Gary Webster led off the meeting with an overview of the options.  He presented them in a straightforward manner with no political rhetoric or scaremongering, and he was clearly unhappy with the idea that the TTC would make a 180-degree turn from its growth plans.  He handled questions from the Commissioners, some of whom were trying to trick him into supporting their own political positions, quite well.  I could not help thinking how different the exchange might have been with a TTC neophyte in the chair, or even worse, a syncophant whose opinions shifted to suit the mood of the times, had the CGM selection gone another way.

A vital contribution by Gary Webster was a sense of corporate memory that is often lacking in so many discussion at TTC meetings.  He pointed out that after the debacle of the mid-1990s service cuts, the Commission adopted a policy that no such cuts would be made in future without public consultation.  This not only saved us from immediate cuts to existing services, but led to a vote to conduct a round of community meetings where the public can tell Councillors what they feel about the various options.  Some Council members who have not yet had the pleasure of being roasted alive by their constituents over transit service are about to discover how widespread a concern the TTC really is.

My presentation as a deputation addressed several points:

  1. I, as a transit rider, pay over 75% of the cost of the system through my fares, and nobody has bothered to ask me yet what I think about possible service cuts.  How can a meeting be called on one day’s notice for such drastic actions without public consultation?
  2. When we talk about ridership loss, the 21 “poor performing routes” are a sideshow to the real issue — the riding lost through overcrowding and the perception that the TTC is only used by people who have no other choice.  Losing the momentum of the Ridership Growth Strategy and Transit City will have a deep effect on the future role of transit and support for funding.  Only one TTC meeting ago, Commissioners vied for precedence in Transit City construction.  Now some would undercut the very system from which they seek kudos for delivering new transit service to their wards.
  3. Although I didn’t support construction of the Sheppard Subway, closing it would send totally the wrong message about the direction of transit.  However, the high losses it brings should be a lesson to those whose transit solutions consist only of very expensive rapid transit projects.
  4. If fares increases are on the table, don’t stop at a 25-cent jump.  Retaining service is vital to the health of the system, and every transit study shows that service is much more important than fare levels in determining ridership and the attractiveness of transit.  If the City refuses to pay for TTC service, at least consider the option of a higher fare increase so that service can be preserved and improved.
  5. Council as a whole needs to take responsibility for this situation and resolve the funding problem as soon as possible.  Waiting three months for yet another Queen’s Park bailout is irresponsible, putting it mildly.  Some have asked for Council to forego its recent 9% pay hike, but I went much further.  If they want to defer such a critical action for three months, maybe they should also defer their salaries for refusing to address this issue and creating an artificial crisis.

An intriguing exchange followed in which Commissioner De Baeremaeker wondered why I included him in my epithet “A plague on both your houses” [Shakespeare, spoken by the dying Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet].  It’s quite simple.  The authors of the motion to defer tax increases brought about the budgetary crisis.  Those who support the taxes have a responsibility to (a) raise public support for their position and (b) get the decision reversed as soon as possible rather than taking an axe to public services before making any attempt to solve the problem.

Another deputant, Sam Savona, spoke for the disabled community urging that Council not cut back funding for WheelTrans on which that community depends.  It’s always an easy target because of the high cost per passenger of the service, and service availability, especially for discretionary trips, is still poor.

I’m not going to precis the debate that followed as much was predictable hand wringing about hard decisions and tub thumping about issues near and dear to various Councillors’ hearts.

Two standouts for the “thickest skull of the year award” deserve mention.

Councillor Anthony Perruzza, who assumed the mantle of Councillor for the York University Subway after his narrow defeat of former Councillor and Commissioner Peter Li Preti in the 2006 election, rambled on at great length about the economic importance of subway construction.  His argument, separating the kernels of wheat from much chaff, is that construction creates jobs directly and indirectly.  In effect, he would turn the TTC into a construction company digging holes hither and yon regardless of what we would do with them afterwards.

Councillor Peter Milczyn, who together with Councillor Suzan Hall would like to see a public sector wage rollback, wanted TTC management to explore cost savings through re-opening the collective agreement.  He asked for a report on the savings if, in 2007, TTC staff were paid only their 2006 wages plus cost-of-living.  This request was eventually defeated.  [Note to commenters:  I will not entertain diatribes about the evils of unionized labour and the socialist hordes.] 

Milczyn’s huge blunder came in his description of the ATU’s recent court win requiring the TTC to cover the Ontario Health Premium — Milczyn said that the ATU may be legally right, but that they are immoral in expecting the public to pay for something everyone else must cover on their own.  This led to an angry confrontation after the meeting between Milczyn and TTC Union head Bob Kinnear that fortunately was not picked up by the press already busy in the scrum outside the meeting room.

