Queen’s Park to make TTC an “Essential Service”

A flurry of media activity heralded the news that Queen’s Park introduced a bill making the TTC an “Essential Service” and thereby blocking strikes by its unionized groups.

I get a lot of questions on this subject and, wearing two hats, my position as an advocate for better public transit has, at times, a rather robust discussion with my support for labour rights.  Which takes precedence, and are they mutually exclusive concepts?

The political context for the Province’s move is quite simple.  Labour unrest and poor customer relations, real and perceived, in transit and in other municipal services led to demands that unions be restricted from interfering with city life.  The media did their bit by playing up what they thought were the bad apples, although the most prominent of their stories backfired (the “sleeping” collector who actually did have a health condition and has since died).  The antagonism on transit that followed was compounded with resentment from the garbage strike and the overall economic malaise.

We’ve come a few steps back from the brink thanks to some improvements in attitude on both sides, but there is still much to do.  The TTC as an organization hasn’t changed much, and the coming years’ transit cutbacks will only accentuate the problems in service reliability, vehicle crowding, failing equipment and contentious rider-operator relations.

The bad apples, be they union or management, get the publicity because it’s the fights people remember, that they post on Facebook, that they vent to call-in shows.  (Please don’t use this thread for your latest horror stories — the real issue is the larger context of how often, or not, such things may happen and what, if anything the TTC does about it.)

The Globe and Mail’s Kelly Grant has a profile of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113’s President, Bob Kinnear, in the February 26 issue.  Grant talks of the changes in Kinnear’s style from his early combative days, the period every new union leader goes through trying to prove himself, to a more balanced, less confrontational style trying to do the best for his members within a union-unfriendly political context.

So where do I stand?

Job actions on the TTC inevitably bring legislation and arbitration, and one can’t help wondering why we don’t just cut to the chase and prevent strikes in the first place.  That’s a simple answer, but it begs the question of how “essential” a service must be to warrant this intervention.  Will we have a general debate about who should have the right to withdraw services?  Why only the TTC?  What of the broader public sector?  In this coming age of privatization, should the private sector face the same sort of constraints and penalties?  Where is the line between actual danger to society at large and inconvenience?

An important factor with the TTC is that a simple “no overtime” decision by union staff would seriously affect service.  The TTC plans a great deal of rush hour service, and some off-peak operations, on the assumption that there will be operators willing to work overtime.  The premise is that the effective cost is lower, even at overtime rates, because the fixed cost of an operator (mainly training and benefits) are already paid.  For their troubles, union members are pilloried when they show up on the provincial “sunshine list”.

In a fiscal environment where “head count avoidance” takes precedence over common sense, overtime is way to minimize the total staff count and benefits while getting more work per employee.  In some circles, this is called “productivity”.  Of course, this bumps headlong into demands that overtime be reduced because it is seen as a waste by those who don’t understand the implications of what they ask.

If service on the road is erratic and overcrowded, if an operator spends their time arguing with riders, that’s not good transit service.  Poor morale can become ingrained, and transit continues its spiral into a last rather than a first choice for riders who have an option.  A no-overtime action guarantees that working conditions will worsen, and that’s really not in the front line staff’s interest.  The riders are hurt, but the politicians for whom transit is for “other people” may exploit the situation to press for a no-union and/or privatized arrangement.  The worse public sector services look, the better any alternative may appear.

Behind this debate is the question of labour-management relationships including the political context.  If prominent politicians rail against fat unions and lazy workers, this does not encourage productive bargaining.  Oddly enough, when unions complain about simplistic, blowhard politicians, such comments are portrayed as self-serving.

That term, “self-serving”, is at the heart of the relationship.  The public will either support the unions, or at least recognize problems of poor management and inadequate funding, or they will seize any opportunity to “put the unions in their place”.  Much of this depends on the day-to-day interactions between front line staff and riders, and it doesn’t take many horror stories to give the impression that TTC staff and “customer service” don’t belong in the same sentence.

