What Is Ontario’s Transit Future?

Memo to Dalton McGuinty, Dwight Duncan and Kathleen Wynne:

Queen’s Park makes much of its forward-looking plans for transit, of its commitment to improving travel in the GTA, of its recognition that without more and better transportation, the GTA faces economic strangulation.  Many of the press releases and flattering photos remain available on the Premier’s website.

Now your budget tells the GTA that transit must wait, and begs the questions “how long” and “for what”.  You owe the people who supported your transit vision answers.

Do you still believe in transit?  Do you mean only to defer Metrolinx projects beyond the current financial crunch to smoothe the growth in provincial debt, or has “The Big Move” gone the way of so many other grand schemes for transit networks?  Will you ever return to funding local transit system operations, or are these at the mercy of priorities and financial pressures of municipal governments?

When you announced MoveOntario 2020, you trumpeted the importance of transit to the economic engine that is the GTA.  What has changed?  Do you think a few years’ delay won’t hurt too much?  What happens if years turn into decades?

Is a real commitment to transit too rich for your taste?  Do you worry that transit agencies at all levels lowball their project estimates and overspend at every opportunity?  Do you feel transit cannot compentently be delivered at either the municipal or provincial level?

How do you explain wasteful spending on a subway to Vaughan?  How do you explain discrepancies between the scale of infrastructure spending and demand projections in the Georgetown corridor and the actual claims of your own agency about likely future service?  How do you explain a farecard project whose cost projections have tripled and which shows no sign of implementation?

Will you engage GTA residents with an open discussion of the future of their transportation systems, or will you hide behind a secretive agency, unwilling to face hard decisions about transit funding?

Anyone can take the easy route.  Blame the economy for the current crisis, and seize the opportunity to rethink commitments.  Let the ham-fisted incompetence of one local project, St. Clair, tar the credibility of transit plans generally.  Say this is just a chance to take a breather in the race to better transit, that we’re not quitting the field.

What do you say to the growing population of the GTA, population that will swell whether you fund more transit construction or not?  What do you say to those who knew traffic congestion would always be with us, but thought its growth would be muted as much travel diverted from cars to transit lines?  How many photo ops with twirling windmills will you need to offset delays or cancellations in transit projects?

Ontario talks about its planned attack on the deficit, about its goals for better education systems and health care, but it is silent on the transit portfolio.  Where is the multi-year plan?  What has happened even to the “top 15” projects, let alone “The Big Move”?

You owe us an explanation, and you owe it to us now.

59 thoughts on “What Is Ontario’s Transit Future?

  1. What would happen if after the subway opened, the TTC simply refused to operate any service north of Steeles?

    Steve: That is simply not an option politically. It would simply be painted as an uncooperative TTC trying to blackmail other governments, and we would hear lots of speeches about wasteful spending elsewhere in the organization. The fact that savings, if any are available, should apply to the existing system, not to running trains into low density areas, would be lost in the shuffle.

    One other point to remember is that the extension starts at Downsview. That $14-million extra cost includes operations within the 416. The TTC has not broken down the relative profitability of the sections north and south of Steeles. A further complication comes if by 2015 there is an integrated fare structure between the GTA municipalities. The total revenue from trips that now pay a YRT and TTC fare may fall through integration, and the TTC’s revenue from cross-boundary riders may be lower than projected.


  2. We need privatization of the TTC, not the lines. The TTC is painfully inefficient. A private company would look for efficiencies as a good contract would have incentives such as cost/profit sharing.

    I have visited Japan many times. In Japan many subway lines are privately owned. Service is great. Subways are clean (partly the culture). Staff are friendly. Fares are low, in line what we pay here. True the population is dense, but subways typically are not as crowded as the Yonge line.

    How do those companies make a profit? Simply through innovation and efficiencies that any government will never be capable of. Most stations are owned by the same company that owns subway line. This is very valuable real estate because of the subway traffic. Most subway stops double as shopping centres. If the subway line can break even, the subway station real estate is all profit.