The last thing Toronto needs is a prolonged period of labour unrest especially in the transit system.  If Councillors want  the next contract (effective mid 2008) to peg wages to the cost of living index, that’s a valid bargaining position.  For Councillors who created this “crisis” to ask for rollbacks is a recipe for labour disaster. 

For reference, one percent of the TTC’s total budget is about $11-million, and of that about 70 percent is wages.  The TTC will not fill a $100-million hole with a 1% wage cut.

In the end, the Commission approved the following motions:

  • Service additions planned for fall 2007 are deferred indefinitely
  • Opening of Mt. Dennis garage is deferred until January 2008 or later
  • The planned August 29 meeting of the TTC is cancelled, to be replaced by one on September 12
  • Staff are to report back on all fare increase options including those required to cover all reductions requested by the City Manager
  • Staff in consultation with Chair Giambrone, Vice-Chair Mihevc and local Councillors are to conduct a round of community consultation regarding options for transit service and fares
  • Staff are to report back on options for closing the Sheppard Subway
  • Staff are to report back on a strategy to minimize layoffs through attrition, and the Commission should communicate to staff that this is the preferred option should it be required
  • Staff are to advise the City Maager of the options identfied for savings and provide updates as information is available
  • Using 1996 as a base year, staff are to report back on all new positions added (see comment below)
  • Staff are to report on the environmental impact of service reductions and decrease in transit usage
  • Staff are to report on the impact of postponing construction of the Spadina Subway extension
  • All cost containment options described in the staff presentation are to be implemented

The report about new positions parallels requests made to some other City departments.  During the past decade as the City rebuilt from the devestating cuts of the Harris years, there has been considerable growth in some agencies notably the TTC.  The intent of this report is to demonstrate to critics that the increased staffing is directly linked to restoration of service and the quality of maintenance, not to empire building by the TTC.

17 thoughts on “Much Ado About Very Little (Updated)

  1. Thanks for the update. I wish I could have stayed at the meeting longs (I would have spoke about the need for more service over holding the line on fares had I not had a job to go to), but in the end it was a bit anti-climatic.

    I am still very disappointed, even though the big absolute service cuts were left out. I was counting on the September service improvements to do something about the overcrowded buses. How much longer will we have to wait for capacity to come close to meeting demand?

    I wish they put a modest cent fare increase for September instead – the hiring issue will bite the TTC very hard very soon.

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  2. An alternative to shutting down the Shepherd subway may be to close the intermediate stations and convert the line to a high speed line haul operation. This option would reduce the costs by elimination of intermediate stations and the extra trains required to maintain service times.

    With elimination of intermediate stops and effective use of the high rate option on the trains, a 10 minute service would be maintainable with only a single train. The station costs would be reduced to one (Don Mills) since Yonge station would be required anyway.

    Steve: You would need two trains. Even if turnaround time at the terminals consumed only 2 minutes, and this leaves only 3 minutes to get from Yonge to Don Mills for a speed of over 100km/h. High rate is 80km/h, and that won’t be maintained for the entire run.

    We are stuck with the Sheppard line, but it is an excellent lesson to everyone in the cost of providing infrastructure way out of proportion to demand.

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  3. I wonder if these councillors would take a wage cut if they were asked? It is so easy for people with good jobs to demand that others take a wage cut, so they do not have pay more for services. (re: Sue Ann Levy)

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  4. I am trying to be optimistic and am hoping that the “boneheads” will actually see your way of thinking. The 1990’s cutbacks should be a sort of canary-in-the-coalmine warning of severe errosion not only in service but in overall morale.

    Love “The Lady Vanishes”. Perhaps common sense will make a last-minute appearance in T.O. as well (on a bus or streetcar, rather than a taxi, though).

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  5. Can someone explain why there is a budget crisis in 2007 when the deferred taxes would only have been effective for 2008? I understand the future revenue stream for the city has been compromised, but how is the current year budget suddenly in the red? If the taxes had been approved, would we suddenly have more money for today? Or was the plan all along to borrow for 2007 expenditures on the assumption that some sort of new revenue would be available in 2008 (since the current budget was set before these particular taxes were put forward)?

    No where have I seen a discussion of this point, and it’s what leads me to be sceptical of the direness of today’s situation – if it’s so bad, wasn’t it coming anyways?

