Transit City — The Movie

Today’s TTC meeting brought us an update on the various parts of the Transit City plan.  You can read the full report yourself, and there is a quick review of the status of various lines and studies below.

Meanwhile, the TTC is starting a media campaign to tell people about Transit City and about LRT.  You can watch the video on the TTC’s website.  Although it is a breath of fresh air to see the TTC promoting LRT after all these years, there are a few oddities in this piece (the timings where they occur are included below).

  • (0:39) “Work on Transiy City is already well underway.”  Hmmm … a few traffic barriers does not make a construction project.  I wonder why they don’t show the upheaval on St. Clair?  Shortly later we see a new car mockup superimposed on the westbound stop at Yonge Street.
  • (0:55)  “What is Light Rail Transit?”  We learn that LRT is used around the world including, wait for it, in Vancouver!  Er, ah, there’s a heritage streetcar line running with a former BC Electric interurban car, but no LRT.  This is a howling error.  Other cities shown on the world map are many fewer than the actual inventory.
  • (1:15)  “LRT can operate in a street, but has the flexibility to operate underground like a subway.”  LRT advocates will be amused to hear that their chosen mode has the “flexibility” to be just like a subway, when the real issue is the inflexibility and cost of 100% grade separated modes.
  • (1:50) Light rail is bigger than standard streetcars, and allows level boarding from platforms.  It’s nice to hear how LRT is a streetcar, but not a streetcar.
  • (2:10) LRT cars don’t need loops!  Amazing what you can do with modern technology.  See also Kennedy Station Loop.
  • (2:20) All door loading … but wait .. it’s a subway car!
  • (2:38) LRT will be separated from the effects of traffic congestion, not to mention pesky “transit priority” signals if the animation can be believed.
  • (3:32) Streetscaping.  Aside from the gigantic, fast-growing trees (maybe they’re from Vancouver too), note the typical suburban layout with wide setbacks of buildings from the street.  Contrast this with later illustrations of dense suburban redevelopment.
  • (4:05) Transit will be an even better travel alternative.  With a new subway train?  What’s that doing here?

The map of projects reflects the original Transit City announcement because many possible changes are still under study by both TTC and Metrolinx.

Transit City project updates follow the break.

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Diesels, Not Hybrids, At Least For Now (Updated)

Updated October 23:  The TTC amended the staff recommendations by adding two clauses, roughly as follows:

  • The TTC should withhold award of the optional 120-bus add-on order for clean diesels with Daimler Buses until the problem with batteries on the existing fleet are resolved.  If this is not done, the TTC should go with an alternative supplier.
  • The TTC should investigate conversion of the 2009 bus puchase from Hybrid to Clean Diesel.  Staff should explore the options for contract termination as well as the impact of the technology change on funding from various sources.

It is unclear how the first point can be achieved given that the cutoff date for exercising the existing contract’s add-on provision is October 31, 2008.

At this point it is clear that the 2010 bus order will be diesel, and there is a strong move to convert the 2009 order as well notwithstanding possible advances in battery technology.

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A Slightly Less Grand Plan

Ontario’s Finance Minister, Dwight Duncan, yesterday announced that the province will run a half-billion dollar deficit thanks to the international financial upheavals and declining economic outlook.  In this context, I spent the day at a Metrolinx “stakeholders’ meeting” where we discussed details of the Draft Regional Transportation Plan and Investment Strategy.  The whole discussion has a surreal air because nobody is quite sure where the billions to pay for this plan will come from.

There is reasonable agreement about the need for better transit, but much suspicion of whether this plan will join its predecessors on library shelves.

In the informal post-meeting chats, I was asked what I would do if the promissed $11.6-billion MoveOntario money didn’t materialize, if we had to cut back the scope of the “top priority” projects to fit a tighter budget.  This is too big an issue for a short chat, and it deserves a post of its own.

Any budgetary cutback discussion must first consider whether to make the “death of 1000 cuts” or to look hard at big ticket items.  If you need to defer or cut spending, there is more money to be found in large projects than small ones, but we may skip reviews of smaller items that really don’t belong at the top of the pile.

A major problem lies in the dearth of information Metrolinx has published about the detailed performance projections and roles of each component in the plan.  We have demand forecasts only for year 2031 where the combined effect of future job and population growth interact with a completed network.  The published data show only peak point counts, not the demands for each network link.  There is no way to understand which links are cost-effective, and there is no data for intermediate states (such as after the “first 15” are built) to show whether they are an appropriate use of whatever resources might be available.

Metrolinx must publish this information as soon as possible.  Meaningful discussions of cutbacks are impossible without it.

This brings me to the “Business Case Analyses” that are in progress already for some of these lines.  These analyses are proceeding in the old, worn-out style of looking at each project individually rather than collections of projects for their combined effect on the network.  From the 2031 projections, we can see that the regional express rail lines and other new major elements have a big impact on demand on the existing network.  Notably, the forecast overload of the subway system doesn’t materialize because there are other high-capacity lines where the demand can flow.

