How Ottawa Just Raised Your Metropass by 50 Cents

While you are all out spending your hard-won cut in the GST, one little note:

The after-tax cost of the Metropass just went up from $84.50 to $85.00.  Why, you ask?

The tax credit for passes is tied to the tax rate on the lowest income tier, and this will go back to 15% from 15.5% according to today’s announcement.  This means that the rebate per $100 Metropass just went down by 50 cents, or $6 over the course of the year.

Also, of course, this has always been a non-refundable credit, and so those who have no taxable income pay full value for a pass while people like me get the subsidy.

It’s no secret to regulars here that I don’t believe in tax-based incentives and prefer that funding go directly to agencies that deliver service.  If the tax rebates for all of the roughly 250,000 Metropasses sold each month came to the TTC as a subsidy, they would receive about $45-million annually from Ottawa.  This would contribute to better service for everyone, whether they used a pass or not.

A Made in Ontario One Cent Solution

Later today, we can expect our friends in Ottawa to announce that indeed the GST will be reduced from six to five percent.  Once the dancing in the streets winds down, we need to focus attention on Queen’s Park.

The idea that one cent of the GST should be redirected to municipalities was first raised by Mayor Miller of Toronto and gradually attracted support from other “big city” mayors across the land.  Even outgoing Ontario Finance Minister Greg Sorbara endorsed the idea about a week ago.  Alas, Stephen Harper’s government wants nothing to do with this scheme.  That’s their prerogative.

However, if Queen’s Park were really serious about funding local governments, they would move into the space vacated by Ottawa and raise the PST by one percent.  This money would be dedicated to Ontario municipalities.

Of course, Dalton McGuinty would have to actually defend this position saying that cities and towns really need the money, and if that nasty Mr. Harper won’t give it to them, our Dalton will simply do the taxing at the provincial level.  It’s easy to blame Ottawa for problems, much harder to take action locally.

The marginal cost to Ontario taxpayers would be zero — one percent is one percent regardless of who collects it.  The cost to Queen’s Park would be zero because this would be new revenue simply passed through to local governments.

This approach would undermine the campaign to get Ottawa at the table for transit funding.  However, we will wait a very, very long time before a federal government of any stripe makes real commitments to transit that don’t come with severe time and eligibility constraints.  (Even the Liberals would only fund new hybrid buses and other projects that could be construed as a contribution to the Kyoto protocol goals.  Replacement and rebuilding to maintain what we already have wasn’t on the table.)

We really need to start funding transit infrastructure and operations with local provincial and municipal revenues.  Transit should not be hostage to Ottawa’s hatred for the municipal sector and for Toronto in particular.

Is anyone at Queen’s Park listening?

Getting On GO Transit

At the GTTA Board meeting yesterday (see previous post for additional information on this), GO Transit presented an overview of its plans for additional parking on the network.  I won’t go into the fine details here, but broadly this contained two important directions:

  • GO is moving toward parking structures, possibly in conjuction with development of its parking lot properties, as an alternative to continued outward expansion of the lots.
  • The target growth rate is from 1,500 to 2,000 spaces per year.

GO currenly operates 48,500 parking spaces, and the park-and-ride sector now account for 67% of ridership.  Other modal shares are kiss-and-ride (15%), walking (9%), local transit (8%) and cycling (.5% to 1%).

In the long run, parking is not sustainable at its current modal share.  Assuming a 20-year growth rate in the middle of GO’s cited range (1,750), this would give 35,000 more spaces.  However, GO expects its riding to double over the next 20 years, and external factors such as a stepp rise in oil prices could accelerate this.  Clearly, parking will handle a lower, even if still important, proportion of total ridership.  A further problem is that a route such as Lakeshore with plans for large increases in capacity through electrification and extension is not necessarily where the additional parking capacity can be easily located.  Rapid growth in ridership may outstrip parking growth on this line.

This puts a considerable additional demand on local transit service to the GO stations both in quantity and in hours of service.  This will be a challenge for local transit operators and, by extension for the GTTA.

As the GTTA contemplates the future role of transit, it must adapt from provision of downtown-oriented, peak Monday to Friday communting service (including the local transit component) to service that makes travel by transit within and among the regions easy.  After all, much of the GTA gridlock comes not from commuters to downtown, but from travel between the regions including phenomena such as the lunch-hour traffic jams.

This is one of several cases the GTTA must not adopt a “more of the same” approach to transit.

