The new year brings a dark economic climate, worries about job losses, falling revenues for all governments and a pervasive sense that we have not yet seen the worst. Whether this is media disaster-mongering, a realistic view of the future, or something in between remains to be seen.
What is quite clear is that an economic model that underpinned the past decades has run its course. Can the same level of activity — jobs, travel, government investment — be sustained into 2009 and the next decade?
Transit is only a small part of this, and yet decisions made about transit funding have long-lasting effects. Through my “career” as a transit activist, I have seen the boom-and-bust cycles of funding and watched as grand schemes for transit investment disintegrate when the economy falters and governments lose interest. Too often, transit was something everyone wanted to champion, but nobody wanted to pay for.
A major problem throughout the North American transit industry, not just in Toronto, is that transit capital spending is viewed as an economic stimulus, a job creation (or preservation) mechanism, not as an essential part of what makes urban economies work. The dominance of auto travel (and the lack of transit alternatives) puts transit down many voters’ priority lists. People are comfortable in their cars which, for all their problems and costs, work. The same cannot said for transit. You cannot get to work on a press release.
The long lead times for transit projects bring a typical cycle:
- Governments with money to spend start to think about investing in transit.
- Plan, Plan, Plan. Much work for consultants and facilitators (less so with the new streamlined approval process).
- Finally a map, and a few lines that get into detailed design.
- Ooops! A recession.
We are a bit better at it this time around. We have many plans in the hopper and we haven’t (yet) stopped everything in its tracks waiting for the next boom. The root problem is that transit is not something we spend on regularly, but only when we can drum up a few billion for someone’s pet project.
Where does this leave us for 2009?
The TTC suffers from severe funding problems both in its operating and capital budgets. Metrolinx (and Queen’s Park) issue wonderful press releases, but their generosity does not extend to local operations. To its credit, the Metrolinx Board recognizes this problem (they are mostly municipal politicians, after all), but any change in funding strategy is unlikely to appear for at least a year, too late to help in 2009.
TTC capital planning has pushed major expenditures — new streetcars, transit city, new subway cars — off to the future for several years, but the luxury of deferral is gone. Funding for many projects is uncertain.
To complicate this, TTC’s own capital planning has a long history of “surprise” projects that appear “next year” with no advance warning in the five-year budget projections. This problem is at the heart of the Yonge Subway Extension discussions about capacity, fleet size, station configuration and alternative services. We should not be approving a project with only half of its true costs on the table.
On the operating side, there is a continued pressure for more service and a larger fleet, but this has not been supported by actually buying the vehicles and hiring operators. City Council bears some of the blame for this because it held back on capital for fleet renovation and expansion to the detriment of service.
Service quality continues to be spotty as discussed elsewhere on this site. The TTC has a long list of excuses for this, few of which address problems of their own organization and management of service. We are dangerously close to hearing that it is simply impossible to run good, reliable local transit service.
The proposed fare freeze in 2009 looks nice on paper, but it will force the TTC to make cuts elsewhere in its budget. How much service will not operate? How many operators won’t be hired because we can’t afford them? How many people will wait in vain for a bus or streetcar to show up reliably? We risk slipping back to making do year by year, and this must not happen again.
The TTC owes Council a statement on the impact of the fare freeze. This may rankle some political feathers, but we need to understand the tradeoffs involved. There is little difference between a “tax freeze” and a “fare freeze” — both have the effect of limiting revenue growth. We already know the impact of tax giveaways on public sector spending capabilities, and fares are simply a variation on that theme. Freezes cannot go on forever.
By 2009, the TTC will be close to the 68% cost recovery of the early 1970s, but costs will inevitably go up. With them also rise the subsidies and the fares, probably above inflation if ridership and service increase. Future service quality is threatened if City Council dictates an “inflation only” subsidy formula.
The worst possible TTC response would be to make invisible cuts. The last time they did this, assuring us year after year that there were no problems, the result was the Russell Hill subway crash.