Meanwhile, the TTC’s report on the north Yonge extension to Richmond Hill raises an old, hare-brained scheme to add a third platform at Bloor-Yonge station for increased capacity.  I won’t go into a detailed discussion here beyond saying that this is horrendously complex and expensive, but at least the TTC finally recognizes that subway capacity involves more than new signalling and more trains. 

The real question, however, is whether the money would be better spent on alternate services to divert riding with new options for travel to the core area.  Should some projects — the Richmond Hill regional express and/or the east leg of the Downtown Relief subway — be moved up as alternatives or as key pre-requisites?  That’s the kind of comparative analysis Metrolinx and the TTC are not doing, but should.

Next we come to project phasing.  Do we really need a line all the way to Richmond Hill?  Is there a shorter “phase I” that will have significant benefits without the cost of the full line?  Analysis on an all-or-nothing basis doesn’t give us staging options.

We need to be open about “the untouchables”, the projects with political clout that soak up billions of dollars because someone wants to see them built.  There is no point in talking about fiscal restraint if billions in proposed spending can’t be reviewed.  A related question is how that “top 15” list came into existence in the first place. 

Some time ago, the Metrolinx Board approved this grab-bag as likely top candidates that should be analyzed in more detail.  However, that analysis isn’t even started for many of them, and there is every possibility that the analyses may show that some projects don’t pull their weight, at least in the short term.  I may be splitting hairs, but that “top 15” has gone from candidates for early study to the definitive list of first projects without benefit of formal approval.  If we are to have a spending review, we must stop assuming that this list has the force of detailed review and blessing.

Oddly, it’s almost an afterthought in the Draft RTP — Metrolinx doesn’t even include a map showing the network with only these lines completed.

The subway to Vaughan is a special case.  There is supposed to be a trust fund holding the funding from Queen’s Park, Ottawa, York Region and Toronto.  Is this money really sitting in a bank somewhere?  Does the provincial share come out of the $11.6-billion MoveOntario pot?  Can we step back and ask questions about why this line is so important?  For starters, someone has to reconcile demand projections in York Region’s own EA that would make the Sheppard subway look busy with the impetus to build this line.  Metrolinx does not break out the section north of Steeles as a separate project, and the published demand for the line gives only the peak point value (likely just north of Downsview Station).

The TTC is already studying alternatives to the SRT including LRT conversion of the existing line.  The original recommendation to keep Skytrain technology only made sense for a line that remained at its existing length or had a short extension.  The further north it goes (Markham is a mooted destination), the less practical and more expensive Skytrain is relative to LRT.  Keeping the RT was a bad recommendation skewed by a desire to preserve Bombardier’s showcase technology, and we cannot afford to avoid this debate.

On the Sheppard/Finch corridor, current thinking is headed toward an eastward extension of the Finch LRT to Don Mills (where it would connect to the Don Mills line) and a westward extension of the subway to Downsview.  These may be viable projects in the long term, but we have to consider them separately from the original Transit City proposals.  Indeed, the Don Mills LRT isn’t even in the “top 15”, and there isn’t much point building the Finch line east of Yonge until it has something to connect with.

At Finch Station, there are big problems with the bus terminal and with the design of a future LRT interchange.  What happens if the subway extension gets underway and much of the bus operation shifts north?

On Eglinton, a line whose projected peak ridership is similar to both of the subway extensions, but whose extent provides rapid transit service to a far larger area, we are faced with an expensive central tunneled section that cannot be avoided.  Indeed, the size of this project requires that it be started sooner rather than later so that its benefits as a key part of the overall network can be available.

In the Don Mills corridor, should the DRL end at Danforth or continue north to Eglinton with a major transit hub linking the Eglinton and Don Mills LRT lines to the DRL subway?  This won’t be part of the “top 15” list, but the Don Mills Transit City study would make a lot more sense if the TTC stopped trying to shoehorn an LRT right-of-way into Pape or Broadview.  That scheme (and related alignments) are holdovers from the days when this was a BRT study, and this nonsense has to stop.

On the Weston/Brampton rail corridor, why do we persist with the fantasy of the Toronto Air Rail Link (TARL, formerly called “Blue 22”) that will chew up track space for a premium fare service on the same route as a proposed regional express service to Brampton?  How much does the private sector-proponent of the line hope to make from this service?  Can they be bought off?  Is it cheaper to not build Blue 22 and devote the resources to upgrading GO in the same corridor?

What are the possibilities for the CPR North Toronto Subdivision?  What options do we have for cross-region service via this corridor especially as an alternative way for riders from the north-east to get into the city without using the RT/subway network?  Negotiating with CPR won’t be easy, but doing nothing may condemn us to building rapid transit capacity elsewhere we might not actually require.

If there is a common thread in all of this, it’s a simple message:  Metrolinx started off designing a network, and they must not lose sight of the network view of any solutions.  Look at revisions to the plan as a whole, look at where the benefits are greatest in the short term so that we spend what money is available on projects that will show real improvements for transit.

Toronto has decades of making wrong, expensive choices, and transit suffers a well-deserved reputation as an “also ran” thanks to those decisions.  Provincial belt-tightening is just the opportunity we need to focus on what really works, on what we really need.