The GTTA’s Regional Plan

Yesterday (October 26), the GTTA Board met in Toronto and unveiled its planning and timetable for the creation of a Regional Transportation Plan (RTP).  There is a report outlining the work plan for the next year, and an accompanying chart on the GTTA’s site.  Related to this is the Communications Framework containing a chart of the public participation process.

This is a very aggressive timetable compared with studies we have seen in the GTA, and the intent is to have a completed plan by fall 2008.  Much work needs to be done producing position papers and analyses to convert the shopping list of schemes like MoveOntario 2020 into a prioritized, coherent plan.  One refreshing change is that work will not stop for the summer doldrums.  Indeed the final feedback and approval processes are scheduled for summer 2008.

A number of interesting comments came out during discussion of these items.

The GTTA is looking forward to the new, streamlined Class Environmental Assessment process that came into effect for most transit projects in September, but recognizes that this is only one part of a larger legislative scheme.  For example, federal funding of transit will trigger the Canadian EA process, and this is comparably onerous to the old Ontario one.  Other legislation triggers the need for other types of review.

The GTTA hopes to consolidate as much work of these various studies as possible into one process, and is working with the federal environmental officials to ensure that this can be done.

Mayor Miller raised the issue that the structure of the EA fights the consultative process by spending undue time on the choice of technology when the issues that most exercise the public are matters of design and neighbourhood impact.  There is hope that with the new streamlined Class EA, more time can be devoted to the subjects that engage people, the “what will it do to me” question.

Funding and prioritization of projects are important parts of the GTTA’s work.  On the funding side, the GTTA will co-ordinate its efforts with those of other large regional agencies in Montreal and Vancouver, as well as with the “big city mayors” caucus and its lobby for federal infrastructure funding.

As for prioritization, the short-term focus is on “quick win” projects that can get shovels in the ground and visible improvements as soon as possible (two years or less from project start).  As things now stand, only $100-million has been allocated by Queen’s Park for these projects, and an important issue later this fall will be to see whether additional funds will be available in the upcoming fiscal year starting April 1, 2008.

The hard debates will come in 2008 as the project list grows with items missed by MoveOntario 2020 notably much of the day-to-day capital cost of infrastructure and fleet renewal.

Mayors Miller and McCallion made comments that show some, at least, of the GTTA board members are seeing transit on the large scale necessary. 

Miller noted that the idea of consulting with “commuters” was inappropriate because these are only a subset of the total transit-using population.  Indeed, many issues related to needs for extra household cars and of transit captives in the suburbs come back to transit service designs that only serve downtown-bound commuters.

McCallion noted the importance of service.  Subsidies to transit riders via tax rebates have their place, but, as she said, if it’s the middle of winter, and there is no bus to get on, the subsidy is worthless.

As the GTTA Board evolves from a club of regional mayors and chairs to a group that must consider hard questions of policy, planning and finance, their workload will go up and the decisions will not come as easily.  Much will depend on funding promises from Queen’s Park and how much Ottawa is prepared to contribute.  If the available funds won’t pay for what is really needed, the GTTA could descend into the sort of us-versus-them debates that paralyzed transit planning at the old Metro Toronto council.

The next year will prove whether we, as a region, can address our transportation problems and rise above me-first bickering.

Postscript:  The public meeting began with a declaration by Chair Rob McIsaac to Mayor Miller that he had no intention of attempting a TTC takeover.  That issue surface with a Toronto Star story, quickly denied by all concerned, that Queen’s Park would like to take over the TTC.

What I think is happing here is left-over manoeuvring about the new Toronto taxes.  Some Councillors feel that if the TTC were uploaded, then the new taxes wouldn’t be needed.  However, Queen’s Park really doesn’t want to have to worry about the Queen Car, and leaving the TTC (and other systems) in local hands has the benefit of offloading detailed decision-making and complaints about service and fares to the local politicians.  Dalton gets the photo ops when construction begins on a new line while David gets to explain why people can’t get better service.

Streetcars and Fort York

As the Waterfront West LRT project inches its way through various studies and construction projects, it’s worthwhile to look back at how the area around Fort York, the oldest and most historical part of the route, evolved to its present condition.

Originally, the fort stood at the lakefront, but as with so much of Toronto’s waterfront, landfill has moved the lake quite a way south leaving both the fort and the nearby lighthouse somewhat inland.

For many years, streetcar service to the fort and the nearby CNE grounds has operated via Bathurst and Fleet Streets, and reconstruction of this approach is now underway to provide a dedicated right-of-way over much of its length.  Less well known is a scheme to install part of the WWLRT on Fort York Boulevard, a new road skirting the southern edge of the fort’s grounds and connecting into Bremner Boulevard at Bathurst Street. 

