TTC Meeting Wrapup for December 15, 2010

[My apologies for the lateness of this post.  The last few days have seen a number of distractions and conflicts with blogging in my life, and I am just getting back to it “full time” now.]

The Commission meeting began with two unusual events.  One was a “motion without notice” by newly-minted Commissioner Palacio proposing that the Commission ask Queen’s Park to give the TTC “essential service” status.  (This was a procedural device requiring a 2/3 majority to permit for an “urgent” situation, although with the current Commission makeup, that sort of majority is easy to attain.)  After a brief debate and with only Commissioner Augimeri (the token non-Ford supporter on the Commission) opposed, the motion passed.  The “urgency” was caused by this item’s being up for debate on Council’s agenda for the following day based on a similar motion at Executive Committee earlier in the week.  I have commented on this issue separately.

The other event was an inaugural address by the new Chair, Karen Stintz.  (See Chair Stintz’ blog and scroll down to “My Priorities as TTC Chair”.)  There are four main aims, none of which is worked out in much detail.

  • Sharpen the client focus.  A troubling note here is that “clients” is read to include “funders”, and getting value for money is considered a matter of customer satisfaction.  I agree, although probably not as Chair Stintz would like, from the point of view that money well managed and spent can give us more and better service.  This runs headlong into the next point …
  • Realign transit expansion plans.  Chair Stintz takes the Ford party line that voters want underground transit, although she also wants to stay in line with the regional view of Metrolinx and the funding of state of good repair projects.  Voters may want underground transit, but whether we can afford it or need it in the larger context is quite another matter.
  • Invest every dollar wisely.  If I comment on this, I will start to repeat myself.
  • Embrace new ways of doing business.  This point is rather vague and the only concrete proposal is a change in the Commission’s composition.  The real problem, as we have discussed at length on this site before, is the question of who would be “qualified” and “appropriate” to sit on the TTC board, what their agendas might be, and which masters they really served.

I wish Chair Stintz well in a very difficult role in difficult times.  The TTC and the transit system is a large, complex organization, and its effect on the City of Toronto is greater and more long-lasting than most other agencies Councillors direct.  Collisions between being “pro transit” and being part of “Team Ford” are likely to come as soon as the 2011 budget process, and certainly as Council begins to look at planning for 2012 and beyond.

Union Station Second Platform & Concourse Improvements

This report, authorizing a contract for the construction work on this project, was approved, but not until after considerable questioning by Commissioner Minnan-Wong who is greatly perturbed by the increasing cost of the project.  How did it get from $90-million to $137m (not including work funded from various TTC facility improvement lines in the Capital Budget), and who was paying for the added cost?

The project is funded primarily by Waterfront Toronto which, in turn, has a nest egg contributed by the City, Queen’s Park and Ottawa in equal measure.  WFT agreed to fund the increased cost, and the money was redirected from the cancelled Front Street Extension project.  The cost increase comes mainly from changes in the design to accommodate the City’s own Union Station project as well as the complexity of rebuilding a major subway station while it remains in operation.

The project gets underway in January 2011.

Ashbridge’s Bay Maintenance Facility

This topic was the subject of several deputations by members of the Community and by area Councillors, as well as some debate among the Commissioners.  The primary issues raised were:

  • Why was the cost of site preparation not included in the original project budget?
  • Are there other properties owned by the TTC or by City agencies that could be used either in place of the proposed Ashbridge’s Bay site, or that could allow the TTC to shuffle existing uses among sites to free up space for the new streetcar yard elsewhere?
  • Is the land that would be used for the new facility needed for future expansion of the sewage treatment plant next door?

A few points are worth noting.