    I stated earlier that McGuinty has to go. Any alternative to a government that has a $21+ billion deficit is a better alternative. That deficit is unacceptable, economic crisis or not.

    Steve: In Toronto, unlike Japan, the TTC is not allowed to engage in real estate developments as a sideline to their transit business and as way to cross-subsidize subway operations. Also, the population density in Japan is much, much higher than that in Toronto, especially on our new and proposed suburban lines. This constrains the viability both of commercial developments and expensive rapid transit infrastructure.


  3. We need to rethink these grand transit expansion plans. The LRT proponents always said that we needed to build LRT in part because we couldn’t afford subway expansion. The sudden lack of funding for the most important LRT projects makes that position untenable.

    It’s not a matter of whether we can afford subway expansion, but whether we can obtain the funding. The best way to expand transit in Toronto is to continuously build it. Don’t ask for billions from the province for subway LRT or BRT, but secure a commitment for several hundred million dollars per year and use road tolls to open say, two kilometres of subway per year. In good economic times, more can be built.

    It’s a lot easier to cut or significantly delay a multi-billion dollar project in tough times. The MTO seems to be constantly expanding highways by extensions and widening plans. They never stop despite budget crises and the network is quite impressive today. Toronto should continue with the great success its had with the subway network.

    Even the Sheppard line moves as many people today (or more) as streetcar routes which are significantly longer then its tiny 5.5 kilometre length and which travel down some of downtown’s densest streets.

    Steve: The Sheppard line moves those people in a much shorter timeframe (the two peak periods) and in a more concentrated trip pattern (almost all riders are going inbound to Yonge in the am, outbound in the pm) than the streetcar lines. The King car, for example, operates almost like three separate routes with different demand patterns over its length and a lot of turnover. Therefore the number of passenger trips handled by one vehicle trip is considerably higher than on the Sheppard subway.

    This distinction is also important for Transit City because many of its lines are intended to handle not just subway-bound commuters, but trips between many points along the routes.


  4. Jonathon says “What would happen if after the subway opened, the TTC simply refused to operate any service north of Steeles?”

    Surely the TTC can, and will, continue to run many trains only to Downsview and base this on ridership figures. OK, they still must have station staff but not as many trains would be needed.

    Steve: Actually, a subway consumes a lot of expense just by sitting there. There are structures and systems to be monitored and maintained. Unless the system were formally mothballed, the support costs would not go away.


  5. Mr X.: “We need privatization of the TTC, not the lines. The TTC is painfully inefficient.”

    Not true. We’ve all heard the problems associated with the TTC, but they’re the result of overefficiency, not underefficiency.

    What, in as few words as possible, is wrong with the TTC? Well, it’s overcrowded. It’s dirty. The buses and the streetcars don’t come frequently enough. Fares are too high.

    What do we need to do to fix this? Well, we need more buses and streetcars on the road. We need more drivers to operate these vehicles. And we need more maintenance and janitorial personnel in order to improve the cleanliness of TTC property. And all of that costs money, which of course, drives up fares.

    The fact that today we are carrying more passengers than we carried in 1988, using three hundred FEWER buses and streetcars to do so shows you how efficient the TTC actually is, and it also shows why this efficiency is undesirable. What we really want is for there to be wasted space (i.e. empty space) on our buses and streetcars, and we want there to be more maintenance workers and janitorial staff to handle current needs, meaning that the available workload has to be divided up amongst more people, not less.

    By making back 75% of its operating costs from the farebox, the TTC is the second most efficient public transit agency in North America. That’s an indisputable fact. Only GO Transit has a higher farebox recovery ratio, and they benefit from the use of a fare-by-distance scheme. All other transit agencies in North America are less efficient: they receive a greater amount of government subsidy per rider than the TTC does. Even New Yorkers pay more for their transit services through their taxes (the MTA’s farebox recovery is 62%).