    Steve: [Revised reply] The intention of cutting spending in 2007 is to produce a reserve to carry forward into 2008 as a cushion against a late implementation of the new taxes.

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  6. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for keeping us posted about this. I couldn’t make it to the meetng, although I was planning on getting there, an appontment ran very late, thus I didn’t show up.

    Were the disabled that were there only speaking about Wheel-Trans?

    Was there any talk of discontinuing the Stop Announcement system installation in the buses, streetcars or subway?

    Thanks

    Steve: I was out in the hall talking to various people at the point that Sam Savona was speaking and didn’t pick up all of what he said. I believe that there was only one other deputation because of the late notice for the meeting, and I didn’t hear his presentation (Dave Fisher’s) at all.

    There is no talk of discontinuing the stop announcement system because (a) that’s a capital project unaffected by the proposed cuts, (b) the GPS tracking systems it uses are needed for improved vehicle location systems anyhow.

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  7. In considering your publicly considered view that fare increases are preferable to service cuts, I see a further “benefit”.

    There is obviously some price sensitivity to using TTC: a fare increase will have some negative impact on ridership. Certainly, this impact may be less than what might occur through service cuts, but it is there. So with a fare increase, especially a sizable one, ridership will either fall or grow less quickly than at present.

    Wouldn’t this then allow for some savings that could arise from *not* having to meet the otherwise projected growth in ridership? In other words, wouldn’t it allow for a “cut” in service, but only in the sense of projected rather than current service?

    I realize that this is not optimal, but we are dealing with sub-optimal options here.

    Steve: I agree that there would be a short-term impact, and therefore we would not have to implement as much new service (or conversely, the service would be even more attractive). Ridership is much more likely to recover from a fare increase than it is from a service cut because, at least, we will have something attractive for people to ride. Moreover, at the higher fare we will not lose much on new riders and might even make a profit on some of them.

    Yes, this is a sub-optimal situation, and not one I wish to see come true.

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  8. Seems like the simple solution to me would be to lower the service levels in the wards that each member is from that voted against the tax increase…wouldn’t take long for them all to hear a mouthful from their constituents…

    Seams petty…but I think that’s the way democracy should work sometimes…

    Steve: Given the patchwork quilt of voting patterns, I think it would be even better to let buses run express through the offending wards.

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  9. I like the idea about closing the Sheppard Line except for Don Mills Station. That station is a huge gateway, not to mention, a place for many 404 commuters to also park in. It has a very high ridership and is a huge transfer point.

    Even if they had to run 2 trains, it would be fast, VERY Competitive with the 401 parallel to it (if it already isn’t at times) and would keep Sheppard Ave free of long haul bus traffic that chokes the street like what currently happens to Yonge St from Steeles to Finch.

    I think that’s the best solution. We’re talking about closing down 2 lanes, subway lanes, even if they were road lanes, it would cause lots of traffic problems. Subway lanes, makes it much worse.

    Taking away lanes never works if there is no proper replacement for it.

    Yonge to Don Mills, EXPRESS, would definately be a temporary attraction, and who knows, maybe ridership just *might* increase?

    It would also demonstrate the true advantage of being segregated from traffic if subway trains were traveling at about 60-70 km/hr NON-STOP for 5.5 KM

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  10. My understanding is that TTC staff have gotten a raise in the 2-3% annually the last few years. Regardless, is it really asking that much to have a pay freeze?

    Anyway, much obliged for all this info, Steve, as always. Previous postings have gone on as to how I think this mess can be solved, so I won’t go on further. Just curious, though, were the two taxes presented as all or nothing? I ask because the vehicle registration thing on its own I could tolerate.

    Steve: There was never a vote on the taxes individually because the motion to defer the issue to October took precedence over any vote on the issue. Therefore, we never got to see whether one tax passed and one failed.

    Having said that, the Land Transfer Tax is the real biggy in the whole discussion and dwarfs the revenue from any other tax under consideration. Without it, the City is in a very deep hole. With it, we can stand in the hole and see over the edge.

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  11. Joseph C said “It would also demonstrate the true advantage of being segregated from traffic if subway trains were traveling at about 60-70 km/hr NON-STOP for 5.5 KM”

    Except that such operations are not exactly suitable for the rolling stock the TTC uses, even though it is technically possible to run them like that. By contrast, GO Transit’s rolling stock is designed to hit over 100km/h for distances between stations that sometimes is as high as over 10km, even over 15km on rare occasion, but would be rather inefficient for short-stop service.