Transit must be seen to be a good, worthwhile, valued community resource, not as something that is for “everyone else” who can’t afford a car. Service quality is the most important measure to transit users, and the biggest selling point in making the system “ours”, not “theirs”.
The recent GO2020 announcement showed that GO Transit has not been sleeping while Metrolinx beavered away with its plan. Indeed, there are important differences between the two agencies’ view of the future.
I tend to put my money on GO which has been in business long enough to know one end of a railway train from another, and to understand what is possible with mainline rail technology.
Of particular note in GO2020 is the idea that the cost recovery level for GO will be allowed to drop well below its current stratospheric level. Getting more than 90% of your revenue from the farebox may give GO bragging rights, but it limits the ability to add services in less profitable areas. The network would be condemned largely to the peak period without the ability to run some services at a lower cost recovery.
This change will allow GO to become a true regional, all day system, and travellers can begin to think of its routes as a backbone on which to build trips that don’t go to Bay and Front for 8:30 am. The impact on local transit operations will be intriguing as they too will have to change from a peak period, peak direction orientation to all day, bidirectional service designs. The one missing piece in this rosy view is fare integration.
GO still has to work on schedule adherence and run the trains on the schedule they publish. On time performance needs to be measured for key, well-used trips, not averaged over the entire day with the lightly-used runs counting equally to fully-loaded ones.
The Union Station project, with final details to be announced in the next few months, will transform both GO’s ability to handle passengers and the role of the station in its neighbourhood. After years of plans and false starts, Union Station is now seen as a transportation hub, something that deserves public funding, rather than a faded annoyance to be tarted up as a shopping mall with a train station in the basement.
Metrolinx has the ability to do much good work both in co-ordinating transit projects and mediating between competing demands for capital, but this will require several major changes.
Funding must be at a realistic level for the scope of Metrolinx’ plans, for the ongoing needs of individual agencies (notably TTC and GO), and for the day-to-day operation of transit services across the region. Inadequate funding leads to competition and conflict, to the “build mine first” mentality that typifies planning in Toronto.
Metrolinx (and Queen’s Park) must not hide from the issue of new revenue sources. Leaders are elected to lead, and telling us we can have something for nothing is a perpetuation of bankrupt policies. Creative accounting is only a stopgap, a way to postpone costs to future budgets, not a permanent solution. One way or another, we have public debt on which we pay interest, or a privately owned asset on which we pay rent. We can argue about the relative efficiency of program delivery schemes by the public and private sectors, but the future expenditures cannot be avoided.
Metrolinx must address its credibility in the 905. That’s a real challenge because even the “boldest” plans produced small transit modal splits decades in the future in some areas. Anyone hoping for congestion relief on local roads or the highway system will be badly disappointed because, at the most optimistic, new regional transit services will barely keep pace with population growth.
Metrolinx must give up dreams of becoming an operating agency, and the proposed consolidation with GO Transit should be scrapped. Let GO and the other local agencies do what they do well. Absorbing the role of existing operators is a huge exercise in bureaucracy and power sharing. Fare and service integration schemes, real “deliverables” to transit riders, do not require a single operator, only the will to implement the organizational and technical machinery.
I have lived through the amalgamation of large public sector organizations on the inside, and cannot warn too strongly about the loss of productivity and diversion of attention from the real work of our transit systems lurking in a forced marriage.
Metrolinx must stop being such a secretive, distrustful organization. Throughout the development of its Regional Plan, information was closely held, and those who advocated for more transparency and for an open discussion of options were regarded as enemies. Metrolinx “consulted”, but it wanted cheerleaders, not critics. This is no way for a major public agency to behave.
If Metrolinx is to be relevant, to be successful in advocating transit spending at a time of fiscal restraint, it needs to be open and to embrace true debate. People should believe in what Metrolinx is doing.
Regional planning by Metrolinx and other agencies must review projects not in isolation, but as related parts of a network. We are not building 57 different projects, we are building one system.