Some bright spark, I am sure, knows why Fort York Boulevard wasn’t built with the streetcar right-of-way in it from day one, but such is the nature of project planning in this town.  The Friends of Fort York are, I know, concerned that widening this brand new road may encroach on the fort’s lands.

The Fife and Drum is the newsletter of the Friends of Fort York abd Garrison Common, and its October issue contains an article on the early history of streetcar service to the CNE.

A Short History of the CLRV

Now that we’re on the verge of acquiring, or at least issuing a proposal call for a fleet of new streetcars, it’s worth looking back at the origins of the Canadian Light Rail Vehicle and its travails on the Toronto system.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive history, and some comments here are strongly coloured by my own experiences with the fights to keep a streetcar system alive in Toronto and transit technology debates in general.  Bear with me.  My thesis will be revealed in time.

Back in the mid 1960s, the TTC had a plan to build a network of suburban streetcar lines (what we would now call “LRT” or “Light Rapid Transit”) including, notably, a circumferential line made up of:

  • A route from Warden Station (then the planned eastern terminus of the BD subway) northeast through Scarborough to Malvern, connecting to
  • A Finch hydro corridor route west to roughly the Humber River, connecting to
  • A diagonal route following the hydro corridors in Etobicoke and eventually coming south to connect with the BD subway.
  • In addition, there would be a spur to the airport, and another north-south link between the Finch line and the Spadina Subway.

That was 1966.  The proposed vehicle for this network was an updated version of the PCC, the streetcar which served as the backbone of the transit system until the arrival of the CLRV fleet 40 years later.  Plans existed, even a brochure describing the car.  And then everything stopped. Continue reading

“One Stop” Doesn’t Stop Here

The video advertising screens in our subway stations prompted robust debate when they were first proposed.  Many felt they were the thin edge of an invasion of our commuting space by relentless video ads especially on the vehicles.

Those who supported the video screens argued that they were a huge improvement over the old “Metron” displays, and touted the wondrous things this new advertising medium would bring us.  As we all know, the video screens were installed in many stations, and then everything stopped cold.

Where are the rest of the signs?  If this was such an important, profitable project, why haven’t all of the Metron units been replaced, indeed, why hasn’t there been a proposal to increase the number of screens?

Many stations, notably Davisville at TTC Head Office, still have Metron units, some of which are operating with ancient news items or commercials, not to mention clocks that are on time give or take a few hours.  These were supposed to be long gone, but they linger on.

One important function claimed for the screens was the ability to broadcast system status information.  How can you do this when many stations don’t even have them, and those that do have only one on each platform, and none in other areas?

Could it be that the advertising market is only lucrative for busy, high-activity locations such as Bloor-Yonge Station?

Is this an example of the shortcoming of expecting the private sector to provide an important piece of infrastructure that should be everywhere, but which is only where they have a hope of making money?

All Roads Lead to Spadina

With the construction projects now in progress, the service on Spadina Avenue is an impressive mixture of cars from other routes.  Scheduled PM peak service now consists of:

  • Spadina cars every 2 minutes from King north to Bloor
  • Queen cars every 5’30” from King to Queen
  • Bathurst cars every 5’20” from King to College

Some of the turns to and from Spadina have working transit priority signals, while others don’t and the streetcars have to fight their way through traffic.

Weekend service is almost as frequent especially when extras are thrown in on Queen and Bathurst to compensate for diversion delays.

The new Bathurst/Queen intersection is now assembled, and concrete placement was in progress on the north-east quadrant when I visited earlier today.  Once that work is out of the way, the new intersection track must be connected to the existing tangent rails in all four directions.

This intersection, like other recent work, includes a large amount of vibration insulation including rubber sleeves around the running rails, and rubber encapsulation of the castings except where they are bolted together.

Ed Drass passed one observation about the Bathurst service on to me:  Why is the Bathurst car diverting via College, thereby missing an important destination, Western Hospital, even though the track layout allows a diversion via Dundas?  Did the people planning the diversion not know a Dundas route was possible?  Is there any possibility of changing the diversion before north-south service resumes on November 5?

Cherry Street EA Update

If you were not able to get to the Public Information Centre meeting last week, the handout can be accessed on the Toronto Waterfront website (scroll down to the end of the list of reports). 

This package does not include drawings of proposed treatments of the underpass at the railway viaduct.  Although there have been some proposals, detailed design and evaluation is part of the study of the area south of the railway including the complex problems of connecting both parts of Cherry, Lake Shore and Queen’s Quay.