Queen’s Park, Metrolinx & the TTC (Updated)

Late last week must have been slow for real news when both the Star and Globe devoted considerable space to musings at the Pink Palace about a Metrolinx TTC takeover. Furious backpedalling all ’round with denials from Metrolinx’ Rob MacIsacc and cries of “hands off” from Mayor Miller.

Lurking under this sort of scheme are claims that just don’t hold up to scrutiny.

First up is the oft-heard desire for “seamless integration” of transit. Boiled down to its essentials, this means I should be able to ride from anywhere to anywhere for one fare with convenient integrated service wherever a change of route or mode is needed.

Riding on the back of this is a scheme for fare-by-distance charging and smart cards. While this may keep the technology companies and those who value appearance over substance as transit policy, this is totally the wrong end of the “solution”.

If the desire were to give everyone an integrated fare between the TTC and the 905 systems, we could do it tomorrow either with the GTA pass or some area-specific version. The big problems are how to divide up the revenue, what to charge and whether there will actually be any service in the 905 with which a 416 rider can seamlessly connect.

These are organizational and financial issues. As long as each transit system is expected to keep its own books, raise its own revenue, and account for every penny (perish the thought we might needlessly run one more bus than necessary), the rules of the game create agencies that defend their revenue turf.

As long as we maintain artificial distinctions between who gets to pick up riders on which street (again partly a turf war), we will have duplicate services.

As long as we starve transit agencies for funds, the clear goal is not to improve service but to minimize costs. This is totally contrary to any claims that our public goal is to get more people riding transit.

You don’t need a quarter-billion’s worth of high technology to fix these problems which, indeed, will still remain if we don’t fix the underlying way in which revenue is allocated to operators. If the fare barrier at Steeles Avenue is eliminated, somebody is going to have to pick up the difference — the TTC and its riders, York Region or Queen’s Park. Nobody wants that debate, but we can sidestep it so long as we focus on Presto! rather than on how it will be used.

It’s ironic that many cross-border services are now operated by TTC on contract to other agencies and the only “impediment” is the fare at Steeles Avenue. Maybe York Region would opt to pay the TTC more to carry its customers. Maybe a special subsidy could be arranged just as it is for Oakville passengers connecting with GO Transit. Why is it okay to have a special fare arrangement for GO Transit feeder services, but not for 905-to-TTC riders?

The “seamless barrier” is one of those transit myths that get dragged out regularly to avoid discussing the real issues. The line between the 416 and 905 could disappear tomorrow if only someone wanted to pay for it and co-ordinate the overlapping services where they exist.

This brings me to that shining example of Ontario’s contribution to transit, the GO system. Remember that GO is not paid for entirely by Queen’s Park, but levies a tithe against the municipalities. Only last week, a tripartite agreement with Ottawa was finally settled when Toronto agreed to pony up its share of a GO Transit funding request.

Metrolinx has been churning out discussion papers (green ones to solicit comment now, white ones to set policy soon) like sausages, and they hope this will lead to a Regional Transit Plan by “Spring 2008”. Whether they mean March 21 or June 22, I am not sure, but even the later date is very optimistic. Moreover, it is troubling because we recently learned that the RTP is also to stand in for the first two steps of the already shortened Environmental Assessment process.

We risk having a regional plan rammed through with little opportunity for comment or intelligent debate that could commit us to a complex and explicitly laid-out network long before we have a chance to consider how it will all fit together. Moreover, there is no mandatory ongoing review and process for change of the plan making “getting it right” at the outset all the more critical.

While Queen’s Park muses about a TTC takeover, they should look closer to home first. GO Transit has been in the commuter rail business for decades, with small forrays into buses, but with the focus on peak period, downtown oriented services. It does not matter what the agency name might be, there is a need for long-distance capacity around the GTA that does not stop at every lamppost. Riders in Oshawa don’t want a tour of Pickering, Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke on their way to Mississauga where they might arrive just in time to go back again.

GO’s service reliability raises questions about its ability to take on a larger role. Riders are cranky about crowding and unexpected changes in schedules, and there is even an online petition demanding a fare rebate when service runs late.

GO, however, has been at least as constrained for funding as the TTC and thinks only of its core services. Expansion comes in small jumps because they have no firm commitment from any level of government to do more.

I might believe that a Provincial agency could do a passable job with the TTC if the current one were actually looking beyond a narrow mandate as a commuter service. Imagine the example Queen’s Park could show of what their bounty could bring to transit. So far, what we have is unimpressive as a replacement for the TTC.

This is not to say that the TTC couldn’t use some housecleaning. However, any “new broom” had better know what it’s doing, not just come in to sell off the furniture and declare huge but ephemeral savings.

One particularly troubling aspect to some comments in this debate is the political slant. Adam Giambrone is out-and-out NDP, and David Miller certainly is not a Tory. Toronto Council is, if not in the grip of the left wing, at least not quite as right-wing as it was in the Lastman days.

What’s the solution? Take them over? Well we tried that with amalgamation, and after a few years of flailing around, look what we have: a moderately left Council with a moderately left Mayor. The voters have spoken.

If anyone has designs on the TTC or on GTAH transit in general, let the decisions be made for legitimate reasons of management, finance, operations and community involvement, not because some politician wants to score points for a coming election. We have seen decades of Provincial interference in transit both in funding and in technology choices that had much more to do with so-called economic development and pandering to voters than with production of useful transit infrastructure.

Message to Dalton McGuinty: Leave the TTC alone. Let Metrolinx continue with its planning, and don’t force the issue of a final plan so quickly and so permanently that we regret everything and start over in ten years.

Recognize that building and running more transit, getting a bigger share of the travel market, is going to cost a lot of money, and some of that will come from the public purse. Keep your chequebook handy.

Don’t substitute the illusion of action — organization and re-organization — for the real needs of transit systems throughout the GTAH.