Waterfront Toronto is not primarily a transit agency, but its projects can transform a blank space in the city’s mental map to a huge new “town” on the edge of downtown. Will transit be part of this development? Will we see the odd bus wandering through a neighbourhood choked with cars, or will the planned LRT network materialize?
As usual, the problem is money. It’s “in the bank” for the redesign of Queen’s Quay West into a smaller local street, transit, cycling and pedestrian mall, but the eastern waterfront is another matter. Plans for redesign of the Cherry, Lake Shore, Parliament street system have unscrambled problems with connecting the Cherry LRT through to the eastern waterfront. The Don mouth realignment and park system looks beautiful on paper. The new neighbourhoods will house tens of thousands, but the market for these units must exist.
Further west, we have the question of the Bay Street tunnel and Union Station. The TTC scheme for a new Union Loop coupled with the number of lines planned for it (Waterfront West via Bremner, Spadina/Harbourfront, Waterfront East) strains credibility. Any new portal for the Queen’s Quay east service is sure to bring controversy, and the year-long wait for a definitive proposal has strained relations with the community.
Waterfront Toronto knows how to engage its various audiences — business, political, advocacy, neighbourhood — but if the funding doesn’t come, we could be left with plans of what might have been.
Queen’s Park & Ottawa
The folks with the money are rather quiet these days. Ottawa has not traditionally funded urban transit, although it sticks in its oar when “national interests” like an Expo, an Olympic Games, or an election might be at stake. Ontario is unlikely to show its hand before Ottawa produces a budget and the country knows whether we still have Stephen Harper as PM.
Without getting into the politics, the problem with Ottawa funding (regardless of the party in power) is that it involves a vast amount of red tape. Only projects that exactly meet the criteria of the day are allowed to proceed. For the Liberals, this meant that only “green” buses could be purchased even though they cost 50% more than regular ones. For the Tories, everything has to pass through the lens of a possible private sector scheme. Regular readers know my opinion of both camps: just give us the money and get out of our way.
In Ontario, Queen’s Park went through sticker shock with the Metrolinx Plan. The original “Bold” scheme came in at about $90-billion, but by the time the final plan landed on the table this was whittled down to about $50-billion. This does not include the cost of existing maintenance and operating demands by transit agencies, nor of future costs associated with Metrolinx projects.
Both governments need to avoid being sucked into schemes that keep politicians, construction companies, engineering firms, property developers and carbuilders happy, but don’t add much useful to the transit network.
If Metrolinx does its job properly and produces real comparative evaluations of its many projects, we have a fighting chance of seeing some balance and, dare I say it, common sense in spending priorities. However, there are meddlers and lobbyists. With so much money on the table, everyone is hungry for the biggest share possible.
Is It Just The Money?
Money for large public enterprises will always be a problem, and we spend an inordinate amount of time just trying to pull together funding for individual projects, for “this year’s” budget problems. This turns organizations like the TTC away from its basic job of running transit service, let alone improving it, because they’re never sure if they can afford it. Years of “making do” lead to an uninspired mentality.
At the political level, that lack of inspiration is compounded by the lack of commitment, of advocacy for transit as a vital part of the city. Slowly this is changing. Instead of building megamonuments to one former Mayor’s ego, we are actually looking at a transit network. However, local surface operations still must compete against the view that a half-empty bus is an opportunity to cut service.
The Ridership Growth Strategy is turning this around, but the idea that service must be available and frequent to be attractive riders is far from entrenched in our planning or budgetary frameworks. If cutbacks come, we could see service hacked away from the network even while we spend billions on subway lines that will be lightly used except for peak traffic.
The challenge in 2009 for everyone connected with transit will be to maintain the advocacy for continued improvements in the face of calls for fiscal restraint. These must be real improvements, not window dressing. Telling me when the next car will arrive is nice, but making it arrive in less than 30 minutes is better.
Everything we do for transit is for the long haul, for the effect it will have a decade or more in the future. Getting people to look that far off when they have immediate needs is hard work, but this is the task of all who support the health and growth of our transit systems.
Happy New Year to everyone!