  • Any change in site would require a new Transit Project Assessment that would take the better part of a year to complete.
  • A site in New Toronto owned by the City’s agency Build Toronto was previously rejected by the TTC as being too small, although at 24 acres it exceeds the property requirements for a new facility.  The real issue here may be that Build Toronto hopes to reap $50-million from the site, considerably more than they would be paid, if anything, by the TTC.
  • The Lever site south of Eastern Avenue near Broadview was previously rejected for being partly unavailable, but that condition no longer applies.
  • The need for expanding the sewage treatment plant had been ruled out during the study for the Ashbridge’s Bay site, but in any event would require taking of the existing open space and berm which some local residents are defending against the TTC project.
  • The scope of work planned for existing carhouses keeps changing.  For example, a proposed expansion of Russell Carhouse to be used as a temporary facility for work on the prototype streetcars, and later as a major collision repair shops, has been dropped.  This work will now be done at Hillcrest in the bays used for maintaining the articulated streetcars (ALRVs).

TTC management will report back on these issues early in 2011.

Again, the question of project budgeting came up.  There is a still unsettled battle between TTC and City finance staff about whether the TTC can spend money on a project whose scope and cost have changed without first obtaining Council approval.  Because the TTC board delayed action on awarding this contract, the issue has not yet come to a head, but may do as part of the 2011 budget process.  A revised project scope for this facility will be included in the overall Capital Budget and this may, or may not, attract attention.  As I understand current Council policy, only if the revised scope is approved by Council through an updated budget would the TTC actually have the authority to proceed.

New Overhead Facility Lease

As I mentioned in the preview of this meeting’s agenda, management recommended that the Commission relocate its overhead maintenance crew to new quarters to be leased for five years.  This will allow for expansion of the crew to undertake major reconstruction of the streetcar overhead infrastructure.

This report was approved without comment.

Post Secondary Student Metropasses

A large crowd of students demonstrated on Nathan Phillips Square before the TTC meeting, and they moved into the Committee Room to support speakers on this issue.

The Commission decided that students in Private Career Colleges who have full time programs (defined as 20 or more hours/week) would be eligible for student metropass pricing.  This will come into effect probably for February 2011.  Other groups, notably students at Community Colleges, will be the subject of a separate report early in the new year.

Most interesting about this issue was the fact that the Commission made no attempt to dismiss the request on the grounds of budget constraints or equity with other riders.  This particular room full of students got an uncharacteristically warm reception from an agency whose usual response to requests for subsidies is “go elsewhere”.  The Commission (partly in their other role as Councillors) is spending the “surplus” in the TTC budget even though this may not last into 2011.  The presence of a well-known former politician as the legal counsel government relations consultant for the Ontario Association of Career Colleges may have had something to do with the success of this student appeal.

Transit Service Variety Village

After an impassioned deputation by Councillor Crawford, one of the new faces at City Council, and a staff presentation outlining the problems involved and the options available to serve Variety Village, the Commission decided to go forward with a staff proposal to increase the hours of service on the Variety Village Community Link bus so that instead of ending at 7:00 pm, the service will run until 10:00 pm.  Moreover, the frequency will be improved from hourly to half-hourly.  Both changes take effect in January 2011.

Unknown to most would-be riders, this service is available to any transit rider, not just to Wheel Trans users.  The combination of longer hours and better service are expected to improve riding on this route.  A report on the success of the improved service and on alternative ways to serve Variety Village will come forward no later than June 2011 with the intention that any changes would be implemented in September.

Parliament and Roncesvalles 2010 Track Work (Update 11)

Updated December 19, 2010: Streetcar service resumed today on Roncesvalles Avenue to Dundas West Station.  The construction is not yet finished and this has predictably upset the neighbourhood.

The TTC seemed unusually ineptly prepared for this changeover.  Electric switches at many locations had not been reactivated requiring operators to throw points at commonly used junctions by hand.  The Sunday Stops on Roncesvalles which were not supposed to be part of the new design remain in place both at stop poles and in onboard stop announcements.  Indeed, the location of some stops appears to be a leftover from the shuttle bus operation.

At least one errant auto, parked in the wrong direction and foul of the southbound track, was struck by a passing streetcar.  Permanent signs indicating where people can and cannot park don’t exist yet, although a number of temporary “emergency, no parking” signs have appeared.

Anyone interested in watching service reliability can do so via various monitoring sites.