From my own experience (and I know others who comment here will differ), the overwhelming majority of TTC staff are not grouchy, lazy curmudgeons.  Do they greet every passenger with a smile and a cheery “thanks for riding the TTC”?  No, and that would be rather difficult when you’re driving an already full King car that has left at least a carload of would-be riders at stops.  That’s a management, political and funding problem.  Management underplays the inadequacy of service, and many politicians don’t want to hear about the need for more money and better transit priority on streets.  They are too busy looking for that elusive gravy, or cooking up schemes to get those pesky transit vehicles off out of their way.

Will the Essential Service legislation work?  Well, it will save us the bother of having to recall the House if there’s a threat to transit service, but it won’t guarantee friendly relationships at the bargaining table or in day-to-day dealings between management, the unions and riders.

Should management exercise their rights to manage?  Definitely.  The fastest way to encourage bad actors is to do nothing, and failure to manage, to call employees on the carpet when it’s deserved, is a fast way to losing control of an organization.  This is one of the first thing any manager learns (or should learn).  But that management must be fair and consistent, and should not to seek to blame staff for the shortcomings of the organization.

I have written here before about “TTC culture” and its deep roots in the premise that the TTC is always right.  That showed up in the “customer service” panel’s report last year, and it’s a day-to-day feature where the concept of “harassment” is a catch-all response to the public, a response condoned and at times encouraged by management.  That sort of attitude must change at the corporate and political levels.

No legislation will transform the TTC top-to-bottom.  Essential Service status will, for a time, satisfy the blood lust in some political circles, but it is the active co-operation and good will of labour, management and politicians that will keep good service on the streets.

Liberty Village Planning Studies

The City of Toronto has three planning studies underway that will affect Liberty Village, and they will hold a combined open house on March 1 for the next stage of the public consultation.

Dufferin Street Bridges

The south end of Dufferin Street has two bridges — one over the rail corridor, and one over the Gardiner Expressway.  Both are in need of replacement, and future plans require a new design.  This project had its first meeting last year, and now the City is back to discuss alternative schemes.

Projects related to this include expansion of the GO Lake Shore corridor, provision of clearance for electrification and connection of the streetcar system from Exhibition (East) Loop west to Dufferin.  The streetcar extension is part of the proposed Waterfront West LRT line, although it is far from clear whether any of the alignments shown on the drawings for the bridge project would actually be built.  The WWLRT is not exactly at the top of anyone’s list of transit projects, but whatever is decided for the new Dufferin bridges may preclude some of the WWLRT options.

New King-Liberty Pedestrian/Cyclist Link

The Georgetown rail corridor creates a long barrier between Strachan Avenue and the west end of the King Street underpass at Atlantic Avenue.  With the redevelopment of lands to the north, current and future plans for lands to the south, this barrier isolates the two neighbourhoods from each other.  Some crossings are now made illegally, but plans to increase the number of active tracks and the frequency of GO service will make this much more dangerous.

At the first open house last year, various alternatives were presented, and two of these were carried forward for detailed study.  The results will presented at the March 1 open house.

Liberty Village New Street

A new street is proposed along the south edge of Liberty Village from just west of Strachan Avenue to Dufferin Street.  This road would occupy what was originally planned to be the Front Street Extension, but as a purely local street.

The March 1 meeting will launch this project for comment.

TTC Service Changes Effective March 27, 2011

The list of changes for the “March” (actually almost April) schedule period is rather short because the TTC deferred implementation of service cuts on lightly used routes to May 8.

One intriguing side-effect of that decision is that the amount of service operated will be “over budget” because the cuts were incorporated in budget plans in November 2010, long before there was any public discussion, and at a time when rumours of cuts were met with denials from the TTC.

In our wonderfully new “transparent” Toronto, how many other changes are lurking, unpublished, in the budget?

