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.

13 thoughts on “What Is A “Skills Based” Transit Commission?

  1. There is a general point here about elected politicians and experts in a given field. This isn’t just a transit or transport thing, this applies to most areas of government policy (think health, drug laws, policing, education….).

    My feeling that if experts formally recommend a certain course of action to politicians, then those politicians should have to explain exactly why they weren’t following the advice, should they choose not to.

    (I am reminded of a story from the UK a few years ago, where the national government’s expert drug policy recommended downgrading a certain drug. The government refused because they said it would send out “the wrong message”. I was fine with that — what was terrible was the way certain government ministers proceeded to try to trash and discredit the scientific studies used to support the recommendation).

    Steve: Although I concur generally with you, there have been problems where the “experts” have their own agendas that may colour their “professional” advice. This is not exactly unknown in many fields, and indeed, a common approach is to hire a consultant who will give you the answer you want to hear, not the one you should hear.


  2. I’m not quite sure why this idea is so controversial. I can point to two Australian examples where the state organises transport, the decisions are made by an Authority which has its goals and objectives set by acts of state law. The minister can write ‘directives’ when required, but this is quite rare to happen.

    TransLink is the first one.

    TransPerth is the second one.

    I still think the idea of merging the TTC + MetroLinx plus a constituted board with an area including the wider GTA region is worth looking at. Our city council can still implement its ideas — it just has to negotiate and also pay for them.

    There is probably no need for a citizen steering committee — a board member to represent passengers might do or if there were already a strong community group representing transit riders, that function would be satisfied by that.

    Steve: There has NEVER been a local or regional agency in Ontario that has a semblance of the combination of public engagement and professionalism you seem to take for granted. Maybe there is something in the Aussie water (well, it’s beer after all, so that may help), but in Ontario it’s all the political hangers on, the lobbyists, the consultants who endlessly suck on the public teats, and governments that only care about the next press release, not about running good transit. In this context, it’s easy to be very suspicious.

    Metrolinx is not accountable to anyone but Queen’s Park, and does not even entertain public deputations about issues that may be of concern. The board is largely ignorant of how transit works and has a surfeit of lawyers, bankers, developers and people who can be counted on to take the staff’s word for pretty much anything. They are learning, slowly, but we should not have to educate a board like this at public expense, and with little public accountability.


  3. I agree with Steve in the sense that I prefer democratically elected politicians being on the commission and any committees the commission wishes to create. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of some random person being appointed to the “steering committee” (couldn’t they find a better name for this thing?) for example as this person is not accountable to the people.


  4. Maybe there is something in the Aussie water (well, it’s beer after all, so that may help), but in Ontario it’s all the political hangers on, the lobbyists, the consultants who endlessly suck on the public teats, and governments that only care about the next press release, not about running good transit. In this context, it’s easy to be very suspicious.

    I doubt it is the water.
    TransLink and possibly TransPerth, are modelled, in part, on TransLink Vancouver!

    Our busway system was also designed by Canadians which flew in from Ottawa! In fact its modelled on the Ottawa busway!

    I suspect those politicians are the root and source of the problem.
    And I feel that those problems will always linger so long as the TTC is set up that way.

    These systems in Australia are quite new. TransLink (Australia that is!) only came into existence in 2004.


  5. How about a “Value Engineering” group instead of a skills based group. The key here is that they work to detect flaws in proposals and then counter with reasonable alternative proposals while being outside the chain of command of the existing system. For this to work they probably need to be outside the influence of competing for consulting contracts issued by TTC.

    Steve: This sort of idea is more suited to an engineering/contracting environment than in the more general areas of operations and policy. It would be very hard to get an expert review panel covering all of the subject areas. There would also be the “old boys’ network” problem with the expert panel being unwilling to criticize the “professionals”. I’m not saying this would not work, but we must not view it as a panacea.

    After all, the existing professionals — be they staff or consultants — are supposed to be doing their jobs, and one must ask how many layers of review are necessary to check everything rather than getting it right the first time. A related problem would be that with all those “experts”, getting anything changed as a political or policy move would be extraordinarily difficult.


  6. When we have a skills based Council, I’ll believe in a skills based Commission. (Even then, Mike Del Grande is busy proving that the skills basis for being a budget chief is not necessarily “being an accountant”.)