    There isn’t a single private company out there willing to take on public transit as a profitable proposition, because public transit simply isn’t profitable. It’s a mistake to say that public transit is a monopoly with no competition; there’s plenty of competition available in the form of the car, and the car has kicked public transit’s ass up and down the continent since the Second World War. In 1945 most public transit agencies were privately owned. In 1965, none of them were. What went on in the intervening 20 years was not an outbreak of socialist fervour, but the simple fact that all of these agencies went bankrupt, and municipalities had to choose between running the remnant operations as a social service, or living without any public transportation whatsoever.

    The marketplace has already decided that public transportation has no value — in terms of how it’s measured, at least: by profit. If we want the other benefits of public transit: the reduction of congestion on our roads, the provision of mobility to those who don’t have access to an automobile, and so on, then we as taxpayers have to fund it ourselves.

    The only way private enterprise will take on public transit is if we pay them the subsidy to operate the service. And York Region Transit effectively does just that. That’s a defensible position, but the benefits of privatization are not likely to be quite as extensive as you hope they are. TTC driver wages are not far out of line from those already offered by neighbouring agencies, by Montreal, or even the private operators taking people to Fallsview Casino and Rama. Indeed, I’ve heard anecdotally that the TTC and GO Transit have had difficulty retaining drivers, even with the union wages that they offer. Indeed, I heard it’s not uncommon for new hires to take the TTC or GO Transit’s training program, obtain their special bus drivers licenses, and then quit to go to the private operators. There, they drive buses where passengers are happy to be on board, and they get to keep tips.

    If we really want to improve the TTC, we need to pay for it. And if we want to go in there and improve the way the TTC does business, to my mind the best way to make the TTC accountable is to pressure our politicians to pressure for an internal shake-up within the organization. And that, to me, seems more likely to happen while we have TTC commissioners who have to face re-election this November. rather than a contracted agency who negotiates with us through lawyers.


  6. I think this should all give us a chance to do a rethink. The problem with Toronto, is that we deal in mega-projects. Realistically we should be dealing in micro-projects, for example building 1/2 mile of subway and 2 miles km of new streetcar line, each and every year. The way we choose those lines should be based on existing route traffic. When a bus line exceeds a certain traffic level, then it should be considered for a streetcar (or LRT, I’ll use streetcar for both), line, when a streetcar line exceeds a certain traffic level, then it is considered for conversion to subway. If this were the case, Jane would already be a streetcar line, and probably the Sheppard stubway would have be built from Jane station heading North.

    When a line converts from Bus to Streetcar, those buses would be reassigned to new or expanding routes in other parts of the city.

    This would be an improvement, because it would take the politics out of the equation, because bus route xxx is the only route exceeding capacity, it will be the next to be rebuilt as a streetcar line. The problem is that this kind of construction by rules should have been implemented in 1955. Which is why I picked 1/2 mile and 2 miles (in 1955 it would have been miles). It’s easier to find funding for a short section, then it does for a mega project. As for stations, a plain serviceable, but clean and tidy station is much preferable to a fancy one that is left to go derelict.

    Steve: It’s a nice idea, but expanding a network incrementally like that is not as simple as it seems because you go through a lot of interim stages where breaks in routes come at inconvenient locations.


  7. One of the responses to a comment stated that the TTC is not allowed to take part in the real-estate development. Why would that be?

    Also, if the Spadina extension were to be LRT instead of subway, would the estimated operating subsidy go down?

    Steve: For the TTC to participate in real-estate development, they would first have to own the land. Typically, when subway lines are built, the transit agency only acquires enough land permantly for the structures that will sit on the surface (entrances, bus loops, etc), as well as a subgrade easement through land owned by others. Buying land outright with public money, only to turn around and make a profit by building on it, would at a minimum increase expropriation costs to reflect the value of the future building. In some jurisdictions, the state gives land already in the public realm (in effect with no public cost except the foregone revenue it might bring) to a developer as an incentive to built the transit line. It’s just another form of subsidy.

    As for an LRT line in the Spadina corridor, the costs would be lower than subway, but this has to be seen in the wider context of an integrated LRT network on Finch Avenue as well as for part of York Region. The idea would be to have a wider regional LRT network with York U as a major hub. That was a lovely dream years ago, but they wanted their subway and would accept nothing less.