Changes in Hours of Service

53F Steeles East Staines Express: Two new morning trips will be added weekdays from Morningside at about 5:21 and 5:48 am.


505 Dundas: With the resumption of watermain work on Dundas, streetcars will divert via Spadina and College until late June.  Headways at all times will not be changed, but one car will be added to the route to handle the longer round trip times.  There will not be any replacement bus service on Dundas.

504 King: Reconstruction of Roncesvalles Avenue will resume to allow work by Enbridge Gas as well as completion of the sidewalk reconstruction.  During this period, the same bus shuttle that operated in 2010 will run from Dundas West Station to Sunnyside Loop, and King cars will loop through Roncesvalles Carhouse.  The Jane night bus, which runs on Roncesvalles, will not be affected.

In May, work is expected to begin on track replacement and paving between Roncesvalles and Close on King Street.  This will complete the rebuilding of the King route to the new resilient track standards.  While this is in progress, King and Lake Shore cars will divert via Queen and Shaw.  The work is expected to be completed before the CNE (with associated traffic problems in Parkdale) opens in mid-August.

Unlike the period of watermain work on King West in 2010, there will not be any replacement bus service on King west of Shaw.  I can’t help wondering why the TTC doesn’t simply route the 504 to Dufferin Loop so that service would be maintained for riders from Shaw to Dufferin whose access to Queen is limited by the rail corridor.

Metrolinx Contemplates Ford’s Subway Plan

The Metrolinx Board, not the most talkative bunch at their infrequent public meetings, took the unusual step yesterday of discussing possible major changes in their regional transportation plan.  Rob Ford’s subway plan can hardly be ignored, and Metrolinx directors need to engage in this debate lest they become irrelevant through inaction.

Both Chair Rob Prichard and President/CEO Bruce McCuaig went out of their way to speak positively about Ford’s scheme, while other directors were less inclined to accept the proposal.  In this article, I will recap the discussion and then conclude with thoughts of my own.

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Ford Proposes Privately Built Sheppard Subway (Updated)

Updated February 17, 2011 at 10:00 am:

Councillor Doug Ford talked to Matt Galloway today on Metro Morning.  Listen to how he slides all over the place without giving specifics of how the money would be raised and simply says that such schemes have worked elsewhere.  No details, but the usual put-downs of “nay sayers” as if anyone with the nerve to criticize is a foe of progress.  Sounds very 50’s to me.

In a separate interview, MPP Greg Sorbara, former Minister of Finance and heavyweight proponent of the Spadina Subway, explains that, while the proposal may look interesting, the devil is in the details, and at the end the public pays.

Original article from February 16 at 16:44:

Mayor Ford’s office has proposed to Metrolinx that the Sheppard subway be extended west to Downsview and east to Scarborough Town Centre as a private sector deal with the City according to articles in the Globe and the Star.

The expansion would be privately financed, but owned by the City with the cost to be repaid out of development charges and tax increment financing.

What is unclear at this point is the amount of development that would be needed along the extended line to actually pay for its construction without adding to the City’s debt, nor is it clear how much of the proposed Provincial and Federal contributions to the Sheppard LRT would be available for a Sheppard Subway project.

This scheme leaves a number of other projects up in the air including:

  • the remainder of the Sheppard LRT’s scope from Kennedy (where the subway would veer south to STC) to eastern Scarborough and, possibly, to the UofT Scarborough Campus
  • the replacement of the SRT as either an LRT line (part of any remaining LRT-based Transit City network) or as a BD subway extension
  • the status of the proposed Eglinton and Finch LRT lines, although the former as an LRT subway hybrid seems fairly certain to be built

A long term plan to finance a subway using future revenues presumes that the money to pay for its construction, debt financing and developer’s profit will actually materialize.  This begs the question of station location and spacing because there would be little development on land far from stations spaced widely as on the most recent extensions to the subway.  Enough land and development potential must exist to pay for the subway over time, and the locations must be sufficiently attractive to would-be builders that they will pay a premium to locate their buildings on subway sites.