  7. 1) When no politicians were on the TTC, who did City Council (and later Metro Council) tend to appoint to the positions? (I remember lawyer/lobbyist Jeff Lyons being on the TTC at one time.)

    2) When did politicians first start sitting on the TTC?

    3) When did the commission become 100% members of Metro Council?

    Steve: There have been politicians on the TTC for a very long time, although some decades ago they did not constitute a majority of the positions. The purpose was to have some representation from the then Metro Council on a body that spent a lot of Metro’s money. This dates back to the mid 70s I believe.

    Yes, Jeff Lyons was on the TTC and was the last Chair before it was converted to an all-politician board in 1989. Lois Griffin, a Metro Councillor from Etobicoke, succeeded Lyons.


  8. I’m reminded that Frederick L. Hubbard was a General Manager for the privately-owned Toronto Street Railway, but became a commissioner for the Toronto Transportation Commission as well as a chair of the TTC. (Frederick was also black as was as his father William Peyton Hubbard, who was also an alderman for the city.)

    We should at least get past General Managers, such as David Gunn, as commissioners on the current Toronto Transit Commission.


  9. And I thought Lois Griffin was a character from the TV cartoon “Family Guy” 😉

    Seriously though, she actually made it into her own entry on Wikipedia, as follows:

    “Lois Griffin was a Metro Toronto councillor (Rexdale-Thistletown) and became the Chair of the Toronto Transit Commission from 1989 to 1991. She was the first woman to hold the post.

    In late 1999, she represented the Humber Watershed Alliance at a water workshop, as part of Toronto’s city planning vision workshop series.

    She played a critical role in creating the Network 2011 plan, and the building of the Sheppard subway line.

    Succeeded as TTC Chairman by Mike Colle.”


  10. So, since the TTC became an all-politician board in 1989, there have been no major rapid transit lines built in Toronto other than the politically-motivated Sheppard Line?

    Steve: It would not matter who is on the board. The money comes from politicians. There was a rapid transit plan in 1990, and it was cancelled by Queen’s Park, except for the Sheppard subway. Then we were in the middle of a recession. Transit projects only became a possibility again with funding such as that for the Spadina extension and for MoveOntario 2020.


  11. Transit projects only became a possibility again with funding such as that for the Spadina extension and for MoveOntario 2020.

    They only became a priority because the NDP was in power in the early ’90’s, you mean! That’s mostly why.

    Steve: The NDP launched a subway-based plan in the early 1990s seeing it as a construction stimulus measure. The Spadina line actually predates the NDP government, but the idea of going to York U and beyond came late in the Harris years, and gained real traction with McGuinty’s election. MoveOntario is, of course, a Liberal plan.

    I support the NDP, partly because I live in a strong NDP riding and don’t want to waste my vote on a Liberal. However, they missed a chance in their term to rethink transit in Toronto, and the subway jocks ruled the day.


  12. I am in general against any permanent or temporary advisory committee, even if it is cloaked under the term “jury”. The recent ON debacle with (ex-Dr.) Charles Smith should force all hospitals, courts, transportation departments, and many others, to re-think their reliance on outside expertise. How could members of a jury argue with him? How could members of TTC argue with very educated members of an expert advisory committee?

    TTC should within its HQ be able to assemble a sufficient body of expertise either written or pre-printed (clippings from literature or magazines from “street rail hot spots”, for example), be in contact with NTSB, spend money on “expedition trips”, and then the members of TTC should be able to sit down once every six months with those people and get an understanding of general evolution of public transport. TTC is very costly not only in terms of daily flow of money but its new fleet of LF vehicles will cost some $800M – it should be given sufficient attention by TTC on on-going basis.

    However, informal meetings with general public are useful and can reveal weak spots in project approach. My wife and I went to one of these meetings and I have started to talk to the project office staff. I have realized within two minutes, that designers didn’t have sufficient transportation knowledge nor they had a good reference base point.


  13. I guess my comment is that Toronto transit politics has two levels – one is funding and the other is defining what projects will be built (and in what priority).

    It’s the second aspect that could (to some extent) be depoliticized by a non-political board – deciding on which lines are to be built and in which order (whether based on a density-serving or a density-building basis). Even if the province juggles the order in which the lines are built, there would still be agreement on which lines need to be built. It seems that Toronto is always going back to square one.


Comments are closed.