A few days ago, Queen’s Park dropped a bombshell on local and regional transit plans by announcing the deferral of $4-billion of previously announced support for transit construction. Details were left for Metrolinx to work out.
Pity poor Metrolinx, and its Board who are about to embark on their annual retreat. This will be no wine and canapés in the woods outing, but some very hard slogging for “Metrolinx II”. This is a Board that did not work through the creation of The Big Move, and many members are short on local planning and political experience. All the same, it’s their job to sort out what is to be done.
I’m not a Metrolinx Board member. I wasn’t even on their Advisory Panel. But if I were, here’s the advice I would give.
Metrolinx is stuck in a policy vacuum. Queen’s Park claims it has not lost interest in transit, merely that it wants to hold off a while to get the financial house in better order and concentrate on portfolios more demanding of short-term spending. We have to take them at their word, but this doesn’t really tell us what support for transit will look like whenever it will materialize.
Any program that assumes one specific level of support is doomed to irrelevance on two counts:
- If spending priorities change for any reason, the program will be out-of-step with available funding and we will be back to the familiar position of waiting for yet another proposal while the clock ticks away.
- A single program without alternatives includes many assumptions and tradeoffs that may be hidden in private discussions, and which preclude vital public debate on what role transit should have and how it will be financed.
Queen’s Park has announced that it will produce a 10-year fiscal plan in 2011. That plan necessarily will include (or omit) whatever funding for transit, including Metrolinx projects, that will take us to the next decade. Metrolinx’ job is not to produce one scenario, but a range of options that can inform the creation of that plan.
For obvious political reasons (the coming provincial election), debate on these options may happen in private, and that would be quite sad. The future of the GTA’s transit network is far too complex and far-reaching to appear as a fait accompli by way of a pre-election announcement next year. Moreover, if the Liberals were to lose power, a single program embedded in an election platform would almost certainly be discarded as a product of the ancien régime. You need only look to the treatment accorded David Miller’s Transit City to see what the future might do to a Liberal transit plan.
Here, Board members, are your assignments.
What Will Transit Do?
I have written about this question at length elsewhere and won’t repeat those posts here. Metrolinx needs to craft a range of “transit futures” from at worst a small growth of the existing systems to an aggressive plan for improvement of transit across the region. This sort of thing happened in the development of The Big Move, but you will need better granularity in your options for several reasons.
- Will transit continue to primarily support commute trips into the core (the “radial” option of early versions of the Metrolinx network), or will it provide a grid of services addressing travel demand and congestion for a wider range of trips both by time of day and location?
- Will transit’s use of road space be constrained to whatever leftovers can be spared on existing streets, or will there be an active program to convert road space to surface rapid transit regardless of the technology?
- What role will local transit operations play in the regional scheme, and what funding demands do these drive out in the larger plan?
- What alternative scenarios will exist depending on population and economic growth in the GTA, and on changing price and availability of fuel for automobiles? We may not agree on whether peak oil is upon us, but we need to understand the implications if there are major, permanent shifts in the cost of fuel.
- For each scenario, what are the implications of what you have left out, the cost in broad terms of “the road not taken”?
If you begin your discussions by wrangling about whether Queen’s Park should commit $1-billion or $5-billion a year to transit, and how they might raise it, you are already on the wrong path because you won’t yet know what you want the money for. First you must know the range of options, the future scenarios for transit growth (including none at all), then you figure out the price.
The original Metrolinx work came up with a network costing close to $90-billion, and this simply did not fly at Queen’s Park. Even today, I have doubts that there is any real love for a $50b program that would add $2b annually to capital spending plus future operating costs. All the same, the public deserves to know what the costs and effects of each option will be so that they can decide whether to support transit spending. Politicians deserve this information too so that they can lead the GTA into a transit future knowing that the costs and outcomes are defensible and worthy of their own political capital.
I won’t go into every possible issue here, but a few must be on the table.
The Validity of The Big Move
A central premise of The Big Move is that it will divert millions of trips that might otherwise travel by auto to transit, and this will generate widespread benefits in reduced congestion, lower pollution and other personal and societal costs related to supporting a rapidly growing fleet of autos in the GTA. However, many of the demand projections in The Big Move are suspect because they assume a level of service in some corridors that simply will not exist and, in many cases, cannot even be built.