Whether the subway would generate net new development or merely attract buildings away from other sites is hard to say given that major redevelopment of the older commercial/industrial strips in Scarborough and North York is not already underway.

Would existing neighbourhoods in which new stations (and their associated development) would be placed welcome a complete change in their density and character?  This may be viable on Sheppard, but not in other neighbourhoods with well-establish, stable residential land use.  Indeed, some routes, like a Downtown Relief Line, would be built as part of a wider network to spread demand and give access to new parts of the city.  Should the locations a DRL would pass through enroute to downtown pay the cost in redevelopment effects because that’s where a line is drawn on a map?

The extensions would cost $3.4-$4.4-billion according to the Star, and this would translate to an annual debt service cost of $200m at 5%.  That’s a lot of new tax revenue, although the amount would be lower depending on the amount of principal that can be paid off through development charges.

As with other private development schemes around the world, the real challenge lies in the details of any contract.  Who, for example, will be responsible for upkeep of the infrastructure and repair of any premature faults that appear over the period of the lease-purchase?

My reaction to this is mixed.  The Sheppard Subway may be the apple of some advocates’ eyes, but it is not the most important transit expansion project in the GTA.  Regardless of how it is financed or who builds it, this will divert considerable investment and attention from other projects and may well pre-empt any expansion of LRT service to the northeast.

On the other hand, we have been hearing about the wonders of privately developed transit for so long, part of me wants to say “put up or shut up” to those who would pursue this course.  Is the project really viable?  Will the city see the revenues needed to pay for the long term lease-purchase of the new line, or will future taxpayers be on the hook to bail out the project?

Subway Fleet and Infrastructure Plans 2011

The TTC Capital Budget contains many projects that address the renewal and expansion of the subway fleet, although this information must be collated from various sources.  When we discuss what might happen in the next decade on the subway network, it is important to know what is already provided for (whether it is actually funded or not) in the plan as opposed to what would become a “surprise” addition.

The largest component of the plan relates to capacity, especially on the Yonge-University-Spadina (YUS) line.  The YUS already suffers from at least at a 10% backlog between demand and the capacity actually provided, presuming that the service runs more or less to the advertised headway.  Bloor-Danforth (BD) is not as critical, but planned service expansion to 2020 will bring the scheduled headways to or below the level that can be operated with the existing terminal layouts and signalling.

The current plan does not include any provision for the effect of major additional demand caused by extensions other than the Spadina line to Vaughan, aka the Toronto York Spadina Subway Extension (TYSSE).  There is no provision for the effect of extensions on either end of the BD line.

As the fleet grows and headways decline, there are two immediate effects:

  • storage and servicing for a larger fleet require more yard space and maintenance capacity in carhouses
  • service must be scheduled and operated on timings with little room for delay, and no padding for recovery

These effects, or rather the TTC’s attempt to address them, show up in various ways in the overall plan.

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Streetcar Fleet and Infrastructure Plans 2011

Plans for the ongoing replacement of streetcars and the allocation of new low floor light rail vehicles (LFLRVs) to routes are contained in the detailed papers for the 2011 TTC Capital Budget.  Also included are the five-year plans for track renewal and the overhead replacement/reconstruction project.

This information should be considered as preliminary, an indication of the type and scope of work the TTC plans to undertake.  Changes to the fleet plan and the rollout of new cars to streetcar routes will affect the infrastructure plans.

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Service Changes Effective February 13, 2011

The following service changes take effect on February 13:

6 Bay: With the beginning of construction at Bay and Front for the Union Station Second Platform Project, various lane closures will increase traffic congestion.  The Bay route will be adjusted by adding running time to the route, and by cutting back the short turn service now operating to Queen’s Quay and Yonge (6A) to the Dundas short turn (6B) during the PM peak.  The AM peak short turn already operates only to Dundas.