    There’s talk of a new station being added at Mount Dennis (Eglinton) for the Georgetown train… with service at nearby Weston, I wonder if those stations are too close to each other. By the same argument, you have to ask, Don Mills to Yonge, aren’t those stations a little too far apart from each other? The longest stretch between stations in the subway network is either St.Clair West to Eglinton West or Warden to Kennedy (coincidentally they service the same East-West streets).

    I think that it hurts the economic viability of any subway corridor when stations get this far apart. You have to be able to get a certain number of riders per kilometer, that’s why, on average, you should have a subway station about every kilometer or so, and this is why you need dense corridors for them – you don’t run these things via industrial wastelands like the SRT. If the ridership demand allows, like south of Bloor, even tighter spacing is certainly a very wise investment (increased capacity, increased attractiveness of service through more destinations, resulting in increased ridership revenue).

    Steve: Both the Sheppard Subway and the SRT depend on a network of feeder buses and the subway for almost all of their demand. The walk-in trade is comparatively low except at STC which is a destination in its own right. Without the surface system, these lines would be empty, contrary to the standard TTC myths that subway-generated development is their secret of success.

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  12. Steve, to be as blunt as possible, closing the Sheppard Subway, and all of these service cuts to me is the last straw. Being a transit supporter has been very hard with all the overcrowded trains, buses, and streetcars. As someone who uses the Sheppard Subway everyday (Short Haul, Don Mills-Leslie Station everyday.) and someone who has a choice between the car and the TTC, my mind is made up. I much rather pay through the nose for parking, and fuel to downtown then be in an even worse situation on the TTC. Taking the TTC is not a finacial decision, it’s I hate to drive but I also hate it when there’s no good service with too many people.

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  13. I’m glad there’ll be public consultation on service cuts and fare increases. If those get the same dutiful media coverage as the “revenue tools” sessions, at least the record will show that the Canadian Taxpayers Federation doesn’t have the best interests of all Torontonians at heart.

    But sessions that discuss taxes or spending in isolation end up being less consultation and more group therapy, giving a forum for venting frustrations on “revenue tools” or “expenditure control” to a room full of like-minded people. To be effective, each meeting needs to discuss both TTC service and the chunk of the Land Transfer Tax that would be needed to support it. Sound crazy? There’s a idea called “participatory budgeting” that uses public consultation to make budgetary tradeoffs.

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  14. “This led to an angry confrontation after the meeting between Milczyn and TTC Union head Bob Kinnear that fortunately was not picked up by the press already busy in the scrum outside the meeting room.”

    If I were writing that paragraph I would have used “unfortunately”. When McGuinty brought in the Health Tax he was warned that his terming it a premium would expose some employers to liability and he said it wouldn’t be a problem (for him). Now several municipalities, often depending on which arbitrator hard the case, face extra costs. How many million does that add to the deficit?

    If an angry exchange between Kinnear and Milczyn being exposed in the media led to this becoming an issue and the Liberals being forced to “offload” these costs, the City would be a substantial beneficiary.

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  15. In one of the other posts, you mentioned that it would take a two-thirds vote to reopen the matter of the taxes. Is it posssible to circumvent this by introducing the taxes in piecemeal components?

    Steve: No. The only way to have a debate would be on a totally new tax, and normally such a proposal would have to work its way through committees before coming to Council.

    For example, one complaint about downloading was the backlog of repairs in the public housing stock that was arbitrarily given to the city. A land transfer tax would be implemented that would raise just enough money to cover the annual repair budget. A sunshine clause could be added that stated that this element of the tax would disappear when the backlog had been addressed or the province uploaded the cost (whichever came first.)

    You identify other aspects of downloading and match taxes to cover those costs with the same provisions-e.g. a sunset clause if and when the province ever took back the costs.

    One reason given for the deferral of the taxing decision was to see what the parties proposed in the election this fall. However, one problem with the that would be the time lag involved. By the time the election is held and the government/cabinet is sworn in, the legislature is convened (and then promptly goes on a long holiday over Christmas) etc. who knows when the money would flow even if the winning party had promised relief.

    Steve: Whatever party wins, they won’t be going to do anything until the Provincial fiscal year starting April 1,2008 except, possibly, if they find some money hidden in a cookie jar. Since most of that is committed before the election, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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  16. If Sheppard subway is run between Yonge and Don Mills non-stop, then those who normally use the Bayview, Bessarion, Leslie stations, would complain that they are disproportionately affected by the cuts. Indeed, all they are left with would be a bus running once in 20 min.

    The cost of increasing that frequency might eat away the savings from the station closure.

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