Already we know that GO Transit’s plans for the Georgetown corridor are much less aggressive than the service levels contemplated in The Big Move, and moreover capacity constraints in the rail corridors and at Union Station are major problems in attaining the proposed capacity. The clear split between what GO thinks it can run and what Metrolinx claims it will build must be resolved so that we have a credible plan.
This will require a complete rethink of the regional plan both for the achievability of its goals and the alternatives that must be contemplated. Sitting on The Big Move as an untouchable transit bible is not an option, and such action would abdicate the very purpose of fiscal review and planning.
The Role of GO Transit
The merger of Metrolinx and GO appears smooth on the surface, but many questions remain. We already know that GO’s projections of future demand and the service they plan to operate are much lower than the figures cited in The Big Move. Moreover, GO’s service and planning territory extend well beyond the GTA limits of The Big Move. Indeed, some proposals such as rail service to Kitchener-Waterloo and Niagara, part of early versions of the regional plan, were taken out because they lay outside of Metrolinx’ planning scope.
Now that GO and Metrolinx are one agency, both sets of plans need to be consolidated. We need to know how much additional capital and operating funding is required for GO expansion beyond the original Big Move territory.
GO’s bus network is growing both to meet travel demands across municipal boundaries and to cope with the disappearance of private carriers. However, GO may not be the appropriate agency to deliver these services. As we have already seen in York Region, where GO duplicates the local service, it may be more appropriate to cede operation to that level. On a general note, the same issues of cross-region operation so often cited as a shortcoming of the TTC need to be addressed among the 905 transit services.
If these boundaries disappear, and if service at the local level improves, what is the remaining role for GO buses?
Fare Integration and Collection
Nobody wants to talk about this, but the creation of a regional transit system demands that fare issues be addressed.
What is an “integrated” fare? How much will people be expected to pay for transit travel? Should there be different fare structures for express services, and how is “express” defined? How much will fare integration cost both to riders who may pay greater fares (for example, long-distance TTC riders if that system switches to fare by distance), or in greater subsidy (either to mitigate fare increases, or to offset the effect of eliminating existing fare boundaries)?
What is the real status and future cost of Presto? What are its capabilities and, more importantly, its limitations? Do these dictate specific fare structures and payment models? The GTA hears a lot about the wonders of Presto, but we also know that full implementation is an expensive, as-yet unfunded project that must be integrated in future spending plans.
The Role of Local Transit
GO is already well aware of the need for local transit to supplement its parking lots for commuter travel. Future parking growth cannot possibly accommodate the volume of riders projected by either GO or Metrolinx, and parking is not an option for riders arriving at a GO station from elsewhere in the network. Local transit is the vital collection and distribution mechanism for regional travel.
What service levels should Metrolinx advocate to support its future network? How will this be funded? What will the fare structure look like?
The Technology Debates: Is There A Role for LRT?
A great deal of time was wasted in the lead-up to support of the Transit City Light Rapid Transit (LRT) network because many people simply do not believe this is a viable technology. This debate is clouded by a complete lack of LRT experience on the ground in Toronto despite worldwide implementation of many forms of LRT that are popular, integral parts of their local transit systems.
LRT debates in Toronto are futher compromised by the less-than-stellar implementations brought to us by the TTC. These are the very low end of LRT, basically streetcar lines running in their own lanes, and even these have been compromised by deferral to other road traffic in their design, and by the recent construction foul-ups of the St. Clair project.
All the same, LRT is not just a “Toronto” proposal, but exists with plans for Hamilton and Mississauga, Kitchener-Waterloo and Ottawa, not to mention York Region if VIVA ever moves beyond its BRT implementation. Metrolinx as an agency and especially its Board need to understand what this technology can achieve as well as its limitations, neighbourhood effects, and tradeoffs against other modes including both Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and full-blown subways.
We cannot afford to have debates about Metrolinx proposals mired in uncertainty over technology. If Metrolinx can build a “good” LRT line, then please do it and show the GTA what is possible. If Metrolinx does not want to build LRT, then say so, and explain what alternatives will address future travel demand.
How Will We Pay For This Network?
If you have come this far, you will probably have at least a dozen scenarios with combinations of future designs, system ramp-up rates, service qualities and fare structures. There will be a lot of rolled up papers littering the floor, or the electronic equivalent in many trash folders. Now, at least, you know the range of costs and possible revenues you are looking at, and you have to pay for it all.
There is no easy way to say this: Any large new program requires new sources of revenue. Nibbling around the edges with small reallocations or efficiencies in current operation will not produce the capital needed for system expansion and operation.