One bus will be added to the route during the AM peak, midday and early evening service weekdays, and on weekend daytime periods.

Headways are unchanged except during the PM peak when the combined service north of Dundas drops from 5’15” to 4’30”, but from Dundas to Queen’s Quay it widens from 5’15” to 9’00”.

This change is expected to last for three years.

145 Downtown/Humber Bay Express: The running times for this route will be lengthened in the AM peak to reflect actual traffic conditions.  The route will continue to operate five trips using three buses.

191 Highway 27 Rocket: One bus will be added to the PM peak service to reduce the headway from 6’30” to 6’15” and reduce the average load/bus from 49 to 47.

41 Keele and 107 Keele North: Road construction at York University requires a considerable addition to the running time, and a route diversion is already in place.  From one to three buses will be added at various times on 41 Keele to maintain the pre-construction headways.  On 107 Keele North, one or two buses will be added.

These changes are expected to last until early May.

52 Lawrence West: The running time on the first inbound trip from Martin Grove at 4:54am will be extended by 5 minutes to reflect actual requirements.

School Trip Adjustments:

44 Kipling South: Two school trips in the PM peak will be adjusted to operate at times better suited to actual dismissal times at the sites they serve.

112E West Mall Express to Eringate: A school trip now scheduled to leave Kipling Station at 7:52am will be moved back to 7:48am so that it falls midway between two local trips.

Toronto Zoo Seasonal Changes:

86 Scarborough and 85 Sheppard East: Effective March 11, the last trips from the Zoo will leave about an hour later than on the winter schedule, shortly after 7pm.  Weekday service is provided by 86 Scarborough, and weekend service by 85 Sheppard East.

York Region Transit Service Reductions: The following changes will be made at York Region’s request.

102D Markham Road to Mount Joy GO Station: The trips leaving Anderson Avenue and Markham Road at 6:12am, 6:47am, and 11:50pm will no longer operate.  They will be replaced with trips on branches within the City of Toronto.

129A McCowan Road North to Major Mackenzie: The 5:48am southbound trip will be replaced with a trip operating only to Steeles Avenue.

24D Victoria Park to Major Mackenzie: The northbound trip leaving Victoria Park Station at 9:56pm with a return trip southbound at 11:01pm will now operate only to Steeles Avenue.

The Ashbridge Carhouse Debate

At its recent meeting, the TTC approved two reports related to the Ashbridge Maintenance and Storage Facility (MSF for short).  One dealt with the removal of contaminated soil and capping of the site at Lake Shore and Leslie, while the other addressed various requests from the City’s Budget Committee regarding site access by streetcars and possible alternative locations for vehicle storage.

The Ashbridge site selection and the proposed route connecting it to the existing streetcar system have been the subject of much debate over the past few years.  The community holds strong, if not always consistent, views on the subject, and has been generally supported by their local Councillors.  As it happens, Leslie Street is a ward boundary with Councillor Fletcher to the west and Councillor McMahon (formerly Councillor and TTC Commissioner Bussin) to the east.

Throughout the process of site selection and design, there has been a sense that “the fix was in” for the Ashbridge property, although purely from the TTC’s viewpoint, it is probably the best site.  The debate, however, isn’t going away, and there were two hours of deputations on the subject at the Commission meeting.  (These preceded the six hours we dedicated souls spent on the proposed service reallocations.)

This article is an attempt to pull together various threads of the debate and comment on them.  For the record, I was not a party to the deputations, nor was I consulted by Councillor McMahon on the details of her proposal.

The City’s website for this project contains all of the background material.

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What Is A “Skills Based” Transit Commission?

Shortly after 10pm at the end of a marathon meeting of the Toronto Transit Commission, Chair Karen Stintz proposed the following motion which was adopted:

That the TTC endorse the establishment of a skill-based Commission and work in partnership with the city on a model for the TTC.

