The Metrolinx Board met on Wednesday, May 19 for an unusually long public session. Rather than post separate articles, herewith a compendium report. The major topics are:
- The Board Speaks!
- The Managing Director Reports
- We Have A Vision, We Just Don’t Know What It Is Yet
- Achieving 5 in 10, or Transit City Rescheduled
- GO Rail Service Expansion Benefits Cases
- A Question of Advocacy
The Board Speaks!
Probably the most astounding thing about this meeting, the first anniversary of the “new” Metrolinx, is that the Board members finally found their voices. I was beginning to wonder if they were ever going to show some indication of earning their keep and actually asking hard questions of staff in public. We’re not quite there yet, but at least the discussion gave an indication that the Board is thinking about its role.
As regular readers will know, I believe that organizations such as Metrolinx should be publicly accountable through an electoral process and through direct access to one’s representatives. Boards that answer to nobody but the government which appointed them, and entertain no criticism from the public, can leave much to be desired.
To be fair to Metrolinx, even when it had a political board, much of the “public participation” was managed to achieve concensus with, more or less, what Metrolinx planned to do anyhow. That other well-known transit board, the TTC, is elected, but has succumbed to the disease of being cheerleaders for the organization right-or-wrong.
Metrolinx has not had to actually do much (as opposed to GO Transit which was simply merged into its new “parent”), and we have yet to see how the Board and the Government will react if Metrolinx badly fouls up any of its projects.
The Managing Director Reports
GO Transit’s Managing Director, Gary McNeil, presented his regular public session report. There is another one on the agenda in private session, but we don’t get to see that one.
GO is quite proud of improvements in its on time performance. The information shows up in the Quarterly Customer Service Report also on the public agenda. The report neglects to mention schedule changes implemented over the past half year so that published times better reflect actual conditions on the line.
Don’t mistake me, having trains and buses show up when advertised is a good idea, but it is odd that GO wouldn’t mention this as a reason why their stats have improved.
Riding is up on the system, moreso on buses than trains mainly due to capacity constraints. This table of current demands on major corridors at Union Station is taken from the Benefits Case Analysis report on GO expansions discussed later in this post.
Over the summer, GO will review its priorities for future service expansion. To what extent this might be constrained by funding cuts or deferrals is unknown as the GO side of the house appears to have come through the budgetary process unscathed.
Board member Joseph Halstead asked what the TTC is doing on fare collection. McNeil replied that the TTC is looking at a parallel “open payment” system, and is working with the Province on integration of these systems. Those of us who follow discussions at the TTC might think this a slight exaggeration. On the TTC side, the grave concern is that by the time Presto is rolled out across Toronto, it will be “yesterday’s technology”. This matter will, no doubt, reappear for debate before both Boards.
Presto readers are installed in 12 subway stations which have been identified as the origin of 80% of GO’s commuter market for the 905. This allows the lion’s share of GO Presto users to board the TTC for their commute trips to and from Union Station.
We Have A Vision, We Just Don’t Know What It Is Yet
The Metrolinx Board gave some thought to a “Vision and Mission Statement” during a private meeting earlier in 2010, and a first cut at this showed up in a report on the May agenda.
Flame on. As someone who worked in management of a very large public sector agency for a quarter century, I have seen my share of “Mission Statement” proposals and they are without exception steaming piles of equine effluvia, management games replacing productive work with the illusion of motion, and an absolute boon to consultants and facilitators. Flame off.
The purpose of the exercise, I am told, is to aid in the unification of GO Transit and Metrolinx behind a common goal, mission, vision and set of corporate values. In furtherance of this marriage, a separate set of statements was proposed for each organization. This is rather like a marriage where each partner is reading from a different text.
- For Metrolinx
- Vision: Transforming the Way the Region Moves
- Mission: To Champion and Deliver Mobility Solutions for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA)
- For GO Transit
- Vision: To Be the Preferred Choice for Regional Travel across the GTHA
- Mission: To be a Customer-First Regional Transit Service
The Board was not overwhelmed by this proposal, and sent the whole thing back to staff for another go. CEO Rob Prichard suggested that they would try to come up with some corporate “values” that would support their mission(s).
Although Metrolinx has a mission to “champion and deliver”, I am unsure whether a sense of “advocacy” forms any part of this concept. I will return to this later.