  8. I’m not a total fan of the Transit City eg. WWLRT and part of Jane. But with the challenges of providing better transit into areas of older suburban TO, we have to do better, and this deferral is obnoxious. Beyond that, we have to be very suspicious of how the politricks of gaining electoral advantages by siphoning revenues from older core TO are resulting in a drain to TO.

    It smells badly; and we absolutely need to move on reducing our greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector.


  9. The deferral of any LRT line will have a major impact on TTC’s bus and driver needs going forward. While I am in general in favour of TTC procuring articulated buses, I think that need just got a lot more urgent.

    Steve: Except, of course, that Queen’s Park just killed the program that pays for new buses.


  10. Am I crazy, or did David Miller have a contingency plan for this exact situation? Didn’t he state that without provincial funding, TC would still go forward, but at a much slower pace?

    Steve: That was one idea, but it was before (a) some of the costs for TC rose thanks to scope creep and inflation, and (b) the city decided to underwrite 2/3 of the cost of the new TTC streetcar fleet. Personally, I think that earlier projections for many transit projects that included a 1/3 federal share might have been good tactics if we could get Ottawa to the table (when times were good), but doomed many plans because of affordability problems at the municipal and provincial levels. MoveOntario shares this problem with Transit City in that both plans assumed a 1/3 federal share.


  11. Michael Vanner says: Lending huge sums to automakers to save a few jobs rather than spending money on infrastructure to make Ontario more efficient and productive, an issue that all of Canada faces.”

    Hey folks,…. ever wonder where the Ontario Liberal government came up with this $4 Billion number to “phase out” GTA area transit projects?

    “Premier Dalton McGuinty is dismissing Opposition criticism about the value of Ontario’s $4.3-billion bailout for General Motors and Chrysler – calling it a humane and financially responsible move.” [Link to article]

    We better hope GM and Chrysler can pay back that “loan” so we can see our $4 Billion of “phased out” public transit projects again. At least now we know where the Ontario Liberal government place public transit infrastructure vs auto sector.

    Geee,… I wonder what would happen if we “phase out” our Ontario income tax when we fill in our tax forms,…


  12. While I do agree with your whole argument, I strongly disagree with your statement about wasting money on a subway line to Vaughan. I thought that if anyone would understand the importance of this line, not only for the near future i.e. York Unversity students) but for the broader future (i.e. Vaughan metropolitan centre and connections to Brampton ZUm/VIVA/ GO transit), it would be you.

    I think we can all agree that most of the transit expansion we need should have been built yesterday. I don’t know why you insist on attacking the Spadina extension past Steeles, when we all know that in 20 years nobody in parliament would have had the guts or the will to extend the Spadina line from your proposed terminal of Steeles to what would then be a very dense city centre. I enjoy and agree with many of your arguments and posts, and I love that you bring up arguments and add to the overall transit forum throughout the GTA, but sometimes I feel like you have an overly Toronto-centric way of looking at transit expansion.

    Steve: My view of the Vaughan extension is that, indeed, it is very Toronto-centric and that is the specific problem I have with the line. York Region talks about establishing a BRT network that would, in the future, be upgraded to LRT, but never seems to get beyond the BRT stage. Subway extensions serve predominantly north-south travel and will moreover be heavily weighted to downtown travel, with a lesser component to York U. A goodly chunk of the support for the line comes from those who would develop even more residential housing close to a rapid transit connection to downtown. Anything that happens locally is a bonus, but its traffic will not, in the main, originate on the subway.

    If the viewpoint had been to start building a York Region LRT network off of the ends of the subway lines, with good east-west and north-south connections, then you would have a network that really supported new development as well as travel within the Region. As long as the planning principle is “just one more station” on the subway, you never reach the point where a transition to a local network can begin, but you soak up lots of money building and operating a subway at way below its capacity.

    Unfortunately, LRT has been tarred so badly through a combination of misinformation, by the St. Clair project, by those who attack it as a “Miller” plan, and by the general reluctance to engage in the debate about surface construction and loss of road space, that it’s a dirty word in everyone’s ears.