That consideration be given to the establishment of a citizen steering committee to oversee and provide input into the model.

Regular readers here will know that I oppose removing political control over the TTC because any agency spending $2.5-billion of public money, and making decisions with policy as well as purely operational effects, needs to be accountable through the machinery of an elected Council.

With this motion, Toronto will begin the discussion of how the TTC should be governed, and I am starting this thread as a place where readers can jump into the fray.

To begin, I have concerns about the phrase “skills-based”.  What skills?  Do we want transit experts (a commodity rather thin on the ground in North America generally), business people to ride herd on budgeting and contract management, customer service gurus, technology wizards?  Don’t we already have transit management who are supposed to provide these functions for the TTC, and if not, why have those skills not be fostered and, where necessary, imported into the organization?

To what degree will these skillful Commissioners have the ability to influence or change management proposals or the day-to-day operation of the transit system?  Will they make cogent suggestions about how to keep Dufferin buses from running in packs, will they become cheerleaders for management, or will they hold that these are “operational decisions” in which the Commission (expert or otherwise) should not interfere?

The additional layer of a citizen steering committee is even more troubling.  Just how much “steering” will such a committee be allowed to do with two layers of experts on one side — the “skilled” Commission and the professional staff — and the political masters at Council and Queen’s Park on the other?  What sort of person will sit on this committee?  Will we have the usual suspects, the politicians in waiting, the lobbyists, the friends of those in power, and how will this be any more effective than members of Council?  Will “steering” consist only of broad policy matters, with decisions such as whose route gets what service left to the “skilled” folks below?  What role, other than budget approval, will Council have?

In this discussion, I would be interested in hearing of governance models elsewhere.  Some cities or countries have a very different culture of public service and the management of public agencies, a different set of citizen skills on which to draw, a stronger sense of citizen involvement and engagement by the professionals in transit agencies.  Governance models cannot be transplanted from city to city without considering the context in which they work, or don’t.

We could have widespread citizen engagement, or we could have an agency that listens to the public at best for show, if not with complete contempt.  That’s a question of the political culture of a city.  Selection of a “skilled” governance body will flow directly from a desire to have the best people running our transit system, not the best-connected.

I am often asked whether I would like to be appointed to some sort of official position related to the transit system.  Leaving aside the fact that this would compromise my ability to blog freely on a variety of subjects, there are the fundamental issues of responsibility and transparency.  The more layers we create to govern transit, the less clear we will be about who is truly responsible, about who actually makes the decisions.

After a nine-hour Commission meeting with countless deputations who were, in the end, largely ignored, I cannot help wondering just how much influence an expert board or a citizen steering committee would have in the face of political decisions about fares, service and system planning.

We have just elected a Mayor whose motto is “I have a mandate”, who does not care to consult Council or his own Transit Commission Chair, let alone an external non-elected body or even his own Transit Commission Chair.  Really big ticket items will be funded from Queen’s Park, and they are even further removed.  In the end, funding and policy priorities will be dictated at the political level and, at best, a “steering committee” can only advise.  The current TTC board’s makeup shows how skewed appointed bodies can be when there is a political imperative at work, and it’s hard to understand how we would get either citizens or experts who were independent of the current political flavour.

For a time, I sat on a Council-appointed Advisory Committee for the Union Station Revitalization project.  Despite the fact that this was during an era of supposed citizen involvement and support from Council, our Committee was repeatedly stymied by City Staff who attempted to constrain our discussions and access to information directly contravening the mandate in our Council-approved terms of reference.  Even the Mayor’s office was unable (or possibly unwilling) to overcome this problem.  I eventually resigned rather than waste my time on a sham.

This is fairly typical situation for advisory groups who are more for show than substance and confer a fig leaf of “consultation” for politicians.  Anyone who believes that a new arrangement for transit will be any better is in for a shock.  I will take elected politicians, thank you, who can be hounded by the public and the media and held to account, eventually, for what they accomplish.