Meanwhile, if I am waiting at a streetcar stop for a “mobility solution” to appear, I will remind myself that Metrolinx’ mission is for regional travel, and that for the Queen car I must complain elsewhere. Some day, Metrolinx will embrace the idea that regional journeys include local components that do not involve a private auto and a parking garage. They don’t have to own and manage the local component, but they need to acknowledge and fund it.
It is rather quaint that Queen’s Park wants everyone to use its standard fare collection system, Presto, but has little interest in funding the local service improvements the growth of transit riding will require.
As I was making notes about the debate, I wrote “how long will they talk about this versus the substantive reports on project funding”. Clearly I have sat through too many of this type of meeting.
Achieving 5 in 10, or Transit City Rescheduled
Just as the GO trains have been rescheduled so that the advertised times match typical day-to-day operations, Transit City and VIVA have been rescheduled to fit within Queen’s Park’s constrained budget. I have written at length elsewhere on the new rollout plan for Transit City and will not duplicate that discussion here.
CEO Rob Prichard observed that Councillor Lindsay Luby had thanked him for the delay to the western end of the Eglinton LRT project as this will allow more time to sort out its design. If every Councillor were so fortunate in having projects delayed indefinitely, we would never get anything done. Oddly enough, the Councillors and MLAs who object to the proposed design in Mt. Dennis are not cheering about the new Transit City schedule, nor are they being consulted regarding alternate designs.
The Finch West and SRT projects, now scheduled to begin in 2015, York VIVA Phase 2, and the Transit City carhouses (Conlins Road and Norfinch) will be reviewed as possible “alternative financing” projects by Infrastructure Ontario. I can only hope that “IO”, as it is called, and the whole PPP fetish held so dear by some will be much better understood by the time any contract must be signed for these lines. How many more failed partnerships and horror stories such as the demise of London’s PPP must we hear of?
Rob Prichard observed that one problem with AFP is that liabilities accrue regardless of who builds the project. Even if a private partner builds you a carhouse, for example, you are contractually obliged to pay for it. From an accounting point of view, that’s a debt from the moment you sign the contract. We can thank Enron and other scandals for changes to public sector accounting that prevent (or make more difficult) the hiding of public debt and future obligations through leases and third party transactions. This makes IO’s work a tad more difficult when the announced Provincial policy is to limit the growth of debt.
The revised rollout plan includes purchase of cars for the four lines. The total fleet, 182, is smaller than original plans because, of course, the full routes are not (yet) part of the grand design. The contract is expected to be signed before the end of June 2010.
During the presentation, Metrolinx Vice-President Jack Collins mentioned that the projects already in hand will keep the project team at the TTC extremely busy. This led to a question from Board member Peter Smith (formerly Chair of the GO Transit Board) asking whether the original scope of transit construction could have been achieved. This was quite transparently a gambit to suggest that even if more money became available, TTC and Metrolinx would be unable to ramp up additional projects.
That begs the obvious question of how Metrolinx itself planned to spend $2-billion a year or more if the Transit City project office will be hard-pressed to spend less than $4-billion from now to 2014. The obvious answer is that project offices scale depending on the amount of work. Other teams are today looking after the Spadina Subway and many GO capital projects.
Collins observed that the construction industry is hungry and capacity is available in the industry because the private sector has pulled back on major investments.
Board member Paul Bedford (former Chief Planner for the City of Toronto) asked about the Pan Am Games and service to the Aquatic Centre at UTSC (University of Toronto Scarborough Campus). Rob Prichard replied that the so-called “Morningside Hook” would cost about $165-million, but as it was not part of the original Sheppard LRT scheme, it would have to be dealt with as an “extra”. In due course, he agreed that staff would report back in June on this option, and there appears to be strong support among the Board for this. This is an obvious add-on to the Sheppard line not just for the Games, but as an eastern anchor for the line much as York U will be for the subway extension now under construction.
Note that on Page 16 of the presentation material, the location of Morningside Avenue is mistakenly shown as west of the interchange with the Scarborough RT when it is, in fact, somewhat to the east. This explains the corresponding error in the map published with the Star’s background article. It’s so nice to know that both our planners and our media are so well-informed on the geography of the city.