    York U and Vaughan Centre could have been nodes in a larger rail network, but this won’t happen with current plans.


  13. The problem with saying that in 20 years there will be demand, is that that is true anywhere. You could draw a line on a map, and build a subway there, and within 30 years it would be built up to some unreasonable density. That is not good urban planning. When Vaughan Metro Centre or whatever they call it actually has some signs of impending density, then we can talk about LRT or subway, but not now when so many other places actually have the ridership, and density already.


  14. Steve says

    The tripling is for the Toronto component of Presto originally estimated at about $150-million, and now rising to the $475m range. Nobody at any level of government has explained how this will be paid for. There will be a few trial Presto installations in Toronto this year, but not a full rollout

    I agree with you that the increase in forecast implementation cost is a matter of concern. However, I am unaware of where the $475m figuer comes from – have the TTC published anything explaining it?

    Steve: This figure is taken from the TTC budget books for 2010.

    The TTC operates about 1600 buses, 250 streetcars and 69 subway/SRT stations. Assuming 2 readers per bus, 4 per streetcar, and 20 per station that makes 5,580 readers or over $80,000 per reader, which quite frankly seems absurb. Even if half the capital cost is in the back-end equipment, then the cost per reader seems way out of proportion with anything sensible.

    Steve: You must also add all the stations (subway and surface) for Transit City routes which do not have their own provision for fare collection equipment in their base estimates. There is a separate capital budget allowance for this.

    With regard to the roll-out, I feel you are being rather Toronto-centric (although I know this weblog is Toronto-focused, you do normally take broader view of things). By this time next year, Presto will be fully rolled out in Hamilton, Burlington, Oakville, Mississagua, Brampton, York Region, Durham Region and on all of GO’s buses and trains. (My understanding was that all the other transit systems have had to pay the installation costs themselves, although in fairness, they probably require significantly less work per resident than Toronto.)

    Steve: The problem is that Toronto is being forced into implementing Presto, but nobody has explained how we should pay for it in the midst of an already-constrained budget. If Metrolinx thinks they can do it for significantly less than the TTC’s projections, then it is on their shoulders to prove that the TTC is wrong.

    A related and important issue about the backend systems is the degree of sophistication they possess, or not, to implement a variety of fare structures. Because nobody wants to talk about integrated fares and increased subsidies, we never know whether, in the future, we might have big discussions about fares only to discover that “the computer can’t do it”. Such are the problems of carrying on a major project without public information.


  15. So we all agree this is bad. Toronto has been neglected by the Province and the Feds for too long.

    How do we start fighting this?


  16. If you had only 4 Billion of the 9 Billion which transit projects would you choose to get built?

    Has construction started on York Region Busway?

    Steve: The front page of the Metrolinx site claims that VIVA construction started in December.

    I don’t want to get into cutting $4b if we cannot also look at the entire package of projects in The Big Move (and MoveOntario). Transit City is taking it hard because those projects happen to be first up, but there’s no guarantee that 5 years from now, something else won’t crowd them out again.

    The basic point is that The Big Move is a $50b program over 25 years. This implies $2b annually, plus inflation, plus additional operating costs. Cutting spending now shows that Queen’s Park is simply not willing to address the new revenues needed to actually fund a project on this scale.


  17. Maybe it is time for a new political party to form, along the lines of the Bloc Quebecois, it’s time for Toronto to form it’s own party – The Toronto Party.

    With 23 of 107 provincial seats within its boundary, Toronto comprises of 21% of the MLAs sent to Queens Park.

    In the last election, the bulk of those seats went to the Liberals, with a handful to the NDP. If most or all of those 23 seats went to the Toronto Party, neither Liberals or PCs would likely be able to form a majority government, with the Toronto Party holding the balance of power, where the interests of Toronto must be taken into consideration for every political decision.

    It’s time for the rest of Ontario to listen to the needs of Toronto instead of milking the city for all its worth!

    A new political bloc or independence for Toronto now!

    Steve: Sadly there is already a “Toronto Party”, a fringe bunch of neo-cons.


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