Meanwhile, Parliament Street reopened to regular traffic recently, and this morning, both the King and Dundas cars diverted bothways via Gerrard and Parliament to bypass construction on Broadview.  No pointman was provided for the westbound manual switch at Parliament, although on previous occasions the TTC has spent a small fortune manning this location for diversions.  Why the switch isn’t electrified is a mystery considering how frequently this diversion is used.

Continue reading

How Essential is the TTC?

In the past week, the TTC board and City Council have voted to ask the Ontario government to make the TTC an “essential service”.  During the debate, this action was opposed by both the TTC’s management and union on the grounds that this will only complicate labour negotiations.  Issues will go to arbitration that might otherwise be bargained between the parties, and costs will increase through the typically higher wage settlements granted to workers who do not have the right to strike.

Those who favoured essential service status argued that this is, de facto, the way things work anyhow.  When a transit strike occurs, it takes a few days, but the machinery of back-to-work legislation doesn’t take long to restore service.  Why, then, endure the upheaval of a short work stoppage if legislated arbitration will be the result?

This is an attractive argument, except when one looks at the context.  Toronto Council and the Mayor’s office has changed from the most pro-labour group any union could expect to see to an administration that makes little secret of its will to reduce the influence and effect of organized labour in Toronto.  Got a problem with garbage workers?  Privatize the service.  Got a problem with transit workers?  Make them “essential”.

Such actions may satisfy the urge to show the unions who is boss at City Hall, but they may not be the best policy for the city.

There is no question that the civic workers’ strike of 2009 was a turning point in Toronto politics.  Not only was it a lengthy strike, but one which saw contentious relations between union members and the very people — the voters — those members needed to gain political support for their position.  They failed miserably.  Much was written about who “won” the strike, and the union managed to convince everyone that they came out on top even though they conceded on the key issue of future sick benefit payouts.  The problem, at the end, was that voters endured a strike that seemed to have solved little (although the outgoing administration and city finance officials will tell you differently), and the voters were fed up.

Stir into this the wide perception that TTC workers are at odds with the people they serve.  The “sleeping collector” front page [RIP] was not the Toronto Sun’s finest moment, but the photo and the anti-union sentiment it provoked cut right across the city.  Relations between TTC staff and riders took on an “us vs them” feel that has reduced somewhat, but they remain less than ideal.  Some operators, a few, really are jerks.  Stories of buses held hostage while an operator claims harassment by a passenger still crop up.

Service on the street isn’t what it might be.  We can always use more buses and streetcars, but there are enough cases of operators fouling up service that this minority can easily be blamed for many service problems.

All that said, making the TTC an “essential service” won’t improve manners among the rotten apples, and won’t make the Queen car or the Dufferin bus run on time.  That takes an organizational will to provide service that’s as good as possible rather than always blaming problems on someone or something else.

The TTC and its new Chair, Councillor Karen Stintz, hopes to make Customer Service a top priority in the coming term.  The TTC must regard its customers as vital, its raison-d’être, not as pesky travellers who need to be taught how to behave properly on transit vehicles.  This is a question of attitude, not of labour negotiations.  Indeed, the organizational culture isn’t only on one side of the bargaining table.

Finally, the problem will land back in Council’s lap with the inevitable call for better transit funding, if only to keep up with inflation, system growth and the inevitable wage increases arbitration will bring.  How “essential” will transit be then?

The opportunity for a vindictive attack on transit workers and labour relations was probably the most “essential” part of this whole affair.  The new regime had a chance for chest-beating and a quick win that will probably do little, on balance, to improve transit.

In coming months, we will hear budget debates at the TTC and at Council.  Those who worship the holy grail of tax cuts will give long speeches about efficiency and belt-tightening, about how riders will have to make do with less service and higher fares, about how “the taxpayers” (as if they are not also transit users themselves) cannot be expected to bear a greater burden.

If transit really is essential to the economic health of Toronto, then Council must be prepared to spend and spend generously on this service as an investment in the city’s future.  We will see just how “essential” transit is to our new Council when the bills come due.