The Board has a short discussion on that difficult question “What Is LRT?”. Collins was prepared to talk for an hour if he had to, but gave a thumbnail sketch setting out the major differences between the St. Clair and Spadina lines (which are much closer to “streetcars”) and the Transit City lines (which are a hybrid between fully grade separated rapid transit and street running, the latter to have better priority and more widely spaced stations than “streetcars”).
On the subject of capacity, Collins stated that Eglinton would be capable of 12K/hour. To put this in context, that is 200/minute, or a three-car train (service design capacity, say, 450) every 135 seconds. (The 450 number is derived by taking the design capacity of the CLRV, 74, doubling it and rounding up to 150, and then multiplying by 3. This is a conservative value, and has plenty of headroom for surge/peak loads within a peak hour.)
To a question about the Air Rail Link (ARL), Prichard replied that this was a joint project between SNC-Lavalin, Ottawa and Queen’s Park. GO Transit will charge the ARL for use of its tracks and for support services such as dispatching.
GO Rail Service Expansion Benefits Cases
As part of the review of the “Big 15” projects within Metrolinx’ “Big Move”, the Board considered a compendium report on four proposals:
- Barrie Corridor
- Milton Corridor
- Richmond Hill Corridor
- Bowmanville Extension
This Benefits Case Analysis (BCA) report is summarized in the presentation given at the meeting. I will deal with this report and related reports about the proposed Peterborough service (here and here) in a separate post. Also, a report on the Stouffville Corridor is expected at the June Board meeting.
Among important points noted in the presentation:
- GO already has major capacity problems during the peak period and future service will outstrip the capacity of even the expanded Union Station. A separate study about rail terminal options is expected to report in the fall of 2010.
- Rail corridors are limited in their number and capacity, and another rail yard will be needed to service trains.
- The service levels proposed for Milton, Barrie, Richmond Hill and Stouffville are a huge increase over today’s operation with all-day 30-minute headways in both directions and 10-minute peak direction service.
- Diesel Tier 4 technology is assumed, but this matter will also be picked up by the Electrification Study. Indeed, the design of additional terminal capacity at Union may force electrification if the platforms are underground.
- All but the Bowmanville extension scored well on the cost/benefit analysis. These numbers are always suspect at Metrolinx, but I will not comment on the information in the BCA report until I have fully digested it.
- The Richmond Hill corridor still scores over 1 (at 1.1) even if the Richmond Hill Subway is included in the network. A full BCA for that subway proposal has not yet been published, but the numbers are rumoured to be quite uncomplimentary for this project.
A Question of Advocacy
Earlier I talked about the Metrolinx Vision and Mission statement which includes the concept of “championing” better transportation systems. To that end, Metrolinx needs to move beyond a meek, “yes Sir, right away Sir”, response to Provincial funding cuts into an advocacy role. Indeed, this is the heart of the cultural divide between Toronto politicians and Mayor Miller and those at Metrolinx and Queen’s Park.
Without question, it is the Government’s prerogative to set fiscal plans, and its agencies must live within them. However, it is also the duty of agencies and Ministers to advise the Government on the implications and alternatives available for future budgets.
In particular, the transit funding cut has been justified as a necessary step to limit the growth of Provincial debt. I will take the Government at their word that this is true, but if so, then the justification for withholding funding evaporates if the economy recovers more quickly than projected in the 2010 budget. World events are uncertain, although there are indications that Ontario is in better shape now that it had planned to be. Whether this holds remains to be seen.
Suppose there is more headroom for debt in 2011 than had been planned. What Metrolinx projects should benefit from the ability to move back toward the original “burn rate” of the budgets for the “Big 5” projects? The time constraints on the SRT project likely prevent its being moved back to a pre-Pan Am schedule, but Finch West is a simple project independent of timing constraints. All it needs is funding.
Metrolinx needs to embrace an advocacy role for transit — its funding, construction and operation — and this must include better funding for local operations. Imagine if GO does operate half-hourly service all day on its major routes. How will people reach their destinations if the train serves only a gigantic parking lot full of cars awaiting homebound commuters? Metrolinx may think of local transit as “something we don’t do”, but its Big Move is doomed if local transit isn’t funded and operated at a level that complements much more extensive rail operations.
Funding is a big issue now both locally and regionally. Funding needs its advocates, people who will take the political heat for new taxes and fees, people and organizations who can see, who have a vision of what transit will look like when it really is the preferred choice for travel.