Putting this in a simple context, the entire TTC operating budget is $1.4b for 2010, and its ongoing capital needs are about $400m excluding any expansion. The Big Move requires at least $2b annually just for construction over the next 25 years, let alone future operating and maintenance costs. Even if one could shave 20% from TTC operating costs ($280m), this wouldn’t come close to paying for the new transit network.
I’m not saying “ignore efficiency”, but recognize that this is not a pot of gold that will provide frequent transit region-wide with no additional spending. The overall level of transit spending will rise very substantially and this means new revenues must be found.
For too long, the debate on revenue was dominated by the “no new taxes” brigade. Bluntly, this must stop. We know already that people in Toronto are willing to pay more if they can be guaranteed better, faster transit service, not just piles of studies of routes they will never be able to ride. People will choose transit over their cars if the service is reliable, reasonably fast and comfortable.
Also for too long, the emphasis has been on publicising the TTC’s screw-ups of which the St. Clair project (a joint cock-up of various City agencies and the TTC) is only one. Bashing the TTC may be politically useful for those who would shift the power in transit planning, spending and operations elsewhere, but it has the side effect of undermining transit of any flavour. GO thinks it has a better reputation, but much of that comes from having the comparatively easy projects and services. As we have seen in the Weston Corridor, GO’s sensitivity to neighbourhoods is little better than the TTC’s.
Raising support for new revenue streams requires that all agencies including Metrolinx wrestle with and win the battle to improve public perception of transit as a real alternative, as services and facilities that can be built and operated well.
Several revenue tools are available, and I’m not sure that Metrolinx’ role goes beyond identifying what these are, how much they can raise, and the implications of the costs of future network scenarios. A decision to implement any of these rests with Queen’s Park, but it would be founded on a strong, credible set of options for transit spending.
- Road tolls: A perennial favourite in some quarters, this would penalize road users who might not benefit from transit improvements especially if their travel does not correspond to trips that transit will serve well. They will neither be able to use new transit lines nor see much benefit from reduced congestion.
- Fuel tax: This is simpler to implement than a toll because the collection machinery is already in place. All that is needed is the will to charge the tax. However, this again affects all road users including those whose benefit from transit spending is dubious.
- Congestion tax: Any scheme to limit access to the core ignores the basic fact that most of the traffic is not downtown. There is no reason the comparatively small amount of traffic in central Toronto should underwrite the construction of a regional transit system.
- Local property tax: To the degree that increasing scope of local transit operations is driven by the growth of a regional network, local property taxes will be affected.
- Regional sales tax: If we regard transit as a general social good, then it should be paid for from a broad-based revenue source like the sales tax. In the short term, while the public digests the HST implementation, talk of bumping the sales tax may be unwelcome. However, for purpose of debate, we must know what could be raised by such a tax.
- Income taxes and general revenue: Short of creating a separate transit surtax in the manner of the Ontario health tax, the problem with income taxes is that they flow to general revenue rather than being earmarked for any program. If Ontario does entertain a tax increase, I suspect this will be aimed at higher profile spending areas such as health care or deficit/debt reduction.
When MoveOntario was announced, the financing scheme involved deferred recognition of the cost of assets until they were in operation, followed by a 50-year amortization period. This is akin to the scheme used for power generation plants, and we all know the financial mess Ontario Hydro got into by pushing costs off into the future.
Queen’s Park is now clearly treating capital spending for transit as an ongoing, debt-financed process, and wants to constrain future spending to stay within deficit/debt targets in coming years. “Free” transit construction is an accounting bubble that has burst.
Alternative schemes have been proposed for the creation of transit infrastructure. One way or another, all of them require that somebody borrow money, and somebody else pay it back. One might argue that a non-governmental provider would do so more effectively (whatever that might mean), but they won’t do it for free. In the best possible scenario, there will be cost savings in the short term (primarily construction financing and project management), but these will be offset in the long term when the operating agreement or lease for the finished facility kicks in.
A $2b/year program might, just might, shrink by 10%, but that’s still $1.8b of new money to come from somewhere. If you want a lot more transit, be prepared to pay for it. Toronto isn’t Singapore, or Hong Kong or Tokyo where riding demand and real estate development can support the construction of intensive transit services. We have built our low density city, and now we have to pay to travel in it.
I won’t go into the many scenarios for alternative schemes of service provision as these really cannot be discussed until we know what quality of service and scope of operations we want. Metrolinx has more than enough on its plate already.